A healthy, active, sustainable lifestyle must have a strong foundation. This short guide will teach you 5 healthy habits to start in the new year. It’s based on foundational principles and associated habits that will help you keep crushing life on a daily basis in this new year and for years to come.
As the nutrition coach at San Francisco CrosSFit, I work with many clients who want to make various body composition and performance improvements. By the time they contact me, they’ve likely tried nearly every fad diet, diet template, other nutrition coaching, macro counting, etc. The great thing about these methods is that they work. In fact, they work very well…until they don’t.
This can be very frustrating and stressful for people, and I can sympathize. I, too, have tried nearly every popular diet that has been lauded as the new savior of human dietary needs. When your diet/plan stops working or is unsustainable, it’s time to lean on principles. It’s easy to get caught up in the details, so when that happens, take a step back and check-in with the basics: Sleep, Stress Management, Hydration, Food Hygiene, and Movement.
This article outlines the basic principles that I believe make the most difference in a healthy, active, and sustainable lifestyle. You can always return to practicing habits associated with these five principles, no matter how far into the weeds you go. Let’s dig-in!
Sleep is the most beneficial performance-enhancing activity we use each day to prepare us for the rigors of tomorrow. However, most of us don’t get nearly enough hours in the bedroom. The minimum I want my clients to get is seven hours per night in a dark room with zero electronic distractions. This is the bare minimum that is widely accepted by sleep experts and health professionals. Optimally, we would all get 7-9 hours of high-quality sleep.
I say this with the understanding that we lead very complicated, demanding lives. I’m in the same boat. Instead of wagging my finger at you about hours of sleep, here are some ideas on how you can set yourself up for quality over quantity approach to your sleep habits.
- Cool and dark bedroom: Your room should be around 62-67 degrees Fahrenheit and as black as Darth Vader’s hatred for the Rebel Alliance–DARK. Use blackout shades on your bedroom windows or wear a sleep mask, if possible.
- Dim lights and limit electronics usage about 30 minutes before bed.
- Keep bedroom free of electronics, like your phone, tablet, computer, and television–Netflix in the living room, “chill” in the bedroom (wink, wink). We KNOW this is hard, but give it a try.
- If you need an alarm to wake, buy a cheap alarm clock at your local drug store with dim, red numbers. Position the clock so it’s facing down or away from your line of sight.
- Every evening, do 8-10 minutes of soft tissue work. Incorporate contract/relax and slow inhales and exhales. The Ready State Virtual Mobility Coach has Daily Maintenance videos you can follow along to in the evening before bed.
- No caffeine after 4PM: Caffeine, coffee in particular, is a favorite of ours at The Ready State. However, caffeine has a half-life of about 5 hours, so if you drink a cup of coffee with 100mg of caffeine, you’ll likely still have about 50mg of caffeine in your blood five hours later.
- Limit alcohol consumption: Yes, that glass of wine feels like it helps you downregulate, but having two or more drinks just a few hours before bed can greatly affect your ability to sleep deeply.
- DO NOT USE THE SNOOZE BUTTON: Quality sleep begins when you wake-up. Wake and get moving immediately. The snooze button increases sleep inertia, which makes the waking process more difficult and painful than it needs to be.
- GET THE [email protected]%K TO BED: Find a reasonable bedtime for your schedule and stick to it. We thrive on routines and rhythms. Going to bed and waking at the same time every day goes a long way when trying to have a successful day.
For more ideas on sleep quality and sleep density, check out this video by The Man himself, Dr. Kelly Starrett:
2. Stress Management
Stress is unavoidable. Having some stress in our lives is great. It drives us to chase goals, complete important projects, gives us purpose, and makes life interesting. Stressors are neither good nor bad. It’s how we react to the stressors in our lives that shape our perception. Each stressor will elicit its own unique stress response.
Stress Management Habits
- Practice at least one activity that brings you some joy or calmness each day:
- Get outside in the sun and move
- Spend time in a sauna or hot tub
- Get a massage
- Practice a hobby
- Spend time with a loved one or pet
- Take a quick nap
- Unplug from social media
- Find balance in your exercise routine: Many of us use exercise as a way to release stress. That’s great! However, intense exercise is also a stressor, so please find a day or two to rest or actively recover with low intensity, cyclical movement (light walking, jogging, rowing, cycling, etc.).
- Practice a bit of self-compassion:
- Ask for help when needed.
- Unplug from the Internet once per week and unfollow social accounts that bring about negative thoughts or feelings.
- Be realistic about the goals you set and how they fit into your life.
- Test your limits, but know them and honor them.
- If you are so stressed that you feel helpless, please seek counseling.
Water is essential to our very existence. Here are a few reasons why we need to make sure to drink plenty of water daily:
- Essential to the lubrication of our joints
- Helps the body regulate temperature through sweat
- It’s the main mode of transportation of nutrients, oxygen, and waste across our cells and through our blood.
- Keeps tissues (eyes, mouth, and skin) moist
- Our muscles are 75% water, so yeah, it’s important.
Dehydration can wreak havoc on your body and mind. Here are some symptoms of dehydration:
- Decrease Performance (in life tasks and on the field/in the gym)
- Fatigue (General, not activity-induced)
- Lack of motivation to train/perform
For more info on hydrating as an athlete, check-out our friend Dr. Stacy Sims’ fantastic infographic on “The Science of Hydration” here.
- Aim to drink about ½ your body weight in fluid ounces of water per day.
- Monitor the color of your urine each time you urinate. If it’s dark yellow, you should definitely drink some water. If it’s nearly clear, hold off on consuming water for a little while or until you’re thirsty. Aim to have your urine be a pale yellow color.
- Add a pinch of salt to your water glass or bottle each time you fill it. Fancy pink salt, Morton’s…it doesn’t matter. The sodium will assist in helping your body absorb the water you drink. This is especially important when training for an extended time in the heat.
4. Food Hygiene
Like hydration, eating is essential to our performance in all aspects of life. We have all been fed narratives about food that shape our view on certain macronutrients, micronutrients, the evils of one ingredient vs. the virtues of another, etc.
To help wade through the confusion that you’ll find when researching nutrition methods on your own, here are some key ideas and habits you can use as a “home base”:
Key Food Hygiene Ideas
- Focus on food quality. Go with the best quality your budget allows. When on the road, go with the best option available.
- Choose whole food sources for the vast majority of your meals.
- Prioritize protein and vegetables/fruit
- Honor the digestive process. Chew your food for better absorption of nutrients.
- Get used to the idea that foods are not “evil” or “bad”. They either help you work toward your goals or they do not. Those chips aren’t out to get you.
Food Hygiene Habits
- Consume a lean, whole food protein source at each meal
- Consume at least two types of vegetables and/or fruits at each meal; the more variety, the better (we, at The Ready State, are big fans of the #800 Gram Challenge to help solidify this habit).
- Try to eliminate vegetable, canola, and any other industrial oils from your cooking. High quality, single-source oils, such as olive, coconut, and avocado oils are much better for daily consumption.
- For at least one meal per day, put down the phone, close the computer, and eat without distraction. Take a few deep breaths, smell your food, and chew your food slowly to a paste-like consistency (appetizing, right?).
If you’re reading this article, I assume you have a movement practice or sport that keeps you regularly challenged and entertained. As humans, we do best when we can move–a lot. Exercising at the gym for one hour per day isn’t enough. We should also be performing physical tasks, getting-up from our desks to walk around, and finding ways to get our blood moving throughout the day.
The main idea is to challenge yourself and move blood several times per week. Here are some ideas and habits for exercise and non-exercise activities that are useful:
- Train 2-5 days per week with weights, following a progressive program. Loading the skeleton is essential to long-term health and is non-negotiable with my clients.
- Perform conditioning workouts at varying levels of intensity a couple of times per week. These can be paired with your weight training sessions.
- Use movement as a recovery tool: Sitting on the couch all day after a workout is not recovering. Mobilize the body shapes you made that day, go for a walk, ride a bike, or stretch (again, Virtual Mobility Coach has tons of follow-along routines for this). Please, if you do “active recovery” make it light, cyclical work. Clean and jerks for time don’t count as active recovery.
- Plan your rest days just like you plan your trainin g days. It’s great to get after it in the gym or on the field, but you do have to rest.
Non-Exercise Movement Habits/Activities
- Step-up your NEAT (Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis) game:
- Walk the dog or yourself
- Walk/bike/skate to work or school
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator
- Go dancing, or just dance at home. We love The Fitness Marshall
- Wash the car
- Do yard work
- Perform any free task that helps you expend more energy through movement each day
Putting It Together
This article outlined a lot of information, and each category warrants its own article. How do we put it all together? We do it slowly and methodically. Trying to do all of this at once is unrealistic, so let’s try to parse it out over a six-week schedule.
Over the next six weeks:
Weeks 1-2: Pick one item from any one category that you think might help you and seems doable. Spend the first two weeks injecting the new habit into your life. For example, you might try to add 8-10 minutes of soft tissue work to your night.
Weeks 3-4: Pick another habit from one of the categories. Spend the next two weeks practicing the new habit, while also practicing the first habit. You continue trying to get in 8-10 minutes of soft tissue work each night, and you add a pinch of salt to your water each time you fill a glass or bottle.
Weeks 5-6: Pick the third habit and continue refining the first two. By now, the first habit will likely be ingrained and the second should be pretty easy to perform each day. You might try to fit more movement into your day as a new habit. While you try to add more movement each day, you continue trying to get more sleep each night and add a pinch of salt to your water.
This pattern can continue indefinitely. Acquiring nutrition and lifestyle habits is a skill and should be treated as such. It’s just like in the gym, there’s always a way to scale a movement or workout up or down so it suits the individual. Habits work in the same manner.
Which habit will you attempt first?