In our quest to lead healthier lives, the question often arises: "How to become more healthy?" The answer lies in understanding and implementing the four pillars of health:
- Nutritious eating
- Daily movement with exercise
- 8 hours of high-quality sleep
- Effective stress management
These pillars are the foundation for building a healthier, more balanced life. In fact, if you're not willing to invest in The Four Pillars of Health, then no doctor can get you healthy.
You're probably saying to yourself, "yeah but I already know about these things. I can’t do them because . . . “ We hear you. Life has its obstacles that it throws in our path of becoming more healthy. Let's delve deeper into each of these aspects and explore practical strategies which you can start incorporating into your daily routine today.
Nutrition: Fueling Your Body Wisely
Your first medicine should always be the food you eat. Garbage going in leads to garbage health. The food we are eating as part of the Standard American Diet (it’s named S.A.D. for a reason) is killing us. Plain and simple.
Now there are several challenges when you start discussing food and diets. The most important being there’s a lot of misinformation. Who or what are you to believe? There’s a different fad diet being featured in the media on a weekly basis. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but enough is enough.
I’m not interested in engaging in philosophical debates instead, let’s provide practical eating advice for those of you truly interested in how to become more healthy:
- It's Not a Diet; It's a Lifestyle: DIETS DON’T WORK! Plain and simple. According to Wikipedia there are over 100 hundred diets including: The Cookie Diet, The Tongue Patch Diet, The Cotton Ball and Werewolf Diet (personally the Cookie Diet sounds the most appealing). Most diets are not sustainable and approach religious zealotry. Instead of prescribing to one of these religions, just make a commitment to yourself to put healthy food into your body as consistently as possible.
- Balanced Eating over Restrictive Eating: Along those same lines, when you completely restrict major food groups, or attempt to consume only 1200 calories a day indefinitely, you are setting yourself up for failure. Our body needs the fiber and antioxidants from fruits and vegetables and protein/fats from high quality sources.
- Weight Loss = Calories In < Calories Out: You can’t escape this simple math. You do have to limit calories to burn fat. You can limit portions, types of food or times you eat. You choose.
- Focus on Adding Healthy Foods Instead of Restricting "Unhealthy" Foods: Take advantage of human psychology. We don’t like being told what we can’t do. Rather make a list of all the healthy foods you enjoy eating. Then, only buy those things. If you’re stuffed on a salad with grilled chicken, or a pork chop with a plate of green beans, then it’s harder to eat french fries.
- Drink Water, Water and More Water: the no-calorie stomach filler that’s free. Plus drinking water should limit the amount of liquid calories from sugary or alcoholic beverages which are waist-line killers.
Exercise: A Catalyst for Physical and Mental Health
Let’s start with some tough love. We all have the same 24 hours in a day so don’t tell me you don’t have time to exercise. What you’re really saying is that exercise, and your health, is not your priority. Ouch.
I’m not here to be popular. I’m here to help you break through the false barriers you’ve created which are preventing a better version of yourself. Yes you may have some legitimate reasons that limit your ability to exercise: two jobs, lots of kids, or medical conditions that limit your movement. However, if you don’t prioritize your health, then you won’t be working or there for your kids as long as you’d like.
If I had to pick the ONE THING you can absolutely start doing right now to improve your help, then I’d pick exercise. It’s the catalyst for all the other pillars of health. When you exercise you burn calories and release endorphins (the feel good chemicals). This lowers your stress levels so you make better food choices and sleep better. This virtuous cycle then continues as you feel more motivated to continue the exercise.
We also have to recall evolutionary biology. Humans are hunter-gatherers. This means we were designed to move our body every day. That’s how we used to find our food. We’d fast all day until we gathered fruit or hunted our dinner. Now we sit around all day and order Uber Eats.
Get up and go for a walk. Whatever else you’re doing can wait. Even a 15 minute walk has health benefits. We are not meant to sit all day. Stop reading this and get moving!
Now you’re probably asking yourself, “well what exercise should I do?” Great question. The best exercise plan is the one you will consistently perform on a daily basis. Every day? Yes, every day. You eat every day. Then you should exercise every day.
If I were building an ideal exercise routine then it would include:
- Diverse Activities: Incorporate a mix of cardiovascular, strength training, and flexibility exercises into your routine. We don’t want to be bulky and non-functional nor lean without strength. Depending on your goals, I would recommend 2-4 days of weight training, 2-4 days of cardio (huffing and puffing, not talking) and 1-2 days of walking or sports (soccer, tennis, pickleball, basketball) per week.
- Set Achievable Goals: Start with manageable activities and gradually increase intensity and duration. If you’re doing nothing right now. Walk 15 minutes. Then tomorrow, go walk for 16 minutes. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Play the long game and don’t set unrealistic goals.
- Incorporate Exercise into Daily Life: Take stairs instead of elevators, walk or bike to work, and take short breaks for stretching or walking during your day. Stealing a line from a colleague, think of these as “exercise snacks”. 5-10 minutes of activity, then when added together, can equal big results.
- Join Group Classes or Clubs/Hire a Personal Trainer: Involving other people in your exercise routine provides motivation, social interaction and most importantly accountability.
The Power of Sleep: Rejuvenating Body and Mind
I used to think sleep was overrated. Boy was I wrong. Sleep is not just a period of rest, but a critical process for rejuvenation and healing. Adults need about seven to nine hours of sleep each night to function at their best. During sleep, the body repairs tissues, consolidates memories, and releases hormones that regulate growth and appetite.
We have to also differentiate sleep from being unconscious. If you drink a 6 pack or take some Ambien, you’re unconscious but you’re not receiving quality sleep. Quality and quantity are both important when you’re catching Z’s.
In order to enhancing sleep quality, there are some generally agreed upon strategies:
- Consistent Sleep Schedule: Stick to a regular sleep-wake cycle, even on weekends. You know how you would make your kids go to sleep at the same time every night? Well, you need that as well.
- Optimal Sleep Environment: Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool. Invest in a comfortable mattress and pillows. No TV’s in the bedroom. This should be non-negotiable. Bedrooms are for sleeping and intimate activities. That’s it.
- Pre-Sleep Routine: Develop a relaxing routine before bed, such as reading, taking a warm bath, or listening to soothing music. Watching that last episode of the latest Netflix series or scrolling through social media is not doing your sleep quality any favors.
- Limit Caffeine and Alcohol: Avoid caffeine and alcohol close to bedtime as they can disrupt sleep. In fact caffeine has a half-life of about 8 hours. So your afternoon cup of joe is likely still in your system as your body is ready to wind down.
Without quality sleep you’ll feel tired, less likely to exercise, more likely to make poor dietary decisions and therefore increase your stress levels. Speaking of stress . . .
Stress Reduction: Maintaining Mental and Emotional Balance
Stress is a normal part of life, but chronic stress can lead to serious health problems. Learning to manage stress effectively is crucial for maintaining good health.
First it’s important to note that not all stress is “bad”. In fact there’s a word for good stress: eustress. Think of weight lifting or a scientific problem. These “stresses” lead to growth.
What we want to avoid is chronic (dis)stress. Chronic distress activates our “flight or fight '' system known as our hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis. This releases adrenaline (epinephrine) raising our blood pressure and blood sugar for the stress we are about to face. Back in the day, when that stress was a tiger, this was a good thing. In the modern world, when the stress is daily and chronic (e.g. how I’m going to improve my health) then high blood pressure and high blood sugars leads to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and early death. We are literally killing ourselves with modern day stress.
Some of you may be facing some serious issues: poverty, medical illness, death in the family, major depression etc. My heart goes out to you with lots of love. You may need substantial professional help and I encourage you to do so. For the rest of you with no major stresses beyond everyday life, here are some techniques for stress management:
- Regular Physical Activity: See how the Four Pillars all interact? Physical activity is one of the most effective ways to relieve stress. Add in some early morning sunlight and you have a great foundation for mental well-being.
- Relaxation Techniques: Practices like deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation can reduce stress as well. I used to think meditation was some granola BS. But even 5 minutes a day for several months taught me to control my emotions. Although I’m not prone to outbursts, I found more in control during moments that would typically cause me outward anger.
- Time Management Skills: Learn to prioritize tasks and delegate when possible. You can do anything, but not everything. Make certain that your schedule management includes “me time”. If you don’t prioritize time for yourself then who will?
- Joyful Activity: Although redundant for those of us who enjoy physical activity, regular joy in your life is essential. Whether you’re an introvert who loves reading a book or an extrovert who can’t wait to grab coffee with a friend, find what energizes you and get it on your calendar.
- Give Back to Others: Nothing will improve your stress level like helping those in need. It’s hard to feel stressed about buying a bigger house when you spend time with the homeless. The college your child is trying to get into becomes less stressful when you volunteer on the pediatric cancer ward. Gratitude is a great medicine.
The journey towards health is multifaceted, involving a balance of physical, mental, and emotional wellness. By focusing on these four pillars of health—nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress management—you can create a holistic approach to living a healthier and more fulfilling life. Remember, small, consistent steps can lead to significant changes. Embrace these pillars, and embark on your path to wellness today.