When it comes to improving our health many of us go for the most hardcore habit changes right off the bat, but that's a big mistake.
These changes usually don't last long and lead to a whole lot of wasted energy and frustration.
Whether you're trying to lose weight or get through a strength plateau, don't even think of doing anything fancy until you've checked off these boxes.
1. Get some sleep
Sleep is by far the most underutilized tool when it comes to improving health. Simply put, you cannot meet your goals without proper rest.
When we train, we stress our muscular, circulatory, respiratory, skeletal and endocrine systems. These systems need time to properly recuperate in order to repair the damage that has been done to the body. Without adequate sleep you’re starving your body of a crucial component to this recovery phase.
Sleep also plays a major role in managing metabolism, controlling cortisol levels and reducing inflammation. This directly affects our mood, mental health and energy levels. Even so, Americans continue to get less and less sleep.
The American Academy of Sleep recommends a minimum of 7-9 hours of sleep for your average adult (non-athlete). However, most Americans only get 6.8 hours of sleep a night. But for those involved in strength training the recommendation is 8-10 hours of sleep per night.
For some this is easier said than done. If you know you struggle with getting adequate rest I highly recommended creating a nighttime routine. This will look different for everyone, but some key factors are:
- A consistent bedtime
- Cutting out screen time an hour before bed
- Not indulging in large or sugary meals before going to sleep
- Having a cut off time for caffeine (scientists suggest early afternoon)
I’ve been incorporating these steps into my own bedtime routine and I'm sleeping much better for it. My personal routine includes reading, stretching, and journaling before bed. The journaling has been especially helpful, calming my mind, and leading to less stirring in bed.
Lastly, when all else fails: Take a power nap!
2. hydrate responsibly
Hydration may be a no-brainer for some, but I guarantee the majority of us barely consume enough water to keep up with our needs.
The general recommendation of half our bodyweight in ounces. For example, if I weigh 180 lbs, I should aim to consume at least 90 fl oz of water daily. But that number doesn’t consider additional need for water lost to exercise or other factors like temperature, humidity, altitude etc.
Athletes and exercisers have varying needs, but a good rule of thumb is for every hour of exercise consume 16-24 fl oz of water (in addition to your baseline needs calculated above).
We hear a lot about electrolytes, but unfortunately marketing has led many of us astray. In reality popular sports drinks like Gatorade or Powerade are designed to be hyperpalatable (meaning really tasty). These beverages contain small amounts of sodium and carbohydrates, which have a very small impact on replenishing electrolytes.
If you're worried about replenishing sodium after a workout, it would be best to eat a meal or snack that is carb dense and contains sodium, then chase it with some water.
While much rarer than dehydration, one thing to watch out for on the other end of the spectrum is over-hydration.
For folks who work out, this is known as Exercise-Associated Hyponatremia (or EAH). EAH occurs when our blood-sodium levels become diluted and can lead to decreased performance, nausea, cramping, vomiting and seizures.
In conclusion, listen to your body. Drink when you’re thirsty, and don’t when you aren’t.
3. Keep an eye on what you eat
One last major habit change that'll keep you honest with what you eat is keeping track of meals.
Not to be confused with tracking calories and macros, this can be as simple as keeping a food journal with a basic summary of what you ate that day.
This simple log helps to create awareness of daily eating habits. It can also clear up some of the confusion if the scale is not budging or performance dips.
This also lays a solid foundation if you do decide to get more detailed later on. Many meal plans and food templates require the user to count calories and macros by measuring, weighing, and logging food.
The most important part of tracking –whether it’s in a notebook or or in an app like MyFitnessPal– is being honest with yourself. This means accounting for the dessert you had after dinner or the couple of cocktails you drank while out with friends.
But there's no need to go overboard at first. Just start small and begin to take note of what you eat in a day.
When it comes to making habit changes, start small and easy. That means aiming for the lowest hanging fruit to make the biggest impact with the smallest changes.
No matter your fitness level, every one of us can benefit from getting adequate sleep, staying hydrated, and being mindful of what we eat.