Occasionally, I see posts about people ‘starting again’ or I hear people talking about how they want to get started eating healthier and being more active and sometimes they seem a little bit lost or a little vague about how they want to or how they can do this. Sometimes they start by ordering some exercise DVDs or they’ve joined the gym and went to the XYZ class which really kicked their butt! Apparently, their idea of being healthier and fitter involves getting their butt kicked regularly.
Really, there are only a few things you need to do in order to be healthier. These work whether you want to lose weight, be more fit or just be healthier in general, and you don’t need to buy boxes of supplements, exercise DVDs or expensive shipments of diet food. All you need to do is 1) eat better foods; 2) be more active; 3) get good sleep; 4) stay well hydrated; and 5) manage your stress. If they sound simple, it’s because they are. That is, the concepts themselves are simple; it’s the putting them into practice that gets a bit complicated!
Eat Better Foods: This is number one because nothing matters more than what you put in your body. I usually compare this to putting cheap gas in your car and expecting peak mileage. We all know that ain’t happening! Cheap gas = bad mileage! It’s the same with your own body: cheap processed foods yield poor health. Yeah, you can eat the boxes of pasta mix and the potato chips and the frozen dinners, and just like your car, your body will still function, probably with a few knocks and pings just like your car. You won’t have the same acceleration and after a few miles/ hours, you will need to refuel because that mileage just ain’t there. Face it: there’s no substitution for the good stuff! I hear some of my fitness friends commenting on how they stopped eating ‘insert processed food here’ and started eating ‘insert healthy whole food here’ and wow! they feel so much better! they have much more energy! they aren’t hungry after a couple hours! That’s because they put in the premium fuel, whether it’s cage free eggs, grass fed beef or organic sweet potatoes. When you stop eating food that is full of chemicals, preservatives and already broken down, your body gets more nutrition from it and it runs better for longer.
Stop and think for a moment what happens when food is processed. The food is made to last longer than it normally would, so chemical preservatives have been added, and it is made to be easily prepared and eaten, so in some cases, it is essentially “pre-digested.” It takes your body less time and energy to break it down to extract whatever nutrients might be left in it, since processing removes a lot of the nutrition naturally in the food itself. This is why much of our processed food has been fortified. In many commercial breads, for example, the wheat used to make the flour has been broken down into a literal powder. All of the fiber and germ and most of the vitamins have been stripped away, leaving essentially only the starches. After the flour has been mixed with the other ingredients to make the dough, the manufacturers add vitamins, minerals and fiber to make it more ‘nutritious.’
This doesn’t mean that you have to give up your snack cakes or whole wheat toast and snack solely on crudité! As Elizabeth Benton (Primal Potential) often reminds us, it’s a spectrum: all you have to do is begin to make improvements. This can start as simply as giving up the breakfast bagel and eating a banana for breakfast (this is what I did). Yes, the banana still had a lot more sugar and carbs than I needed in the morning, but it was a whole food and it was better than the bagel. I stopped eating takeout for lunch and started bringing a lunch with leftover meat and veggies from dinner the night before. You don’t have to make changes according to anyone’s schedule except your own. When you are ready to take the next step, take it and if if that’s a week or a couple of months or longer, no problem! You are still moving forward eating better foods!
Be More Active: This concept generally gets misinterpreted as “exercise your butt off!” It’s part of the Calories In Calories Out (CICO) mentality: “if you burn off more than you take in, you are going to lose weight.” The disclaimer is “until your body and metabolism adjust to the extra activity and lower fuel intake.” Your body is designed with one primary goal: to survive as long as possible. To do that when you are working your butt off four nights a week in the gym and eating only chicken, broccoli and protein shakes, it will lower your metabolic rate so you burn less calories to make those few you are taking in go farther; it will make you as hungry as a bear emerging from hibernation; and it will leave you absolutely exhausted. This is why the CICO method usually doesn’t work long term for most people. After losing some weight, you start to plateau and unless you make some changes, that’s where you stop. Unfortunately, the lowered metabolic rate is usually permanent. This is how Biggest Loser ‘winners’ end up having to limit their calories to ridiculously low amounts to keep from regaining all the weight lost.
So how do you do this without causing metabolic damage? You make slow changes. Yes, to lose weight you do need a calorie deficit: you do need to burn more than you take in, but it doesn’t have to be a crazy high amount of exercise or crazy low intake of food. Generally eating the same amount of calories (or a normal amount) is still okay and then you just put in some healthy exercise two or three times a week, or maybe just increase your daily amount by a small margin. For example, if you normally get fewer than 5000 steps a day, try upping your steps to 10,000. Even if you don’t make it that high (it can be tough if you have a sedentary job), your increased activity will burn more calories and your body won’t freak out since you are still eating a good amount of food. Lifting weights (strength training) is also a good way to be more active. While it doesn’t have the intense calorie burn that cardio has, it has the added advantage of building muscle (you won’t blow up like Arnold- I promise!) and as we’ve all been told a thousand times, muscle burns more energy than fat, so while the act of lifting will only burn a few calories, you will put on more muscle which will raise your metabolic rate. This means that just sitting around at your desk, your new muscles will burn more calories than your love handles do! The more muscles you have, the more calories you burn and smaller your love handles become!
One caveat here: if you don’t do a lot of exercise now, it’s extremely important that you don’t jump into an intense workout regimen all at once. That’s how people get discouraged, and more importantly, it’s how people get hurt! Going from a couch potato lifestyle to a spartan-type exercise program at best can leave you thinking you’ve bitten off too much (because you have!) to actually causing a serious injury to a muscle, joint, or worse, a heart attack! You need to take some time to learn the proper techniques, especially if you are going to be lifting. There are ways to do exercise correctly, not only so that you get the maximum benefit but also so that you don’t injure yourself. If you can’t afford a personal trainer or a gym membership where classes are taught by trainers, there are a lot of training videos available free on YouTube or you can invest in a DVD that is reputable and within your abilities. Finding someone reputable is key! Generally, if I have questions about training, I go to MetabolicRadio.com. The hosts (Shane & Taylor) have been in fitness nearly all their lives, and if they can’t answer your questions, they will point you in the right direction!
Get Good Sleep: Yeah, I know I sound like a broken record, but this is something that really gets overlooked and it is personally one of my own bête noires. As most of you know, I am a night person and keeping ‘normal’ hours isn’t normal for me. If I could do my job at night, I would, but there is no denying that when I get enough sleep time and it’s quality sleep (meaning I’m not waking up every couple hours or lying in bed playing mah jongg on the tablet), I have more energy, I am more alert and I feel better overall. I also lose weight more consistently. Sleep in an important restorative component of health for your brain and your body. When you are sleep deprived, your body is not producing the hormones necessary to repair your body and keep everything functioning at its best. Using another car analogy, if you don’t get the oil changed on a fairly regular basis, you end up broken down on the freeway with some big expenses for towing and repairs! Seriously, sleep deprivation is a torture technique used by some of the most ruthless regimes in history. Why do you want to do that to yourself?
There are a lot of books, blogs and podcasts that will give you some good tips on how to get quality sleep, but since I know I am atypical and that I am not alone in being atypical, here’s my advice to you: track your sleep patterns. If you have a Fitbit, most of those will track for you as far as hours asleep, waking, and restlessness, but you will need to make your own notes about how you feel the next day. Most experts will tell you that you should sleep in a cool, dark, silent room and avoid electronics, eating and drinking for about an hour or two before you go to bed. Personally, that would be torture for me: I prefer a warmer room, with some kind of noise (even if it’s just a sleep sounds app) and I usually have some kind of nightlight showing (pets who like to sleep on the floor). I have tried the typical scenarios which usually leave me wanting more blankets on the bed, waking at every small sound I hear and staring wide awake at the dark (FYI: the pets don’t think much of it either!) Whatever works best for you, do it, even if all the ‘experts’ say it’s wrong: I have been known to sleep comfortably and well while my pets literally have a wrestling match on the bed. You will feel better when you get good sleep, your exercise will be easier and you will lose more weight (it’s a hormone thing)!
Stay Hydrated: This is my bête noire le deux! I generally don’t drink enough water, and by water, I don’t mean soda (diet or otherwise), coffee, tea or any other beverage. I mean plain old H2O. Getting enough fluids overall is important, so even if you drink several bottles of diet soda, you are doing yourself more good than not drinking anything at all, so if it’s a choice between nothing and tea, soda or any kind of beverage, take the beverage, but if it’s a choice between ‘beverage’ and water, choose water. It has no calories, no preservatives and it’s good for the body! It keeps joints, muscles, the digestive tract and the brain happily humming along. We are mostly water, don’t forget, and we expel more water than we think on a daily basis. I don’t just mean through the urinary tract and sweating: every breath we exhale has water vapor in it. Try exhaling on a mirror: that fogginess on the glass is water vapor. We all know that dehydration will kill you, but just being chronically mildly dehydrated puts a strain on the brain, heart, kidneys, and digestive tract. The body shows the lack of water in your hair, skin, eyes and mouth. (This is another torture technique.)
There are just as many sites that will tell you how much you should drink a day and the various formulas and minimum requirements. If I followed the last formula I found, I’d be drinking nearly 22 glasses of water a day (171 oz)! Most people follow the 8 glasses a day rule or 64 oz. The rationale is that if you drink other beverages in addition to the eight 8 ounce glasses, you’ll be well hydrated. Other people go for the urine test: if it’s clear or light yellow (barring any B vitamins you just took), you’re okay. The darker the urine, the more dehydrated you are.
Personally, I have noticed that poor sleep and poor hydration go hand in hand for me: when one of them is bad, the other usually is also, and my weight loss stalls, my energy lags and my mood is pretty cruddy. Conversely, when I get enough water, my sleep is better, my energy level and my mood improve and I lose more weight.
Manage Your Stress: This is another stealthy saboteur. Personally I think it gets away with sabotaging us because we let it. We hear all the advice and it’s “yeah yeah yeah, I know!” and then we don’t do anything about it. Stress is another one of ‘those hormone things’ that ends up robbing our sleep and keeping our cortisol elevated and we stop losing weight and we keep feeling really lousy. Cortisol and adrenal fatigue aside, stress robs us of our happiness in life. We are always on edge, always worried about whatever is stressing us out and it leads us on a vicious circle- a seriously vicious circle! When we are always worried and stressed, all our bodies feel is the cortisol surge. It doesn’t matter if it’s the suspected mugger in the parking lot or the boss buzzing us every day about that report she needs on her desk. It’s like the goofy robot from that old tv show flailing its arms around: “Danger, Will Robinson! Danger, Will Robinson!” It may not be life and death, but it could be, so your system is on high alert. The problem with always being on high alert is that it doesn’t get any rest. Think about it: if you were told that at any time, a killer could jump out of the shadows, so you had to be on the lookout for this killer ALL THE TIME, how would you feel after a couple of hours? Would you just want this situation to be over already? I know I would. This is why people get so stressed in hospital waiting rooms: they are waiting for news on their loved ones which could come AT ANY MINUTE! They are on heightened alert and it wears on the body, even though they are literally just sitting there!
When you don’t manage your stress, the same thing happens to you. You don’t have to start transcendental meditation or yoga in order to manage your stress: you just need to find some way to relax for a few hours every day. There are a lot of law enforcement and other high stress job professionals who make a practice of leaving work at the office. Whatever they have going on at the office, when they come home, there is no “office talk” and they don’t bring work home with them. I know not everyone can be that lucky, but if you don’t have to bring your work home with you, leave it at the office. This was one of my problems when I worked the Job From Hell: when I left the office, my boss would call/ email/ text me at home, evenings and weekends, and telling her “no” was a hard thing to do. It’s on me, because I rarely told her no and just put up with all of this stress, until it began to kill me and I quit. My boss now is much more sensible (he respects boundaries!) and when something pops in my head when I am out of the office, I just remind myself that I can take care of it tomorrow and there’s nothing I can do right now, so stop worrying about it! I admit, it takes a little practice, but it’s worth it!
Sometimes, it’s not the office that is stressing you out and this is where an OFF switch comes in handy. Find something in your life that is relaxing and enjoyable to you, and make a practice of doing it regularly. For some people it’s going to the gym, reading a good book, walking the dog, or just some alone time. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s enjoyable to you! I spend a lot of time playing with the pets, reading, doing my water aerobics, even just taking my time doing the weekly shopping. When I am feeling particularly stressed after work, I take off the Bluetooth to my phone and turn up the music on my playlist. No one can reach me and I’m in my own little happy place at least for a little while. In fact, one Friday night, I got stuck on the freeway behind a particularly messy car fire and it took me four hours to get home (instead of the usual hour & forty-five minutes). There was nothing I could do about it, so I rolled down the windows and turned the music up really loud (I remember thinking “I hop they like The Lord of the Rings, because too bad!”) Didn’t help move the traffic along, but it made me feel better! Letting go of the stress not only improves your health but it improves the overall quality of your life. Being the most stressed out person in your family or office is not a badge of honor, it’s a slow and painful death. It robs your life of joy and peace and makes spending time with you miserable for your loved ones. It’s not worth it to lose what you love most in life.
So, getting started is as simple as going through the list above and making positive changes. Take a look at the list: better foods, more activity, better sleep, staying hydrated, managing stress. Find the areas where you can make improvements and start making them! Don’t do a whole transformation at once: that will just add to your stress! Try making one or two positive changes a week, and be patient. The goal is not to change as fast as you can: the goal is to make permanent lifestyle changes that will improve your health and your life overall. You will also find that the more healthy changes you make, the easier they become and you will be able to move faster once you get started. It’s in trying too fast when starting out that most people stumble and give up. Don’t try to run before you can walk and even if you stumble, don’t give up. Just get up and keep going!