Have you ever reflected on the most important aspects of your health and wellness?
If you’re like most of us, you want to improve your health, and you often try new eating styles and fitness routines. Rather than diving into something new, today I invite you to reflect on what’s most important to your health.
Through my years of working with busy people to boost their health, I’ve noticed repeating themes. Most of us would benefit from optimizing how we eat, move, find quiet time and sleep. These areas influence one another. Ignoring one will make it very hard to optimize your health. For example, a single night of poor sleep can trigger changes in how your body processes glucose, making your body more insulin resistant.
In this post I’ll walk you through my approach to balancing these areas with a busy schedule. By the end, you’ll have specific ideas for how to begin your own overhaul.
Let’s define balance
Balance is redefining the concept of a superhero. Balance is identifying the right combination of activities for you at this moment in time and putting them into practice. In order to have the space for your most important activities, you may need to say no more often. Balanced superheroes know how to distinguish between important and peripheral activities. But first, every superhero needs a vision.
When you articulate your long term vision, you can prioritize the most important habits for your journey. Most of us want to be healthy as we age, but why? I want to remain as active as possible for my children. I also want to keep my mental sharpness because I plan to practice medicine for a long time.
Imagine your ideal health and wellness routine. What does it include? What do you value most?
We have four pillars: Nutrition, Activity, Contemplation, and Sleep. These are key areas for maintaining health over the long term. Neglect one and your foundation weakens.
Balance is putting a little bit of effort into each pillar. With sustained small increments, over time, you build a very strong foundation.
Build Tiny Habits Into Your Schedule
How do you spend most of your time? How do you spend time outside of work? How much time do you spend on social media and news websites? Often our wellness activities get usurped for work. And we use social media to "unwind." I urge you to objectively view your time. For a couple days, write down all of the things you do. This helps you to find the moments where you can add or change up your day. Think of it as curating your day.
Returning to the idea of pillars of health, the four pillars spell PATH. Because we are all taking steps on the path to health. Life is a continuous journey, and each step along the way is meaningful. Putting intention behind your health and wellness will make your life's journey happier.
The Balanced Healthy Path Method
- P = provisions
- A = Activity
- T = Tranquility
- H = Hibernation
To make the changes last for the long term, start with a small change in each area. This helps your brain to get used to prioritizing this area. Using a small catalyst is a way to get in the habit of completing an activity. Taking action each day creates big changes over the long term. Starting small reduces barriers to initiating your habits.
A Stress-Free PATH to Balance
A structured approach reduces stress. You no longer have to decide what to do, you can be on autopilot. Exercise is an elixir for mental and physical health. I have a set of activities I do each week, usually early in the morning. On Sunday I create a weekly schedule with indoor cycling, yoga, weights, and outdoor walk/jogs.
Planning your weekly exercise schedule and putting it into your schedule reduces mental strain later. Based on our obligations, think about where you can fit in exercise. Even short sessions are effective -- a five minute walk, three sets of pushups, a few Sun Salutations. These are all five minutes or less. Done consistently, they build strength and fitness.
Contemplation is time spent in silence without external influences. My own practice is pranayama (yogic breathing exercises), meditation and sometimes journaling. I’ve created a ritual where I wake up, make tea and meditate. I’ve built a routine so I don’t think about what I’ll do each morning. I do not look at my phone, email or any screens until after meditating. Taking the time to sit with my thoughts before my busy day helps me to feel calm and collected.
If you want to function at your highest level, you must invest in sleep. Over the past few years the work of Matthew Walker PhD put sleep into the limelight. Sleep is a key to our mental health and memory. Sleep even influences our ability to make healthy food choices.
Optimize your sleep by limiting caffeine in the afternoon. Avoiding intense or agitating activities in the evening helps our minds to shut off. Due to the nature of medical school, I can’t completely shut down screens at night. I limit social media, and try not to check email right before bed.
Daily activity, especially outdoors, improves our sleep. I try to take a couple short walks when I need a study break. Rather than looking at email or social media, getting away from screens for breaks has improved my mood and concentration.
Planning out meals is an effective way to reduce mealtime stress. This is a big topic that deserves its own series of posts. One quick tip: list a few meals you can prepare easily. On your weekend, shop for these ingredients. Plan the nights when you can prep these meals, or spend a little weekend time meal prepping.
I have to admit, we haven’t yet found the right way to schedule meal preparation. We typically have lots of vegetables, fish and plant protein in our fridge. I often cook a pot of white beans early in the week. Many of my lunches are quick salads with protein. I’m working on a weekly pattern, but haven’t gotten there yet.
Add Structure To Reduce Stress
Rather than creating stress, structure eliminates stress. When you know what you’ll do, you don’t spend time making decisions. It’s crucial not to leave your wellness up to chance.
Prioritizing wellness early in the day helps me to maintain a schedule.
Through two years of refining, I’ve found the more I autopilot my time, the less stressed I feel. You can use this framework to build wellness into your life. Over the next few months, we’ll explore each area. For now, I invited you to use the four steps below to pinpoint your biggest health values. When you identify what you value, you create a schedule based on your intentions.
I encourage you to think about how you move, find quiet time and sleep. Think about an activity in each area that you can start doing now. Then the big step → schedule it into your calendar. The more you do something the easier it becomes. The activities you do build out your life. Let’s get started, shall we?
p.s. What activities help you to feel balanced? What areas do you struggle with most? Let me know in the comments below.