These days, more than ever, our lives are complicated. The amount of information we have to absorb every day IS overwhelming, especially when it comes to our health. With so many opinions, facts and advice about diets, trends, workouts, etc., how do we even begin to create a plan for living a healthy life? What is most important? What works best for us? What works best for you?
When things become confusing and complicated, simplicity and understanding can often provide clarity. When choosing your best path to health, avoid all of the distracting pseudoscience, gurus, influencers, and advertisements and focus on improving the four pillars of health: nutrition, exercise, mindfulness and sleep. Making continued small improvements on each of the four will improve your health. That’s it. Easy, right? All it takes is commitment, drive and organization. It is important to note that all pillars are important and connected. Improvements to one can affect improvements of another. (Note: Before beginning a new exercise plan or diet, please check with your doctor or medical professional.)
Pillar 1: Nutrition
Americans have become too complacent with diet. We tend to choose food that’s easy and enjoyable over what’s best for us. How often do your meals include fruits and vegetables? How many nights a week do you bring home fast food, pizza or takeout? Do frozen dinners fill your freezer? Is your pantry full of processed foods?
If you want to make a significant impact on your health (especially exercise), changing your diet is a great first step. A nutritious diet can help with weight loss, provide more energy and reduce risk of chronic diseases (like heart disease and cancer). Even for those at a healthy weight, a poor diet can increase risk of hypertension, diabetes and osteoporosis. Eating well provides the nutrients your body needs to survive. Poor diets can restrict those nutrients or replace them with harmful trans fats and empty calories.
In addition to eating well, it is important to eat in moderation. Recommended daily caloric intake varies depending on age, metabolism and activity level but the general guideline is 2,500 calories a day for men and 2,000 for women. (Calorie count is a measure of how much energy food or drink contains. An empty calorie is one that provides energy but zero nutritional value.)
Here are some quick tips to help you get started:
- Drink more water. Cut back on sugary drinks, especially sodas. If you are having trouble ditching the pop, begin buying less at the store. If you used to buy two 12-packs, buy one and go from there.
- Include vegetables in every meal. At breakfast, add a tomato; at lunch, a sliced pepper. At dinner, maybe a little corn is in order. Keep carrots, celery and other “quick” veggie snacks on hand.
- Embrace salads. Work them in, even if in the beginning you smother them with ranch dressing (not the healthiest but a start is a start). Nobody said you can’t add a little meat, either. Chicken salad, anyone?
- Use the crockpot. This one is extremely helpful if you feel you do not have time to cook. The internet is full of healthy crockpot recipes. Start it in the morning and it’s ready for dinner when you get home from work!
- Avoid trans fats. Check the nutrition labels at the grocery store. If the food contains trans fats, put it back on the shelf.
Pillar 2: Exercise
Ah, the hard part. For many, this pillar is the most daunting. If you’ve become more sedentary (desk job, long hours, past illness), the idea that you can even start to work out doesn’t seem possible; but it truly can happen. Some of us just have to take a little more time and start slower. Each day you put in the effort makes the next day’s work easier. You may be sore and tired and feel like you just can’t make it – but don’t give up. Good health will come. (Note: listen to your body. If you are feeling pain past soreness, take a rest. If it persists, see your doctor.)
Proper exercise consists of three components: Cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and flexibility. And, just like the overall pillars of health, all three are connected.
You may think you do not have the time to be healthy when in actuality, you have all the time you need.
This is your body’s ability to keep up with physical exercise and anything that forces your cardiovascular system (heart, lungs, blood vessels) to work. Examples of cardiovascular exercise (“cardio”) are running, swimming and cycling. As you continue to exercise, your cardiovascular system will become more efficient at distributing oxygen-rich blood to working muscles. For some, this is the hardest place to start but can be the most rewarding exercise because it makes every other type of physical activity easier.
This can be broken down to include “power” and “endurance.” Power is the ability of your muscles to lift and carry heavy objects. Endurance is the muscle’s ability to contract for extended periods of time. To increase power is to train with heavy weights; while the way to increase endurance is to train with light weights and more repetitions. As we age, it becomes more important to work on our muscular strength because muscle loss is a natural part of aging. After age 30, we begin to lose as much as 3% to 5% per decade. Less muscle means greater weakness and loss of mobility. If we want to continue to be active well into old age, weight workouts are a must.
Flexibility is the range of motion of muscle and connective tissue at a joint or group of joints. Flexibility improves posture, coordination, and reduces injury risk and soreness. Being flexible can make other exercise easier and pain-free. Exercise, static and ballistic stretching, or a systematic series of movements such as yoga or the martial arts can increase flexibility.
Pillar 3: Mindfulness
See, it’s not all about sweat and tears. Mindfulness refers to the human ability to be fully present and aware of a situation without being overly reactive or overwhelmed. It is the ability to slow down, quiet the mind, listen to the self and relax. Just as it is important to be active, the opposite is equally important. As we begin to exercise or change our diet, the body will also change. Moments of relaxation can allow your body to heal and grow with your new undertaking.
Also, health is not just the physical. It is the mental side, as well. Humans need time to work, time to rest and time to play. Mindfulness and relaxation can substantially increase your feelings of positivity, self-worth and reduce stress. Spend some time this week meditating, listening to music, working at a hobby that you love and being with friends and family. It is healthy to need and take a break; but remember, when the break is over, the work needs to begin again. Everything should be done with moderation.
Pillar 4: Sleep
It’s possible that the most important pillar of health is the most neglected. Getting more sleep may be the best place to start improving health. Catching an adequate number of Zs on the regular enables the body to repair and be fit and ready for the next day. It makes everything easier including work, exercise, play and even nutrition. Adequate sleep can prevent excess weight gain, heart disease and prolonged illness. It can also improve your mental health. Adults should be sleeping between 7-9 hours each night. Getting less than the recommended amount of sleep, on average, can lead to impaired cognition, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, decreased sex drive, forgetfulness and decreased mental health.
Here are some tips to help you get more sleep:
- Have a regular bedtime. It might sound childish but really, getting your body into a sleeping rhythm is key. The time you go to bed is dependent on the time you must rise in the morning. Remember, at least 7-9 hours is recommended. Do the math.
- Turn off the screen. Plan to do away with the phone, laptop or tablet at least an hour before bed. The screen’s light can confuse your sleep rhythm. Also, make sure your bedroom has no TV set. Instead of staring at a screen, try reading a book to calm your mind while lying down. (I know … archaic, right? Are these the Dark Ages or something?)
- Exercise during the day. If you are making small changes to the Exercise Pillar of health, this should be an easy one to accomplish. And, yes, if your body is tired, sleep will come.
- Limit caffeine and sugar consumption. If you are improving your nutrition by dumping soda pop and eating better foods, you’ve got this covered. (See, told you it was all connected.)
Health is not just one specific thing. Sure, you could focus on one thing at a time. You can only exercise or only eat better, but you are depriving yourself and making it harder. Health is best addressed by engaging all four pillars at once – in very small increments, if need be. Each grows from the others. You may think you do not have the time to be healthy when in actuality, you have all the time you need. (Seriously, check your schedule. It’s there. Is that TV show really worth it? Besides, DVR exists.) Just dedicating an hour (or even 30 minutes) to yourself and your health each day adds up to a lifetime of better health. Make a plan to engage all four pillars of health in some way – chart it, then execute!