When people come to counseling because they’re depressed or anxious, or because an important relationship is falling apart, they usually don’t want to hear about sleep, diet, or exercise.
The clinical reality is that sleep, diet, and exercise are the three most proven strategies for feeling better – in almost any situation.
Of course we’ll talk about feelings and why they’re there, that’s what counselors do. But I would be leaving the chocolate out of the cake if I didn’t talk about these three things.
What have sleep, diet, and exercise got to do with feelings?
A lot! Think of sleep, diet, and exercise like three dials on a combination lock. The thing that’s locked up behind those dials is optimal hormonal and brain functioning. There are many other factors that influence hormonal and brain functioning, but those three are the ones that most people have some measure of control over.
We may or may not be able to control or influence the challenges that life puts in front of us. But we can control the ways that we prepare for those challenges. By improving these three areas, we can increase our capacity for challenging times because our bodies and brains will be more prepared for the stress.
Sleep deprivation is a known factor or agitator in many health problems. Good sleep, on the other hand, has many benefits. Most of those benefits are either health improvements that happen fairly quickly, or reduced health risks as you improve your sleep over time.
There are many strategies for sleeping better, but some of the simplest ones are:
- Sticking to a schedule – getting up and going to bed at as close to the same times as possible every day.
- Having a caffeine curfew – stop taking in caffeine 8 to 10 hours before bed time.
- Having a screen curfew – blue light from your cell phone, tablet, TV, or computer makes your body think that it’s day time, shut off the screens 30 minutes to an hour before bed time.
- Improving your diet and exercise.
Diet is a tricky one. There is so much bad information out there. Add to that bad information the issue that many people seem to take their diet as seriously as their religious or political preferences. Then add to that how many of us (including me) know more than they practice about good nutritional lifestyle.
There is just as much misinformation about what makes a good diet as there is about what makes a bad diet. I think the problem isn’t “good” or “bad” diets as much as it is dietary recommendations mismatched to body types, activity levels, and preferred types of exercise.
For example, the best diet for an NFL lineman is different from the best diet for someone running an ultra marathon. Not everyone is participating in that level of sport, but what is the best diet for the average Joe with the body type of a lineman, versus the average Joe with the body type of an ultra marathoner. (see below for a bit more on this).
Gluten free, pescatarian, vegetarian, vegan, paleo, zone, etc. All of these are dietary religions as far as I am concerned. But they all make claims about how they’ll make you fitter, faster, or stronger. Those claims may or may not be true, but when considering how your diet impacts your hormones, and your hormones impact your mood, here are some guidelines to consider.
- Use a free tool such as MyFitnessPal to estimate your caloric needs instead of following the cookie cutter advice of 2,000 calories a day.
- Use that same tool to track your macro-nutrient intake (how much fat, protein, and carbs you consume).
- Consider your body type, activity level, and preferred types of activity when deciding what your balance of macro-nutrients should be. This may take a bit of research. The right diet for me is not necessarily the right diet for you, etc.
- Be wary of diets that suggest you have more than an 800 calorie per day deficit for more than a week (check with your doctor first).
- Be wary of diets that suggest you have more than a 500 calorie per day deficit for more than three months (check with your doctor first).
Type and intensity of exercise, like dietary preferences, are things that people seem to commit to as if they are religious or political issues. If you don’t exercise at all, of course, my first recommendation is that you get a physical and have full clearance from your doctor before you start.
Once you’ve spoken to the doctor, decide what type of exercise you ENJOY. I feel like puking and going to bed after I run, so I avoid running. But after weightlifting I feel like the hulk, except in a good mood, so I focus on weightlifting. What is right for you will depend on your personality, body type, current level of health, and a number of other things.
To get started, I suggest this progression, and some specific tools to help:
- Set a goal of establishing a habit of exercise, even if it is only walking. Use a habit app to help you achieve that goal.
- Start with bodyweight exercises and/or walking.
- Start using basic (free) pedometer and heart rate tracking apps to measure your overall activity and the way that it impacts your heart.
- Start either Stronglifts 5×5 (weightlifting) or C25k (running)
- Buy a body fat scale so that you’re measuring more than just your weight.
- Buy a heart rate monitor and start tracking both your heart rate and Heart Rate Variability (HRV).
- Start competing in a recreational league for a sport that you enjoy.
Add your thoughts.
What do you think?
What do you see differently about the link between mind, body, and mood after reading this article?