Healthy Eating, Healthy Exercising, and Healthy Sleeping in Easy Steps
Read Time: 11 minutes
The way you eat, the amount and type of exercise you do, and the quality of your sleep all affect your health, including your ability to ward off and handle stress. Even SMaRT techniques work better if you are able to concentrate, fight off fatigue, and feel self-confident: proven results from healthy eating, exercising and sleeping. Good news: the small changes recommended here will keep you healthier and less stressed.
Eat Well, Feel Better
You may think of good nutrition as the vitamins in the food you eat, the amount you weigh, and the types of snacking you indulge in—all of that is important. In terms of stress, however, science has proven that certain food and beverage choices may reduce the effects of stress and help you cope. To start on the path to healthy eating:
- Eat fewer carbohydrates. Under stress, serotonin is broken down faster and becomes scarce, while tryptophan levels increase—all of which adversely affect your mood, performance, and ability to adjust. As comforting as bread, cake, and cookies are in the short term, they increase the tryptophan and interfere with serotonin, even more, interfering with your ability to adapt to stress.
- Drink coffee. The caffeine in coffee increases the sense of well-being, energy, and motivation and decreases depression. Just avoid caffeine after 6:00 pm, or it will interfere with healthy sleep. Unfortunately, the caffeine in chocolate may not be as helpful, because high-fat foods (like chocolate) cause weight gain and increased food intake; the resulting weight gain and overeating add to the stress.
- Finish eating large meals or snacks by 6:00 pm. Healthy eating requires regular meal times and satisfying meals. Your mood will worsen if you eat 50 percent of your daily food after 6:00 pm —sitting in front of the television snacking on high-fat carbohydrates is an unhealthy habit that can increase stress. Late-night eating also interferes with sleep because it suppresses the body’s ability to produce melatonin, which helps you recognize the time to sleep and relax.
- Eat more fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Fruits help answer the call for sweets when you are under stress, but more importantly, they are sources of vitamins that increase your ability to think and remember. Poor memory leads to problems like losing your keys, missing appointments and forgetting facts, all of which add to your stress. Many of the vitamins that help most with stress can be found naturally in nuts and seeds (especially sunflower seeds and almonds), salmon, avocados, raw sweet red peppers, sunflower oil, and wheat germ, among other sources.
- Eat, period. While some people overeat during stressful times, others stop eating. When you stop eating, your body lacks the resources to fight off disease, increasing the likelihood that you will get sick and further undermining your ability to fight off stress or problem solve. Healthy eating means finding and maintaining a healthy weight that you are comfortable with.
TIP: Be careful of overdosing yourself with vitamin supplements: Vitamins A, C, D, E, and some B vitamins can become toxic or cause unpleasant physical problems in too large doses. Check with your doctor first. You are almost always better off getting your vitamins from food.
Keep Moving, Keep Stress at Bay
Healthy exercise is one of the most beneficial actions you can take to reduce stress. A 2013 survey of over 3,000 adults revealed that 50 percent considered exercise important and recognized its ability to help with stress, but only 17 percent exercised daily, and 39 percent stopped exercising under stress. Watching TV, playing video games, and going online—all sedentary activities—may be go-to’s when you are under stress, but they are counterproductive.
So what type and how much healthy exercise do you need? (Be sure to have a physical exam before starting any form of exercise.)
- 5 minutes of aerobics. Aerobic activity is any exercise that involves the large muscles in arms, legs, and hips—that includes bicycling, swimming, dancing, skiing, and even chair exercises that move those muscles. Even 5 minutes of movement helps control anxiety. Brisk walking is a prime aerobic activity; start with 5-minute walks, one in the morning and one at night, and gradually increase to 15 minutes each. Another way to measure healthy walking to start at 1,000 steps daily and gradually increase to 2,000+; you will soon reach the CDC basic recommended level of 21 minutes of activity daily.
- 12 minutes of yoga. The link between yoga and stress reduction is proven and very strong, including yoga’s ability to foster coping, mindfulness, self-compassion, and general well-being. According to a 10-year study, 12 minutes of yoga daily or a 1-hour class once a week is enough to relieve stress; the benefits increase with practice time and frequency. Because so many different types of yoga exist and each yoga teacher places a different emphasis on the vigor or gentleness of movement, postures, breathing, and so on, recommending a specific practice is difficult. However, most scientific studies on the benefits of yoga have concentrated on Hatha Yoga, which worldwide is second only to Vinyasa Flow in popularity.
- A long-term dedication to tai chi or martial arts. Tai chi was originally a martial art but is now used primarily for healthy exercise, as are a number of other martial arts, such as gentle judo and soft jiu-jitsu. Gentleness is essential: you do not want to create physical stress when you are stressed mentally. Martial arts practices and teachers vary as widely as with yoga, but in general, they should improve your decision-making ability and self-confidence, while soothing your fears. While research shows limited short-term benefits from martial arts, the long-term benefit is marked: the higher the belt level or, the longer time practicing, the lower anxiety and stress, and improved self-management.
TIP: Remember to have a physical exam before you start exercising, and take it slow. When you choose a healthy exercise that you enjoy, you are more likely to continue.
Sleep and Restore
Even if you aren’t stressed, to begin with, sleeplessness, interrupted sleep, or sleep of fewer than 7 hours is stressful. Sleep deprivation interferes with the release of certain hormones into the bloodstream that assists in fighting stress and makes it harder to deal with other stressors in your life. Even one night of recovery sleep can reverse the effects. However, chronic sleep issues cause changes in the brain.
If you are feeling stressed, your body’s first reaction will be wakeful alertness, keeping you from healthy sleep. Then, once exhaustion sets in, you may sleep too much. Regularly sleeping more than 8 to 9 hours a day might be a sign of depression; a physical problem like chronic pain, diabetes, or heart disease; a bad reaction to medication; or a disorder in your biological clock—any one of which should be addressed by speaking to your doctor.
If you want to improve your healthy sleep:
- Sleep in a totally dark room. Wearing an eye mask also helps.
- Go to sleep at the same time each night.
- Avoid eating a heavy meal or many snacks, and avoid drinking alcohol or caffeine just before bedtime.
- Increase your exposure to bright light, particularly sunlight, during the day—you need at least 2 hours of light during the day to increase sleep time by 2 hours and fall more quickly into healthy sleep.
- Reduce your exposure to blue light—there’s an app for that—and shut off electronics at least 2 hours before going to bed.
- Take a melatonin or magnesium supplement. Speak to your doctor first to eliminate any chances of drug interaction or other side effects. Start with a low dose (no more than 1 mg of melatonin) and increase gradually.
- Keep your bedroom on the cool side, as low as 65 degrees but not higher than 70 degrees.
- Replace or upgrade your bedding. Mattresses should be changed every 5-8 years. But pillows also make a difference in encouraging healthy sleep.
TIP: If you lay awake for 20 minutes, get up a do something relaxing like reading, meditation, or watering your plants. Do not start up electronic equipment or engage in strenuous exercise.
You do not—in fact, you should not—make radical changes to initiate your healthy eating, healthy exercise, and healthy sleep. Make one change at a time (for example, substituting your favorite fruit or nut for your favorite sweet, walking 5 minutes in the morning and five at night, or going to sleep at the same time each night), and you will lower stress, increase alertness, and feel better all around.