As the pandemic stretches towards the one-year mark and we grapple with a holiday season filled with stricter limitations, it is hard to hold onto healthy habits.
As someone who couldn’t hold back from five-plus visits to the sweets section of my pantry daily in November, I am increasingly aware of the link between physical health and emotional and mental well-being.
On the plus side, I actually exerted discipline and positive consistency around sleep and exercise in November, and it made all the difference. With food, I set clear intentions for the month of December, and for two successful weeks, I experienced a reduction in headaches and insatiable cravings.
I recently wrote about nine daily keys related to how to be well in an age of burnout. Since then, I have immersed myself in extensive research on three other vital ways to support our well-being as we head into the new year: rest, diet, and exercise.
Value and protect your rest
It will come as little surprise that prioritizing seven-plus hours of sleep is foundational. For me, after nights that does not happen, I feel more impatient, negative, and foggy the following day. The difference is stark—insufficient or poor sleep is often the primary factor behind some of my unhappiest days.
According to the CDC, 50 to 70 million Americans are afflicted with sleep issues, which led their organization in 2015 to declare sleep insufficiency a public health issue. Some of the most detrimental effects of sleep deprivation are that it weakens our immune system, dampens our enthusiasm about positive events, makes it harder to find the silver linings when we’re under stress, hampers how we show up in our relationships, and serves as a risk factor for developing chronic health issues.
On the other hand, when we have cultivated a consistent routine of seven to nine solid hours of sleep a day, it not only bolsters our health, but enhances our mood, our energy, and our brainpower.
Here are a dozen strategies for improving the quality of your sleep:
>> Spend enough time outside, especially in the morning, to get the light exposure your body clock needs to maintain its circadian rhythm.
>> Take a nap, ideally in the 1:00-3:00 p.m. window, which is when most of us experience a dip in alertness. It will increase your energy and improve your mood.
>> Develop a consistent bedtime.
>> Read or listen to calming music.
>> Prioritize movement and exercise (more on that later).
>> Install better window blinds or use a sleep mask to reduce light.
>> Utilize white noise to diminish or mask sounds.
>> Choose bedsheets and pajamas with breathable cotton fabric so that you don’t overheat.
>> Take a bath or shower in the hours before bed to drop your body temperature
>> Draw upon aromatherapy, which the National Sleep Foundation shows has been proven to decrease heart rate and blood pressure.
>> Avoid screens in the hour before bed and stay away from social media or other things in the evening that may trigger strong emotions.
>> Stay away from caffeine in the hours before bed and prioritize a healthy diet. As The New York Times reported earlier this month, “a growing body of research suggests that the food you eat can affect how well you sleep, and your sleep patterns can affect your dietary choices.”
Sleep and diet are more entwined than we ever realized.
We’ve known since our earliest days that it is much easier to consume what tastes good versus what makes us feel good. As someone who has been addicted to sweets for decades, I know this fact all too well. However, there is real truth to the saying, “you are what you eat.”
After reading dozens of books and articles on which foods support well-being and long life, I discovered a strong consensus around what foods to prioritize and which ones to avoid. In a nutshell:
>> Eat a mostly plant-based diet with some fish. In the most recent edition of Health magazine, they called shifting to a plant-based diet “probably the single most important change you can make for your overall health. By eating healthier plant-based meals, you’ll automatically take in more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants—all of which can help improve your mental health, sleep, immunity, and energy.”
>> Focus on nutrient-rich carbs, fiber, foods rich in unsaturated fat (i.e. nuts and avocados), organic produce, and superfoods.
>> Avoid or eat minimally items that contain saturated and trans fats, sugar, red meat, dairy, processed food, refined carbs, alcohol, and caffeine.
>> Aim to stop eating at least three hours before bed and do all of your eating in a 12-hour window. Going 12 to 14 hours without eating reverses disease states and calms the immune system.
>> Divide your body weight by two, and drink at least that amount in ounces of water each day.
While it’s vital to prioritize foods that benefit our health, many of us know from experience that it can become stressful and even unhealthy to get too rigid about our diets. I allow myself the pleasure of ignoring these rules for at least a few meals per week, because delicious foods like pizza and brownies simply should not be avoided altogether.
Make exercise essential
Research continues to affirm that exercise is the great elixir of life—reducing stress, increasing energy, improving focus and productivity, supporting better sleep, extending our lives, and diminishing the prospect of disease and illness. In fact, recent research in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, reveals that physically active people have a nearly 50 percent reduction in the number of days that they are sick with acute respiratory infections.
Most research on exercise advises the following, which comes from The Longevity Diet:
>> Walk for an hour every day.
>> Engage each week in 75 minutes of vigorous exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise.
>> Do a blend of strength training, cardio, and flexibility exercises.
Why is all this effort and commitment worth it?
Here are three massive benefits of regular exercise:
>> It bolsters our immunity and physical well-being. Exercising for at least half an hour daily improves the activity in white blood cells to help us fight off viruses and eases inflammation. Additionally, it supports a healthy heart, joints, and muscles.
>> Exercising can have a massively positive impact on our emotional state, particularly when combined with time in nature. As Gretchen Reynolds wrote in The New York Times in late December, “people who took ‘awe walks,’ during which they deliberately sought out and focused on the small beauties and unexpected wonders along their way, felt more rejuvenated and happier afterward.”
>> Exercise boosts our productivity. A British study found that workers experience a 21 percent increase in concentration and a 41 percent increase in motivation on the days they worked out.
I continue to learn that if I carve out time for a work-out in the morning, it actually happens. Having a variety of options also keeps us engaged in a regular exercise routine. For me, that includes calisthenics, weights, yoga, dancing, swimming, bicycling, and paddleboarding.
Rest, diet, and exercise are not three separate worlds—they are completely interwoven. This unforgettable year has reminded us of just how fragile and precious life truly is. If we want to set ourselves up for greater well-being and resilience in 2021 and beyond, cultivating even just some of these healthier habits will reap countless benefits.