We tend to overcomplicate most things in our lives - from making plans with friends to the products we purchase, to even deciding what to have for dinner. The same goes for what we think we have to do to be healthy. It feels like the only way to be healthy is to go hard with exercise or count out macronutrients, but that isn't it at all. In fact, that kind of thinking usually results in an "all or nothing" approach, with the majority of us doing nothing (or trying to do it all but not sticking with it because it's hard and unsustainable). We are overcomplicating how to be healthy which means we actually miss out on the simple, everyday, and basic foundation needed for health.
In order to build a strong foundation for healthy living, it is important to take a holistic approach that incorporates the 5 building blocks necessary for sustainable change: nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress management, and connection.
While food is associated with so many things - it’s part of our social life, it’s a part of our memories, it’s how we experience cultures, and, let’s be honest, it just tastes good - it also has a greater purpose that often gets forgotten. Food contains energy that, when broken down, gives our cells energy to perform our everyday functions and...well...live. Food provides information to your body so it knows how to function - it literally sends signals to various parts of your body (that then send signals to other parts of your body) so you are able to move and breathe and pump blood and think. Good nutrition is about making sure your body has what it needs to work as it should, and so that you look, feel, and perform at your best.
Most people know that exercise is good for them, especially around weight management, but people underestimate the impact that exercise has on our health and overall lifestyle. It can reduce the risk of developing certain diseases (like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer); it can help lower cholesterol and blood pressure; it helps create stronger bones, muscles, and joints; and it helps with recovery time when you get sick, are hospitalized, or are on bed rest. Just as important as physical health, exercise does wonders for mental health and cognitive functioning. It has positive effects on energy, mood, sleep, and stress, and there is growing research on the positive effect exercise has on depression and anxiety. And while most people think that in order to be effective, exercise should be long or intense, the truth is that as little as 20 minutes a day can make a big difference. Simple things like walking can get your blood pumping, relax your nervous system, improve focus and creativity, and aid your digestion (aka, keep you “regular”). Exercise can and should be enjoyable, and it is essential to better health.
While talked about far less often than nutrition and exercise, sleep is just as important for health and wellness as nutrition and physical activity. Sleep affects glucose metabolism, weight management, immune function, inflammation, mental health, concentration, and productivity. Poor sleep has been linked to a greater risk of heart disease and stroke, depression, lower testosterone, reproductive issues, inflammatory bowel diseases, and obesity. On the flip side, good sleep positively impacts problem solving skills, memory, athletic performance, creativity, heart health, metabolism, and weight. If that isn’t enough, good sleep is associated with longer life spans and overall quality of life. So, yeah, sleep is important. The sweet spot with sleep is 7-9 hours, no more or less.
Stress is a normal part of our functioning and, in evolutionary terms, has been designed to keep us safe - it’s the “fight or flight” response triggered by our stress hormones that has kept us safe from threats. However, when we live in “fight or flight” mode or when it fires continually throughout the day, it can negatively impact your health. There is a growing body of research suggesting that stress can wreak havoc on your immune system, brain, sleep, sexual drive, mood, and weight. It can affect everything from the production of stomach acid (i.e. dreaded heartburn) to blood glucose. It can be a major contributor of high blood pressure, fertility problems, insomnia (see sleep above), and low libido. While stress is unavoidable in this crazy roller coaster we call life - recognizing it, understanding its impacts on your health, and creating strategies to help manage it, can have enormous positive impacts on your health.
While at times it seems we are more connected than ever via technology, growing research suggests technology has had the reverse effect in a lot of areas, making us more disconnected from each other, from ourselves, and from our environment. This disconnection can have negative implications for our health. A huge component of optimal health and wellbeing stems from connection. Good nutrition starts with connecting people to the food they eat; sustainable and healthy exercise starts with connecting people to their bodies; good sleep starts with connecting people to their environments; and overall happiness and well-being starts with connecting people to themselves and each other. Strong social connections have been associated with stronger immune systems, faster recovery times, lower rates of anxiety and depression, and increased life span.
A Holistic View on Health
While often times these building blocks are disconnected and looked at separately, they should be looked at together. After all, your body is vastly complex and one area of health greatly impacts the others. For instance, exercise changes how your body uses nutrients (as does sleep); sleep impacts how your body repairs after exercise (as does what you eat); stress shuts down your digestive process, impacting how your body processes nutrients and waste (as does sleep). They are all interconnected so in order to understand and cultivate health and wellbeing, they have to be looked at together.