by Jonathan Carroll
How can I get more sleep? How I can eat better? How can I get booty like yours? These are questions I get all the time.
Since my job is really about helping people improve their overall heath and quality of life, I frequently get asked, “How can I improve my _________?” Let’s be clear – there is tremendous variety to the way people fill in this Mad Lib. And, yet, I have found that most questions fall into what I affectionately call “The 4 Pillars of Health”: Sleep, Stress Management, Exercise and Nutrition.
The “4 Pillars” started as a simple, easy-to-follow guideline I provided to the people I coach at The Training Room. Over the past several years, it’s taken on a life of its own! While I am in the process of putting together an entire book that summarizes my complete recommendations in these four areas, I wanted to give you a sneak peek. Hopefully, my suggestions will give you a basic framework for thinking about your habits and goals – either way, I’d love your feedback.
I know this is an ask. As George Costanza used to say, “I’m busy, you’re busy, we’re all busy.” I get it. I’m guilty too … but we need to stop priding ourselves on how busy we are – it’s not the first adjective any of us wants used to describe us. A few years ago, I was (un)fortunate enough to have thyroid problems and chronic plantar fasciitis which left me waking up in pain on a daily basis. While I can’t say this was the best of times, it was transformative for me. It’s when I decided that I needed to make some major changes to my life and prioritize my well-being. I know it’s hard. But, I promise you, if you do the same, it may be one of then best decisions you ever make (other than doing another couple deadlifts to get glutes like mine).
Pillar 1: Sleep
I used to stay up late almost every night. I convinced myself that I was a “night” person – that the wee hours were my “creative” time and were precious. While I would routinely come up with four or five ideas a night (all brilliant, thank you … good thing I love being a trainer), I was only getting 4-5 hours of sleep after working 8-12 hour days. Even for super humans (or as I like to call them, the Irish), it takes a toll. Sleep is when your body and mind repair themselves. It’s when the junk gets filtered out and things get reset. Sleep lets you think more clearly and be at your best. And, trust me, since your brain and your body love deep sleep, you should too!
“Prioritize your life before someone else does”.
I love technology. Personally, it lets me do many great things that no one cares about like take pictures of my meals and get my daily fill of adorable cats. However, every time you look at your device, the blue light it emanates to your eyeball is actually signaling to your brain that’s its not time to rest yet. Ever notice how you’re curiously not that sleepy after Facebook stalking someone for 5 hours on your iPhone?
My advice: leave your devices alone, starting at least 1 hour before you plan to go to bed. If you simply must be on a computer, I’d recommend using a desktop and installing f.lux – it’s a download for Mac that automatically adjusts your screen color to match the time of day so that you’re not staring a bright blue light right before bed.
My Sleep Tip: Establish a set sleep routine for Monday through Friday. Don’t be too aggressive here! Just like you would with your bench press, slowly build up to reps of 7-8 hours per night. Once you’re consistently getting 8 hours, you’ll likely notice some additional benefits – not only is losing weight easier when you’re sleeping properly, but your stress goes down. Basically, you’ll enjoy life a little more.
Pillar 2. Stress Management
Stress management is just as important as sleep. Moreover, they’re linked – getting sufficient rest will help you to handle any stress that comes your way.
The way I look at it is as follows: rest deposits energy into your body, stress withdraws it.
As with your bank balance, if you have more withdrawals than deposits – you’re going to be in trouble. Overdrafting on sleep carries interest – you’ll find it progressively more difficult to adapt, and that you’re more prone to illness and injury.
My advice: Keep a positive bank balance. It also helps, where possible, to try to rationally minimize the stress you perceive.
My Stress Management Tip: A quick way to gauge your stress level is at is to take your resting heart rate first thing in the morning. A RHR over 60 bpm in the morning, you are doing too much. As Kunu would say, “no, do less.” You want to be high 40s/low 50s; 0 you are doing too little.
Pillar 3. Nutrition
As Dan John says, “Eat like an Adult”. Lay off the sugary cereal, don’t binge eat, and remember, you actually don’t know what’s in your food unless you make it yourself. While you can cheat every now and then, do it too often and you’ll sabotaging your personal goals.
In a previous article I wrote, I laid out “The A, B, C, D, S” of Nutrition: Alcohol, Bread, Processed Carbs, Dairy, and Sugar. While I want all of these things (and tacos), I also want to keep this hot body.
Don’t stress. Focus on one of these areas at a time. Maybe dairy isn’t your vice but one (or 5) pints of Guinness are (insert Irish joke here). If so, focus on alcohol. What happens if you go three days without drinking? Do you feel better? Do you feel smarter? Just imaging what you could have accomplished in college! Moreover, does your gut feel more balanced/less upset? Keep in mind that proper immune function is established, in part, by your gut flora. Stop nuking it and your body with thank you.
My Nutrition Tip: Americans love sugar – don’t go cold turkey or you’ll notice signs of withdrawal. Just try to gradually decrease your daily intake until you’re below the RDA of 9 teaspoons. While this is still way too high, it’s much better than the 19.5 teaspoons (yikes!) we average as a nation.
Pillar 4. Exercise
Let’s talk about the most important pillar – Exercise. The age-old fable of the rabbit and the hare comes to mind here – slow and steady wins the race. Every time you train, think of it as a small step towards a better you (use the deposit metaphor if you don’t like fluffy animals … relatedly, what’s wrong with you? Who doesn’t like bunnies? They’re delicious). At its core, excise is a celebration of being alive – you move and then recover to move some more. It’s a process – lots of small steps can add up to something great. Learn to trust the process and be patient. This may be a secret you already know, but training will open up an entirely new world to you!
As you train, remember that consistently punishing yourself with brutal workouts for eating half a red velvet cake is not healthy … on both counts. Associating exercise and punishment is just plain bad, and most of the time it will not lead to a sustainable training regime. (See the previous point on stress management.) A calm, energized system is much more adaptable. You simply can’t optimize a system by constantly destroying it.
My Exercise Tip: Believe me, tough workouts have their time and a place. Use the Pareto Principle (20/80 approach): 20% of the time, you should really push yourself; the other 80%, focus on skills or conditioning to build your aerobic capacity.
As you move forward, I encourage you to examine which of these foundational pillars needs to be shored up first to keep you stable. Focus on it and then move on. For most people, its sleep. Thankfully, this is an easy thing to fix. Just put down the devices and hit the hay.
And, remember: health is wealth. Put your well-being first and you’ll be golden!