Everyone feels a certain amount of stress from time to time. Stressful events or circumstances sooner or later impact everyone’s life. A certain amount of stress is normal, and can even be healthy. Having a deadline about getting a project or report done can spur you to completion. Stress in one form or another is a fact of life, but chronic stress can take a toll on our health. The good news is that our lifestyle choices have a lot to do with how much influence stress has on our daily life.
The American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America (2015) survey provides data on the leading causes of stress in our society, and there’s both good news and not-so-good news. Since 2007, the year of the survey’s inception, stress levels have been trending downward overall, however, women, young adults and parents still report higher levels of stress. The survey also found that “Regardless of group, Americans continue to report stress at levels higher than what they believe is healthy, struggle to achieve their health and lifestyle goals, and manage stress in ineffective ways.”
By now the interconnection of mind/body/spirit is well established yet many people in Western culture still neglect their basic health needs – nutrition, exercise, and getting enough rest/sleep. It’s easy to skimp on sleep or grab a fast food lunch when we’re on the go, but neglecting our health impacts everything else in our lives – our families, our work, our enjoyment of life.
We all want satisfaction and fulfillment from life, but what really drives these things? Science has come up with some answers. What researchers have discovered over decades is this: Happiness is determined 50% by genetics, 40% by our behavior and choices, and only 10%(!) by our circumstances (i.e., marital status, income, etc.) That’s great news because it means we have a lot of control in influencing our wellbeing, including how we deal with stress.
Successful people know that they need to be in top physical shape to perform at their best. This includes both body and mind. A meditation practice provides proven benefits such as reduced stress, increased focus and clarity, enhanced levels of productivity and greater energy.
Many highly effective individuals and public personalities have a regular meditation practice that enables them to sustain their high levels of achievement and sense of wellbeing. Ray Dalio – the billionaire CEO and founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest global hedge fund, has been a regular meditator for years and has said that meditation has played a role in every success he has had in life. Oprah meditates daily, as does Ariana Huffington, Russell Simmons, Jerry Steinfeld, and George Stephanopoulus, to name just a few. Far from being a passing trend, meditation is now mainstream, a part of daily life for many.
What other behaviors and choices can determine our reactions to stressors in our life?
- According to the APA survey, those of us who have others they can rely on for emotional support (family, friends or community) have lower stress levels than those without. The answer: Build relationships with trustworthy people you can count on (and who can count on you.) Nurture and make time for relationships with family and friends, and be open to new ones. If you’re dealing with a specific challenge such as a chronic illness, or a difficult family situation, consider finding a support group to meet others who are experiencing similar difficulties.
- Take a walk. The benefits of a regular exercise routine continue to pile up. Aerobic exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Release of endorphins promotes feelings of both mental and physical relaxation. Even a brisk 20 minute walk, jog or bike ride can take the edge off when you’re having a difficult day.
- Take a break. Walking away from a tough or challenging situation even for a short time can provide much needed breathing room, and enable you to return with a clear head and different perspective.
- Share a laugh. If you’ve ever been in the middle of a tense situation that suddenly turned comical, you’ve experienced the power of laughter as a stress reliever. It may not be a cure for everything that ails you, but there’s a reason for the old adage, “Laughter is the best medicine.”
- Help someone else. The APA study reports that, “when it comes to longevity, research suggests that providing social support to friends and family may be even more important than receiving it.” (Psychological Science 14(4), 320-327.)
If ongoing stress is impairing your ability to function, it may be necessary to consult with a licensed mental health professional. Such a person can help to identify and develop helpful strategies to manage the stress in your life more effectively.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve been talking about four elements of wellbeing: Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise. I’ve also discussed how these four areas interact and support each other. Understanding these interactions can play a major role in being able to maintain changes in lifestyle habits over the long haul.
Changing habit patterns isn’t easy and maintaining those changes over time can be even trickier. Even with all the helpful information we have today, lifestyle-related illnesses are more widespread in modern culture than ever. Heart disease, stroke, obesity, Type II Diabetes – all are influenced by lifestyle factors. Unfortunately, despite our having choices in these matters, our best efforts at change are often met with limited success. We may lose the fifteen pounds, or start the exercise program, only to have our progress derailed and eventually fall by the wayside. We then find ourselves back at square one, feeling a little less confident in our ability to succeed in making the changes we desire.
One of the big benefits in looking at these areas of Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise is that, because they do interact with and influence each other, it’s possible to leverage these interactions and move towards creating lasting change.
Let’s take sleep. We all know how we feel after a good night’s rest – we’re energized, focused, and our mood is uplifted. Losing sleep, on the other hand, can make us feel lethargic, less alert and irritable. Research is coming out all the time on the health and performance benefits that result from a good night’s sleep. But did you know that the amount of sleep you get can affect your appetite?
Insufficient sleep affects your body’s hunger hormones, ghrelin and leptin. Sleep deprivation increases the amount of ghrelin your body produces. The function of ghrelin is to signal your brain that you need to eat – it’s an appetite stimulant. The hormone leptin, however, suppresses appetite. When you don’t get enough sleep, leptin levels in the body drop, prompting feelings of hunger. With an increase in ghrelin and decreased leptin, controlling your appetite is that much harder.
Another area impacted by sleep is exercise. There’s a reason why elite athletes in training are in bed early! Research shows that athletic performance is improved by even one additional hour of sleep per night. Most of us aren’t going to make careers out of being competitive athletes but if one extra hour of sleep can make a difference at that level, it’s going to affect the rest of us, too. All bodies need sleep for rest, repair and optimum functioning.
Research is ongoing in this area, but the foods we eat also can affect our getting needed shut-eye. Most everyone knows that caffeine is a stimulant and things like coffee and soda should be avoided if sleep is an issue. Alcohol can also be problematic. Even a couple of drinks before bed can interfere with a normal sleep cycle. However, did you know that spicy and/or acidic foods can cause heartburn, in turn interfering with sound sleep?
Returning for a moment to exercise – studies have shown that exercise relieves stress, positively affecting your ability to get a good night of sound rest. Exercise also impacts mood. It’s well documented that exercise increases the biochemicals serotonin and dopamine, both of which contribute to feelings of wellbeing. Feelings of wellbeing, in turn, increase the likelihood of our making healthier choices.
By now you’re getting the picture of how these four areas interconnect with and support each other. Focusing on any one of these separately may work for a while, but it’s key to leverage these interactions in order to maintain lasting change over time. Not only will you set yourself up for success in maintaining those hard-won changes, you’ll feel, look and operate at your absolute best. Nice!
“We do not stop exercising because we grow old – we grow old because we stop exercising.” ~ Dr. Kenneth Cooper
By now we all know about the importance of exercise, and the benefits we get from regular physical activity. Adopting an exercise plan has been shown to improve outcomes in chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease. Research proves that exercise plays a role in the treatment and prevention of more than 40 diseases, including obesity, osteoporosis, and depression. It increases energy levels, lowers blood pressure, improves muscle tone and strength, and keeps you looking fit. It also reduces stress and anxiety, improves sleep, and boosts self-esteem. Regular exercise may be as close to a Fountain of Youth as there is. Despite all this, statistics still show that the vast majority of people in the U.S. don’t meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity.
If an active lifestyle benefits the body and mind, a sedentary one does the opposite. Recent articles in Time, Forbes and The Huffington Post – among numerous others – have declared that “Sitting is the new smoking,” increasing the chances of developing cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The case for exercise is hard to ignore. Add to that rising health care costs and an increasing emphasis on wellness and prevention, and the question becomes: Can we afford not to exercise? One of the main roadblocks to exercise for many people is finding the time to fit it in. People are busy – we work, we have families to take care of, and sometimes aging parents to tend to. We have numerous obligations both inside and outside the home. Yet some of us find the time to make exercise a part of our lives, while others don’t. What’s the difference? I believe part of the answer lies in our priorities. We make time for what is important to us. If you really want to make regular exercise a part of your life, you will find a way. Often, the hardest part is getting started. When you begin to incorporate exercise into your schedule, and give it a fair trial, exercise can and will become a habit.
How much is enough? If you are currently inactive, any increase in physical activity is good for you. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that healthy adults get a minimum of 2-1/2 hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or a minimum of 1-1/4 hours per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or a combination of the two. You can break down the 2-1/2 hours over the course of a week however you like. For example, 2-1/2 hours of moderately intense activity over the course of a week could mean 30 minutes of brisk walking 5 days a week. It’s also recommended that adults do muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week.
When it comes to exercise the most important thing you can do is this: Find a plan that works for you so that it becomes a part of your routine. Make that time non-negotiable.
If you tend to be more social, having a scheduled time to walk or workout with a friend or your spouse is a great idea. Schedule exercise into your weekly calendar, just as you would any other activity. (I’ve done this forever.) This way, you’ll have the time blocked out at the beginning of the week, so you know you have it.
I have a friend who walks 5-6 days a week for an hour. She kept a pair of walking shoes in her car and took advantage of breaks in her work day to fit in a walk between appointments. She’s still one of the fittest and most energetic people I know.
Deciding to take responsibility for your health and making exercise part of your life is a choice that you make. The philosopher, Wolfgang von Goethe, said, “We always have time if we will but use it aright.” Keep the big picture in mind: you, strong, fit and healthy – for life.
My last couple articles have dealt with the fundamentals of a healthy life: Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise. Today I’m going to talk about mood – why it’s so important, and how it integrates into the mix.
Everyone has a bad day every now and then. Occasionally, we’ll experience a more prolonged period of difficulty and stress, such as long term illness, whether our own or that of a loved one. That’s just life. It’s usually easy to bounce back from a “bad day,” but what about those times of life that come along and challenge us all. That’s where our overall mindset – our attitude towards life and our circumstances – comes into play.
Whether we’re having “one of those days” or something more, our outlook on life plays a large part in how we feel, and how successful we are in meeting life’s challenges. And, increasingly, research shows that health and happiness really do go together – your good health supports your happiness and your happiness supports your health!
Research on happiness by positive psychologists, Martin Seligman and Sonja Lyubomirsky, among others, shows that happier people on the whole enjoy better health, live longer, have closer friendships, are more resourceful and productive and, generally, are more successful than their less contented counterparts. They are better leaders and negotiators, tend to make more money, and are more likely to get and stay married. Overall, happiness tends to lead to accruing more good in our lives in general.
Before you think you have to go around with a fake smile plastered on your face from here on, I want to point out the broader definition of happiness I am speaking about here. In this case, happiness = well-being. Well-being, as defined by Seligman in his book, Flourish, 2011, is comprised of five elements: positive emotion, engagement, meaning, relationships, and accomplishment, or PERMA for short. True well-being, according to Seligman, is achieved when a healthy balance in each of these areas is achieved.
Positive psychology has identified five core character strengths that most correlate to happiness. These are:
- Curiosity and interest in the world;
- Capacity to love and be loved;
- Zest, energy, and enthusiasm; and,
- Hope, enthusiasm, and future-mindedness.
Of these five, gratitude is the most malleable, meaning it can be influenced and increased. That’s why keeping a gratitude journal really does work! It increases your focus on the good things in your life and, by doing so, those things become amplified. As a result, you are naturally going to find yourself feeling more contented overall. And, if you don’t find yourself to be zesty and enthusiastic by nature, not to worry. Studies have shown that roughly 50% of our happiness is determined by genetics, 10% by our circumstances, and 40% by our behavior. That’s great news, because it means that much of our happiness is within our control and can be cultivated.
Psychologist and researcher Barbara Frederickson developed the “Broaden and Build Theory,” which states that our positive emotions, such as love and gratitude, are essential to our well-being. Positive emotions, according to Frederickson, promote strong relationships, increase resilience, and stimulate new ideas and possibilities. This has the effect of “broadening” one’s mind while at the same time allowing an individual to build their personal wellness resources – physically, mentally and emotionally.
So what’s the takeaway?
- Happiness and positivity are transforming.
- You have more control over your happiness than you may realize.
- People and relationships are important – nurture those you have with family, friends and community.
- Cultivating meaning and purpose is key to well-being.
- Count your blessings – be grateful for the good!
- Positive accomplishment is vital – have goals that matter to you.
I’ve been addressing the basics recently – Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise – the fundamentals of a healthy lifestyle. Today, let’s talk about food – healthy nutrition and how good food habits impact optimal health and performance.
Food is a very popular topic nowadays. From vegan to gluten-free to Paleo to low-carb, there are a multitude of options to choose from. And lots of information out there as to why a particular one is the best for you.
I am personally not a proponent of any particular diet plan. Clients who wish to lose weight will often ask me to recommend one or the other, and I have to admit my reluctance to do so.
Why? Because research shows that around 95% of people who lose weight on a diet will regain it in 5 years. Being on a particular diet is, by definition, temporary. Following a prescribed diet in order to lose weight may help you to lose the weight in the short term, but often neglects teaching healthy eating habits over the long term. Losing weight without learning how to make different choices in eating is going to lead back to the same eating patterns that caused the weight gain to begin with. And you’re back at square one.
What I am a HUGE advocate of is eating a variety of healthy foods, in moderation. I’m also an advocate of finding what works for you, of having a plan of eating that helps you function at your best. If you find that you feel better on a gluten-free plan, then go with it. There has been a huge rise in the number of vegetarians in the United States which some individuals choose for health reasons, environmental concerns or animal rights. The USDA adopted the MyPlate icon in 2011 to encourage consumers to adopt a healthy style of eating, emphasizing fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. There are lots of options to choose from, and there are also general guidelines that seem to be applicable across the board. These include:
- Fruits and vegetables are mainstays of a healthy eating plan. A minimum of 5 servings a day is recommended. The more colorful, the better. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables ensures a diet high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
- Choosing unprocessed food in its most whole, natural state, without additives or preservatives is the way to go whenever possible. A great way to do this is to choose regionally or locally grown foods in season. Look for simple recipes that include a few fresh ingredients.
- Don’t forget about water. Don’t go through the day dehydrated. Water is vital to essential functions that rid our bodies of waste and toxins. Drinking water is also essential to the health of our skin, hair and nails. Not drinking enough can cause us to feel tiredness, lack of energy, and increased feelings of hunger. Staying hydrated throughout the day ensures that your body – and you – will operate at an optimal level.
- Choose high-quality protein. If you eat meat, do so occasionally and choose lean cuts; vary your protein intake with fish, chicken, or plant-based proteins such as nuts, beans or tofu. Choose low-fat milk and cheeses over whole.
- Healthy fats are vital for optimum brain and cell functioning, and include those found in olive and canola oils. Good food sources of healthy fats are avocadoes, certain nuts, and fatty fish such as salmon. Avoid saturated fats found in animal and dairy products, and trans fats found in processed and fried foods and chips.
Most nutrition experts can agree upon these ideas. The goal for healthy eating is to develop a way to eat that is sustainable over the long haul, not just until you lose the weight. Food is the fuel our bodies operate on, and we need a balance of nutrients. And, in the end, we should enjoy our food and how it makes us feel.
I want to get down to basics today, the fundamentals that can make a world of difference in how you feel and how your days go: Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise.
I’ve noticed over time that, often enough, being “healthy” is understood to mean eating right, and getting enough exercise. Good nutrition and fitness are obviously extremely important parts of the equation, but far from the whole story.
How we feel on a day to day basis is impacted by much more than what we eat, and our level of activity. In Smarts and Stamina – The Busy Person’s Guide to Optimal Health & Performance, authors Marie-Josee Shaar and Kathryn Britton have likened these four areas to four points of a compass, all of which interact and are interdependent. Lack of attention in any one area, over time, affects the others and the reasons for this are both physiological and psychological.
I’ll be addressing all four components of a truly healthful lifestyle in the coming weeks, but today let’s start with sleep.
It’s no secret that sleep –or the lack of it – has been a growing problem in our society for years. Chronically operating at a sleep deficit puts undue stress on the body and can lead to increased risk for weight gain or developing Type 2 diabetes. Recent research shows that adequate sleep can help fight depression and anxiety, and possibly lower our risk of Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis and cancer.
Lack of sleep can take a toll on our performance, productivity, and relationships. Being tired can put you at risk for a higher incidence of car accidents, because sleeplessness affects reaction time and decision making. Conversely, being well-rested increases stamina, concentration and emotional wellbeing.
Sleep is healing and regenerative. Its effects on both the body and brain are powerful . It balances the biochemicals in our brain that govern how we feel, behave and even how much we eat.
Given the importance of sleep to optimal health, here are some things you can do to make sure you are getting enough:
- Decide to make sleep a priority. How much is enough? The common recommendation is anywhere from seven to nine hours a night, and individuals vary in their need. By the time we’re adults, we typically know how much we need based on how we feel. The National Sleep Foundation (http://sleepfoundation.org) recommends paying attention to your own individual needs by assessing how you feel on different amounts of sleep. For example, do you feel rested and alert on seven hours, or does it take a full nine for you to be at your best. Do you tend to depend on caffeine throughout the course of your day? Do you feel sleepy when at work or at school? In the end, you are your own best judge of how much you need so pay attention to how you feel to be at your best.
- In Western society, operating on too-little sleep is sometimes heralded as a “badge of honor,” because it means (supposedly) we are being more productive, and are busy “getting things done.” Maybe we don’t want to miss out on anything! When you realize that lack of sleep actually decreases levels of productivity, and impairs focus in work and other important tasks, it may be time to reexamine our thinking on that one! A good night’s sleep isn’t a luxury, it’s essential for our health and our brain. And we are likely to miss out on things we aren’t fully present for because we are too tired.
- Pay attention to how you operate while awake. Are you (and your kids) always scheduled, constantly on the go trying to get from one thing to the next? Do you spend a good part of your day checking your phone, email, and the like? All that activity and exposure to computer screens and artificial light adds to the release of the stress hormone cortisol, disrupting our internal body clock and making it more difficult to relax when it’s time to rest. If you’ve had difficulty sleeping, be sure to shut down your electronics at least an hour before bedtime.
- Have a bedtime ritual. Give yourself time to wind down at the end for the day. Your body needs time to make this shift so take some time for a warm bath, meditation, or a quiet activity such as reading.
The bottom line on sleep is simple: Getting enough will make you happier, healthier and make your life better, and we all want that, don’t we?
“Be as you wish to seem.” – Socrates
We all have dreams and wishes in life. Sometimes our wishes come true and our dreams come to fruition. As a Certified Life Coach and a Certified Wellness coach, that is often why clients seek me out to begin with – to achieve a cherished dream or goal. And my objective for my clients is always that they will see their wishes come to pass.
Only in coaching, we do a lot more than wish! Dreams and goals have to be backed up with a deliberate plan, and that plan has to be put into action. There will be bumps in the road, and sometimes detours, when Life will intervene. What role does a professional coach play in the process?
- Athletic coaches help athletes train and improve their skills and performance, individually as well as in teams. Acting and voice coaches zero in on making the most of those talents. Life coaches help clients identify their strengths and values, clarify goals, and maximize potential.
- A well-trained coach can help a client recognize what might be holding them back and find ways to get “unstuck.” Using their professional skills and objectivity, they can help the client find a path to the Bigger Picture of their goal, and design a step-by-step strategy to get there.
- Clients come to coaching because, for whatever reason, what they have been doing in the past isn’t working. A coach’s ability to reframe a particular situation or challenge can offer a new and much-needed perspective that enables the client to move forward with a renewed approach to their circumstances.
- Empowering clients to discover, and capitalize, on their Signature Strengths is an important part of coaching. Recognizing and applying core strengths in the pursuit of goals has been demonstrated to lead to greater happiness, well-being and success in work and in life.
- Having a positive attitude is a key component of success in life, but just as important is positive action. Taking positive actions – what you do – changes who you are which, in turn, produces different results. One of the hallmarks of the coaching relationship is accountability, that is, defining and taking actions towards objectives. Having accountabilities provides a structure for the client and also serves as a learning tool in the coaching relationship. If a particular action doesn’t work as planned, client and coach can revisit and revise that strategy. This collaboration can open up a fresh approach to a previously frustrating situation.
Increasingly, coaches specialize in areas such as health and wellness, small business, re-careering and parenting, among others. It’s important to ask a prospective coach what specific education and training they have received, what credentials he or she holds, and what their areas of specialty are. An excellent resource is the International Coach Federation (ICF); http://www.coachfederation.org/ which requires members to complete stringent educational and training requirements, as well as continuing education.
A coach can be a valuable ally in making your dreams come true. Take your time and choose one that’s the right fit for you.