Your physical health habits
Routine is key to our physical health. Our bodies work better when we eat, sleep and exercise regularly and in fact, we start to crave those things if we are not on our normal routine. That’s often why we end up falling asleep at the TV on the weekend or find ourselves hankering after our lunchtime walk when we are away at a work conference. It’s a little-known insight but an important one, you crave your healthy habits just as much as your unhealthy ones!
Any parent will know keeping a regular routine is key to their child’s, wellbeing and happiness. Studies show that keeping a routine with a small child not only has physical health benefits but can protect its mental health too. Routines help children feel safer because they know what to expect.
Yet we don’t seem to treat our own adulthood routines with the same respect. Science shows us that as adults routines are just as soothing to our nervous system they provide comfort in their structure and can also have a massive benefit to our physical health too. Years of research shows that if we eat, sleep and move in a routine that is complementary to our body clock we; sleep better, are better able to derive nourishment from our food, we gain more from movement, have less mental health difficulties, we prevent long term conditions manifesting earlier and ultimately feel healthier and happier each day. In this post, I look at 3 examples of where physical health routines can positively impact our physical and mental health at a time where we need them most, today.
Having a regular sleep routine is key to bolstering our immune system, regulating our body clock, our mood and importantly for the time that we are living through right now, sleep boosts our ability to cope with stressful situations.
If you don’t sleep well it affects your ability to resist temptation (that’s when you find yourself staring into the fridge multiple times a day), your patience with those around you (that’s when you find yourself snapping at your other half) and your ability to focus on what’s most important (taking care of yourself and your loved ones rather than consume endless news!).
At NASA astronauts’ sleep is closely monitored. Their research shows that that quality of sleep relates to cognition, mood, and interpersonal relations — all vital ingredients to get through a space mission, and equally a lockdown!
So how do you improve your sleep routine? My top 2 insights from a behavioural/habit perspective are:
1. Regulating when you go to sleep and wake up i.e. having the same sleep and wake time each day (this supports your circadian rhythm and thus helps you foster all the wonderful benefits of sleep as listed above)
2. Having a winddown routine. Much like making your dinner in the evening helps your digestive system prepare for food, preparing for sleep helps give your body a heads up that it’s time to wind down and enhances restorative sleep. Even if it’s just 10, 15, 20 minutes pre-bed where you simply unwind (shut down screens/listen to a wind-down playlist/have a bath/do a yoga Nidra/meditation) will lead to enhanced sleep quantity and quality.
As it is arguably one of the most important physical (and mental health) habits to develop here are some additional resources on sleep habits:
- I wrote a brief blog on 3 ways to build healthy sleep habits.
- If sleep is an ongoing issue for you I also highly recommend Matthew Walkers “Why we Sleep” (and if you’d rather not have to read it all his Ted talk provides an excellent summary)
- A caveat here – I am a total science geek but I loved “The Circadian Code” by Satchidananda Panda. Which focuses on the research behind the power of circadian rhythms. Hands down it has been one of the most instrumental reads in terms of my own personal habit changes last year (again I love a short cut, so do check out his Ted talk or these videos for more on the impact of our circadian rhythm).
Multiple studies have shown that sticking to a regular mealtime routine can not only help your digestion (which is key to a healthy immune system) but can also support your ability to bolster stress, your mood and your sleep.
When we are distracted, anxious or struggling to process all that is going on right now our healthy eating habits can go out the window. It is natural to seek comfort in food in times of stress. However, if this ultimately causes us to battle with ourselves, and get into a negative headspace then we need to look at addressing this unhelpful habit.
The first step is to be kind to yourself. The second step is to ask yourself besides the joy of eating, what ultimately is the reward I am seeking right now? Is it that you are anxious and need a distraction? Are you bored? Lonely? Stressed? It is important to examine the root of your habits in order to fully understand how to tackle them. In a future post, I will talk a bit more about ways in which to tackle comfort eating from an environment pov but for now, I would urge you if you find yourself comfort eating, keep track of it. Write down the emotions you are feeling at that time is it distress, sadness, loneliness, boredom. You might want to do this for a few days – soon patterns will emerge and you will see the same emotions creeping up. Once you have identified common emotions/drivers of your comfort eating habits ask yourself what else do I do to tackle this emotion? Ultimately, long term, comfort eating will not ease these feelings. For example, if it is anxiety you are feeling you need to explore a way to manage this directly. Be it noting it down (the act of writing down how we feel can ease the burden of our emotions), even just writing the names of the emotions that you are feeling can hugely benefit – anxiety, frustration, confusion, whatever it is you need to name it to tame it! Alternatives could be grabbing a piece of paper and writing about how you feel for 3 minutes, calling someone who is a good listener, removing anxiety-inducing cues and triggers (e.g. news alerts). Whatever it is it’s important to examine the root of your behaviour the underlying emotion or feeling that is driving you to engage in comfort eating. You can then start to reverse engineer your habits – learning over time what helps ease the feelings that trigger you to eat for comfort. It’s not easy, it’s not straightforward but its something that is vital to tackle to avoid it becoming a lifelong battle.
My second insight on food routines is a very pragmatic one. Plan.
Establishing a cooking and food planning routine can really help us to support our ability to stick to healthy eating habits in this time of flux. Personally, I’ve found that planning my week in sets of two meals at a time, or batch cooking (which simply means making more than one portion of a meal at a time) means you halve the time it takes planning meals, cooking and cleaning up afterwards. This helps as you can spend the time saved doing things that bring you joy or relaxation instead. The key to this is to dedicate some time each week to planning. Trust me an hour spent planning your meals will pay huge dividends in terms of freeing up your mental headspace during the week. The last thing you want to do when you’ve got so much else on your mind is to have to then think of something healthy to prepare each night. In terms of my own personal food routine here are some things I have been playing with;
- Experiment with 1 new healthy weekday (Thursday) and weekend (Saturday) recipe
- Batch cook double meals (Sunday, Tuesday) so I only have to cook/clean/think every other day
- Make a soup/quiche on the weekend to have for midweek lunches
- Reserve an hour on Sunday (4-5pm) to look at recipes and plan meals for the next two weeks
Exercise is known to boost our mood, our immune systems, bolster anxiety and improve focus with work. Exercise helps mild through to chronic depression and anxiety by increasing serotonin (which helps your brain regulate mood, sleep and appetite). It gives you a focused activity that can help you feel a sense of accomplishment and it buffers the effects of stress on your brain.
It has been found in countless studies that time (i.e. having enough of it) is the biggest barrier to engaging in exercise. Often followed by accessibility to exercise that you like.
Yet with all that is happening right now an opportunity presents itself. The fitness world has been turned on its head of late with so many classes now available online anything from 5, 10, 15 or 50 minutes. Also at the moment, we see people exercising outside much more frequently – which has a positive influence on both our beliefs about exercise and our motivation to exercise (this is a form of positive social contagion).
My two insights for helping with your movement habits:
- The key is finding something you enjoy. Studies repeatedly show that the exercise you enjoy is the exercise you will stick at. Why not use this as a time to explore classes online that you wouldn’t normally have time to travel too in person, join a class with a friend or family member on the other side of the world or start that dance class with your partner.
- Use music to boost movement motivation. Studies have found that music can help boost motivation not only in terms of movement but also in terms of life in general. Right now I’ve been finding sticking on a morning song to help you get out of bed in the morning and start the day in a positive mood can really help. My song of choice? This song is quite interesting as it’s been discovered based on neuroscientific research on a happiness formula devised from 126 songs over a 50 year period to be the happiest song on earth (I recommend sticking this on at the highest volume your neighbours can tolerate and just letting go for 3 minutes); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HgzGwKwLmgM
Your physical health habits:
Now it’s over to you, take 2 minutes to list one thing you can do to support your sleep/food or movement routine and ultimately your physical health in the coming week (Write t down and stick it somewhere obvious).
How to know what to choose?
What is most compelling to you? What will you find easiest to implement? What feels like it would be most beneficial/fun for you?
You may have listed a number of things, but start with one as it means you will be much more likely to stick at it.
Curious about learning how to make healthy, sustainable changes to your habits? You can browse the insights on my website and learn more about the upcoming Bite Sized Habits course here.