I was recently approached by a local Personal Trainer and asked the following question (with my answer shared here below):
Outside of nutrition and exercise, what are three areas you’d recommend people explore to improve their health?
The first area I would encourage people to explore is changing their reference point from “health” to “energy”. The concept of health per se is not particularly motivating to most people. Indeed, few people engage in specific behaviours, or change from one set of behaviours to another, simply in order to be healthy for its own sake. The broad concept of health is more an outcome of doing various other things and is a classic case of the whole (health) being greater than the sum of its behavioural parts (eating well, exercising regularly, etc).
All of us require energy to do the things we want to do during our days. This energy is Physical – the foundation energy we get from being well slept, deeply nourished, and having good physical strength and aerobic capacity (fitness). Our energy is also Emotional – the feelings of a sense of love and belonging, having strong social connections, trusting and being trusted, receiving recognition, and being socially accepted; Mental – being able to focus on our tasks deeply, not being distracted, working with autonomy, and working creatively; Spiritual – feeling that there is something bigger that we are working toward, having a sense of passion and purpose, and gaining deep fulfilment from the things we engage in and direct our energy toward.
As soon as we reframe health as energy, it is much easier to identify behaviours which deplete our energies daily. We don’t prioritise sleep, we go on restrictive diets, and we follow brutal fitness fads which leave us physically (and often times mentally & emotionally) drained. But hey – we have Grammable abs! We spend far too much time “connecting” with complete strangers on our social media networks, investing little quality time with the real people in front of us, we arrange ourselves into extreme online tribes (in-groups) mistrusting and calling out anyone not affiliated to our “tribe” (out-groups). We want recognition in terms of “likes” rather than eye contact, a verbal “well done”, or physical touch. We curate a highlight reel of our lives to capture this “recognition” but end up with a deep sense of FOMO [Fear Of Missing Out] because someone else’s highlights always seem better than our actual reality.
We spread our limited attention so thinly across so many things and tasks (how many tabs do you have open right now?), and so many social networks (how many social platforms are you on currently?), that every day leaves us feeling frazzled, unfocused, and like we are furiously treading water just to barely stay afloat. And we are so caught up in a social and virtue signalling arms race, more often than not played out on social media (who has the best abs, peachiest looking butt, goes on the best holidays, rallies for the best social cause…), that we become so caught up in ourselves and fail to gain any deep sense of purpose or fulfilment, especially the kind that comes from doing something – an act of service – bigger than us as individuals.
There’s some pretty deep stuff in there. It’s any wonder people stick with more shallow diets and exercise programmes! But if you can wrap your head around your own energy being your true operating currency on a day-to-day basis, then it becomes a very transformative concept for many downstream “health” behaviours. Which brings me to my second area of focus…
Reading through the above, there is a common thread; a common aspect to our daily lives that seems to interfere with so many parts of our health and well-being. Smart phones. Sure, they have their place, and they offer up many fantastic features and benefits. But they also prevent us making true progress in many areas of our lives, particularly regarding sleep (their blue light messes around with our sleep hormone pulses and desynchronises our circadian rhythms), as well as our emotional health (social networks, accessed most often via our phones, are showing themselves to undermine the development of strong face-to-face social connections), and our mental health (they are incredible sources of distraction and time wasters). It is a constant battle (for myself included) to find that balance between reaping the benefits of having such powerful technology at our fingertips and not succumbing to the negatives. Check out a new programme, More Social, Less Media, which aims to address some of the issues we have with this technology (Full Disclosure: I had a paid role in developing the More Social, Less Media programme).
Lastly, I encourage people to focus on their sleep as the health behaviour they can leverage for the most impact. All other health behaviours, and in particular, our motivation to engage in them, are downstream from a good night’s sleep. Put another way, all of us are acutely aware of what it feels like when we have had a poor night’s sleep, let alone this state being the norm. Our ability to be a nice, well-adjusted human being tends to go out the window. Our desire for stimulating food, like sugar and caffeine, increases, and any desire to engage in good quality physical activity either diminishes, or (if you happen to be one of those anxious type of exercisers who must run no matter what), comes at an enormous cost to our physical and mental health as the body starts to conserve energy and eventually burns out.
A lack of sleep will kill us quicker than a lack of food, water, physical movement, or social connections. It is, in my opinion, a central pillar to all of our health behaviours and energies. But, unfortunately, it is one of the least prioritised behaviours, both amongst health professionals and laypeople alike.
- Focus on behaviours which enhance and restore your energy (many commonly promoted “health” behaviours drain your energy over the long term and are thus unsustainable);
- Put your phone down, or at least recognise that it is often an impediment to point 1 above.
- It starts with sleep; diet, exercise, and all other health behaviours are downstream from a good night’s sleep, so we need to curate our environments and behaviours which help is prioritise this.