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It is not just workout routines and nutrition that affect our health, though those seem to be the ones we focus on the most.  Stress, mindfulness, sleep, and community are just some of the other lifestyle factors that play a key role in our well-being.

Moreover, none of these aspects of our lives are independent of each other – they are co-dependent.  While it may be tempting to find the latest “hack” in nutrition, or to switch up your workouts to include the latest and greatest from T-Nation, in truth, those changes will AT MOST improve your health and fitness by a fraction of a percent.   That is a lot of energy spent for very little gained.  On the other hand, by focusing on these other lifestyle-related issues that may not be getting ANY attention right now, we can make massive improvements with very simple interventions.

Stress

In today’s society, we are constantly bombarded by stress.  Worrying about money, spending an hour doing “cardio” in the gym, getting stuck in a traffic jam, these all register as stress to the body.  Ancestrally, our lifestyles were very different.  Our days were punctuated by brief, acute stresses (like sprinting away from a lion), followed by periods of cool-down time where we could relax.  Today, the stress may come in different forms, but unlike the past, there is no real down time to take a breather from it all.  Whether you’re stressed about work, the number on your scale (which doesn’t matter anyways), money, or a relationship, chronic stress affects almost all of us and the side effects aren’t pretty. Symptoms vary and include: anxiety, depression, social isolation, headaches, abdominal pain, and LACK OF SLEEP.

It’s difficult, but it’s important to manage the stress in our lives as much as possible.  Take time for yourself.  Take time to be with your family.  Take time to do something that makes you happy, or even just be aware of how you feel, no matter what that is.  It’s as important to your health as any workout program can be.  Some examples include:

  • Taking time to brew a cup of tea and sit and enjoy it
  • Take a walk (barefoot if able)
  • Play with your kids, your dog, or just your own imagination!
  • Take a bubble bath
  • Start of mindfulness routine – in as little as 5 minutes a day you can actually change how your brain works!!
  • Listen to music
  • Have a long talk with a friend

Sleep

Let me put it simply:  sleep is good.  It’s a natural, vital part of our life cycle, and shouldn’t be overlooked.  In fact, getting good, restful sleep is possibly the MOST IMPORTANT thing we can do for our health (and sanity) – bar none.

When we get the right amount of sleep, we help our bodies fight nasties such as heart disease, depression, and cancer, all the while boosting energy levels and memory, and reducing inflammation and stress.  If that weren’t enough, sleeping may even help us lose weight by helping to maintain proper hormone balance!

It’s the miracle drug that every pharmacy is searching for – and you can have it for free, every night.  Instructions:  One 7-9.5 hour dose per day.  Take naps as needed.

Many of us suffer from poor sleep even though we don’t know it:  you might stay up an extra 30 minutes to catch the end of a TV show, have too much light in your room, toss and turn throughout the night, or even not get enough oxygen during rest!   Whatever it is, chances are, your sleep could be better.

If that weren’t enough, an abundance of stress and a lack of sleep go hand in hand.  When you’re under a lot of stress (both physically and emotionally), you affect your sleep by upsetting your normal cortisol rhythms.  And when you don’t’ get good sleep, it actually registers as a stress to the body! This means you run the risk of falling into a potentially health-ruining cycle.  Trust me, I’ve been there, and it isn’t pretty.

 

Here are some simple ways you can start to improve sleep today!

  • Darken the room (it should feel like a cave).  Even the small LED lights from an alarm clock or TV can disturb melatonin release.
  • Create a bedtime routine
  • All screens off at least 1 hour before bed
  • Keep your room cool (around 68 degrees)
  • Avoid caffeine after 12pm
  • Take 10 deep breaths, exhaling fully, before settling down for bed
  • Take a walk around dusk and dawn to reset your circadian rhythms

Mindfulness

In my coaching experience, you have to start from the inside out if you really want to see lasting change.  The outside in approach, though it sells well, rarely produces meaningful results.  Those who have a mentality of love towards themselves and others succeed (almost) regardless of the methods used, while those who have a mentality of self-loathing and judgement fail no matter how well they eat and exercise.

You can’t fix a body you hate.  – Jason Seib, author of “The Paleo Coach”

Mindfulness is an important aspect of not only our mental health, but our physical.  I cannot emphasize enough how much this has changed my life and the lives of those I coach.  For an intro into a mindfulness practice, check out these episodes from The Human Animal podcast, as well as these great posts on mindfulness by our own Nathan Miller of natemillerfitness.com.

Community

Your community may play a larger role in your health than you ever realized.  It is said that we are a combination of the 5 people we are closest to, and we have actually been able to measure this to 3 degrees removed within our social network.  I.E. If your friends are focused on health and fitness, chances are, you will be healthier too.  If your friends’ friends are focused on health, you too will see benefit.  If your friends’ friends’ friends…I think you get the idea.

Not only that, but populations that live the longest have the strongest community ties and reported feelings of self-worth within their community.

I’ve always pictured the ideal gym as a community-hub much like a church.  People gather to support one another both physically and emotionally, they give back to their community together, and they pay “dues” to keep the gym running and able to provide a valued service to their area.

Who you let into your community is just as important as having one.  Treat everyone with kindness, but understand that you don’t have to be best friends with everyone you meet.  And honestly, facebook and twitter probably don’t count as community-building.  We haven’t seen any research on the lifespan of social network users yet, but we have seen how social network use can isolate someone socially and also stunt their emotional development.  The best way to develop a community is to go out and be yourself – do the things you love to do, embrace all your idiosyncrasies and don’t apologize for liking pickles or Anime or Taylor Swift.  Own it and those who appreciate you for you will stick around for good.  If you need more motivation, here’s some food for thought from The Human Animal Podcast.

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