Mental Health & Wellness June 22nd, 2020

Health Hacks for Busy Professionals

With this pandemic, some of us are busier than ever trying to balance work-and-life while working from home. Poor nutrition, lack of exercise and bad sleep habits, and feelings of isolation can creep up on us and damage our mental and physical health. Shawna Currey, Founder of Health Redesigned and best selling author of Healthy By Choice, share these health hacks for busy professionals:


You’re a busy person so I’m going to cut to the chase and simplify the oodles of health information out there into bite size pieces that pack a lot of punch.  You want to have more energy so that you can be more productive in your business and get more done with less time. Or you’re looking for some quality information to support your team of employees to get back on track after working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic.

You don’t have time to be experimenting with what might work or might not.  You want results that you can see, and you want them fast.

Health begins with a balance between four key pillars of sleep, nutrition, exercise and mental health.  They are all important for maintaining a stable foundation of optimal health.  Just like a table, it’s ideal to have the four pillars well established to create a strong base of health.  

Digestion is the top of the table, which interacts with each pillar or table leg, as they are very interconnected.  There’s also medical conditions and lifestyle factors sitting on top of that table- all interacting together to create your current level of health.

Just like a table, it’s ideal to have four legs to have a strong base of support. If you don’t have those four pillars in balance things start to get a little wobbly.  I’m sure you’ve sat at a table that’s isn’t very stable.  How do you fix it?  Grab a few coasters or a few napkins, fold them up and tuck them underneath the shorter table leg.  The napkins work for a while, but they are only a short-term solution.  

With health, it’s the same thing. That’s when you go on a crash diet or meditate for a few weeks, creating some new good habits. They are short-term Band-Aid solutions.

What happens when you get stressed and your table legs get even more imbalanced or knocked out of place? I’m sure you’ve seen tables with three legs set up as tripods. They can be quite sturdy, but they don’t have that same balance and structure that a four-legged table does. They are less forgiving if something happens to alter one leg.

This type of scenario happens when aspects of your life get out of balance- you are a busy working professional after all!  You have a lot of balls in the air and not a lot of room for error.

I know that you have a huge workload, and even if you love what you do: BUSY = STRESS.

You probably aren’t sleeping enough and likely don’t have time to prepare healthy meals or exercise. I get it! So, your healthy foundation is already a bit shaky, without any other health issues piled on top. What about your digestion or other lifestyle factors and medical conditions? A lot can get in the way between you and optimal health. What are you going to do about it?

Before you dive in, I want you to understand the information contained in this article should not be taken for medical advice. You should consult with your medical professional prior to making any changes to ensure that they are safe and appropriate for you.

What About Sleep?

Sleep is one of those things that many of us don’t appreciate until it’s gone. I never used to value sleep and thought I was functioning really well on only four hours of sleep each night. That is, until my world fell apart.

I ended up having such poor sleep that at my worst, I was only sleeping two to three hours each night, broken up into smaller chunks.  I was so sleep deprived that I literally thought I was going crazy. I was moody, irrational and not very productive. Not an ideal position to be in.

I thought I was managing great on such little sleep and used to brag about how little sleep I could get away with. Unfortunately, despite thinking or feeling like we are able to perform better with less sleep, we are actually so hopped up on adrenaline that we don’t realize how sleep deprived we are.

The problem with assessing our own level of functioning is that we aren’t aware of our own level of cognitive impairment. We adapt to this decrease in sleep quickly but are far from functioning at an optimal level. It’s sort of like being a functional alcoholic. Except in the case of sleep deprivation, you are a functioning-sleep-deficit-aholic, walking around thinking you are doing just fine, when you’re actually impaired. I can personally attest to this from my experience!

The trick to improving sleep is consistency! The longer you’ve had sleeping difficulties, likely, the longer it will take to correct them.  There’s no magic bullet to fix your sleep overnight, but I can help you implement some hacks to sleep better with less effort. You’ll be glad you put the time investment in, when you are able to wake up feeling more refreshed, energetic and are able to get more work done with less effort.

So how does sleep really work? You have two different processes that make sleep happen.  The first process is called sleep drive, that internal signal that yells at you, “GO TO SLEEP NOW!” It makes your eyelids droopy, your head bob and causes you to fall asleep in front of the television. This drive is lowest first thing in the morning, builds up during the day and is relieved or decreased by sleeping.

The other process occurs in more of a rhythmic pattern. This master conductor or circadian clock in the brain responds to environmental cues such as sunlight or bright light exposure. This process tells the body, “Hey, it’s bright outside, time to get up,” or “It’s been dark for a while, you should go to sleep.”

Unfortunately, we have messed up both of these processes, so our bodies are getting mixed up cues. You spend long hours under bright lights at work and are constantly tuned into smart phones and laptops, giving your brain the signal that it’s time to be awake, when it really isn’t.

Once your internal clock gets messed up, you shift your sleep cycles because you aren’t tired, messing this up even worse. To complicate it, you likely try to catch up on sleep on weekends by sleeping in, which messes this up even further. It’s like changing time zones several times each week and then wondering why you feel tired or can’t sleep. No wonder why there are so many people that have insomnia and other sleep issues!

These issues don’t get fixed overnight, or even in one or two nights. If your sleep issue is short lived, the treatment will likely be effective in a much shorter period of time. The longer you’ve had sleeping difficulties, the longer it will take to correct them. Sorry, but there’s no magic bullet to fix your sleep overnight.

Improving sleep issues takes time and consistent patterning to reprogram the brain on what it should do.  This helps to reset those two mechanisms for sleep. The trick to improving sleep is consistency! 

You will need to stick to your new healthy habits for a few weeks or months to see the benefits, so don’t give up too early. You’ll be glad you put the time investment in when you are able to wake up feeling more refreshed and well rested every day.

Why it’s Important!

Sleep has three key functions that help keep your body in check. The first one helps to regulate your metabolism and energy balance. The second function pulls together your short-term memories and turns them into long-term memories. The final function of sleep is to suppress primitive behaviours like eating, sex, aggression and movement. 

Sleep also has many mental, physiological, emotional, social and work-related effects. Without enough sleep you could end up with some or all of these symptoms:

-Alertness: sleepiness, fatigue, tension and poor vigilance/attention/focus

-Judgment: confusion and decreased logic/reasoning

-Analysis: inflexible thinking, decrease in complex mathematical tasks

-Depression

-Anxiety, irritability

-Decreased libido

-Increased perception of pain

-Increased emotional burden

-Decreased quality of life

That’s a lot of things that you could improve, just by addressing your sleep. A study on interns showed that they made 36% more serious medical errors compared with interns that worked under a modified schedule.  

Now I don’t know about you, but if I had the chance to be 36% more effective just by sleeping more, it seems like a pretty great solution to me. You won’t find many other ways to improve your business with returns like that.

So how do you sleep better? Read on!

How to Hack it!

-Sleep 7-9 hours per night

Focus on quality over quantity. Sometimes it’s just not possible to get this much sleep due to events. If you are trading sleep for work time, your productivity goes down.

-Journal an hour before bedtime

This is not the “Dear Diary,” kind of journal.  Instead, write down everything that’s rattling around in your brain and dump out the information so that you don’t need to think about it.  It helps to prevent you from waking up with a million thoughts on the go.

-Keep a notepad by your bed

When you have new thoughts before you turn out the lights or if you wake up in the middle of the night, write down your thoughts so that you can rest easy that you’ll have those ideas in the morning.

-Create a solid routine before bed.

Script out 60-90 minutes of your routine to do before bed every night to cue your body that it’s bedtime.  For example:

9:00pm- write down your “to do list” for tomorrow (Journaling)

9:15pm- brush teeth, change into PJ’s

9:20pm- stretch

9:40pm- read in chair outside of your bedroom under dim light

10:15pm- climb into bed, lights out and asleep within 20 minutes

-Turn your room into a dark dungeon

Make your room pitch black by hanging blackout blinds, removing electronics like TV’s, and cover that annoying red dot on your alarm clock with electrical tape. Better yet, keep your alarm clock (or more likely your phone) across the room so that you aren’t tempted to peek at the time- if the alarm hasn’t gone off, it’s still time to sleep.

-Have a consistent bed/wake time

This isn’t always going to be possible, so don’t stress over it. Do the best you can with what you’ve got!  Consistency helps to build that internal sleep drive system so that your body is better at going to sleep when you want it to. Work backwards from when you need to be up. If you need to be awake at 7am, set your bedtime between 10pm and midnight to get seven to nine hours of sleep. Keeping your bedtime, the same each night.  If you are an early bird- schedule breakfast meetings. If you are a night owl- plan your key business later in the day, so that you aren’t constantly changing your sleep routine.  Don’t try to change when you function best.

-Cut the caffeine and alcohol

What??? You want me to cut out caffeine? Or wine? Not exactly but should be eliminated at least 6 hours prior to bedtime to allow you to sleep longer and deeper. Even if you can fall sleep right after having an evening coffee, it may be interrupting the quality of your sleep. Switch to decaf after 3pm or it will likely interfere with your sleep. If you are at a social event where drinking is expected, switch to something without alcohol as the night winds down.  Club soda with a lime wedge gives the illusion that you are still drinking alcohol- no one needs to know! Plus, you’ll feel better the next day.

What About Nutrition?

To be more productive, have better energy, focus and clarity, a great place to start with is your nutrition.  Essential nutrients include protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals and water. A food is inherently made up some combination of nutrients to provide your body with energy to survive and hopefully thrive. 

It’s important to distinguish between food groups and nutrients because your body does not need to eat specific food groups. You’ve been indoctrinated to think that you need dairy products and grain products to survive and that’s simply not true. While your body needs proteins, carbohydrates and fats, there’s absolutely no daily requirement for any specific food group to be consumed.

It’s also a huge lie to claim that there is “one master diet” that will work for everyone. Your nutrition requirements vary so much depending on your health, activity level, stress level, the environment in which you live and more.  This is why there are thousands of fad diets that “claim” to be successful, because they are able to produce results for some people.

When making food choices, I’ve noticed that people create their decisions based on three key criteria: convenience, cost and health. Most people generally want foods that are quick, easy to grab and don’t take a lot of time, if any, to prepare. It’s an, “I want it now” mentality.

In terms of cost, I’ve never met someone who willingly spent more on food, just because they wanted to burn through more money. We all want to save money on food if we can. Some of us just pay more for it because we want the health benefits that come with increased cost. This leads us to the health of our food.  Not everything we put in our bodies is healthy. Some of us value the health of a food more than the other aspects of choice.

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible for us to have all three options at the same time.  In fact, most times we can only have two of the three choices. When making food choices, those constraints are cost, convenience and health. You must consider, give up or change one priority, in order to get their other two top priorities. What are your two top priorities when making food choices?

Why it’s Important!

The essential components that your healthy diet must include are:

Food security

You are able to access food regularly without worrying about going hungry

Affordable

Good healthy food that you can afford without breaking the bank

Low in processed foods

Processed foods are connected to chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol and high blood pressure

High in nutrients

The more nutrient dense your foods are, the healthier you tend to be and those pesky health issues start to fade away

Variety

Your body isn’t meant to eat the same thing over and over again. Rotate your foods to get lots of different nutrients

Maintain hydration

Hydration is connected to mental sharpness and acuity. Want to perform better? Make sure you stay hydrated- your pee should be close to clear. Don’t drink so much that you are peeing every half hour- that isn’t good either.

Fuel for your activity level

If you have a desk job and rarely workout you don’t need to eat very much. If you exercise more, then eat more.  If you exercise less, then eat less. If you are gaining weight every year, chances are you are eating too much for your activity level, amongst other factors.

Social connections

It’s super important to have connection with others. Eat with your family or friends so you don’t feel isolated with whatever type of diet you choose.

Balance blood sugars

Choose carbohydrates that release slowly (eg. beans, sweet potato) over quick carbs (eg. bread, cereal, yoghurt) and balance them with an equal amount of protein.  If your carbohydrate is the size of your fist, your protein should be too. A small amount of peanut butter on your toast just isn’t enough to balance your blood sugar for the day. Just because a food is healthy doesn’t mean it’s balanced.

How to Hack it!

-Start with protein at breakfast

Balance your blood sugars with a good source lean protein first thing in the morning. One of my favorite breakfast ideas is an omelet. I don’t have time to cook every morning so on Sunday night I’ll sauté loads of veggies, dump them in a lasagna pan and pour 12 scrambled eggs over them. Bake it in the oven at 350 for about 30 minutes and voila- you’ll have an omelet. This makes four filling pieces each for my partner and I, so I don’t have to worry about what to eat for four days.

Once I’m tired of eating that I’ll make something different like a breakfast hash. Grate up a sweet potato and cook with an equal amount of ground chicken, turkey or pork. I love mild curry and cinnamon as spices to warm my belly for the day.

Other great breakfast protein sources I recommend are eggs (boiled, scrambled, poached or occasionally fried), lean sausage patties (homemade are best), smoked salmon, a small can of tuna, sardines or herring, or leftover meat from dinner. Be creative. You’ve probably eaten breakfast foods at dinner. Now try dinner foods at breakfast!

Try mixing a protein source with some veggies for a more balanced breakfast. Have a lean breakfast patty with a sliced-up tomato and a small bowl of mixed berries. Or chop up boiled eggs with celery, cucumber and mashed avocado for a breakfast salad topped with a touch of smoked paprika. Your imagination is your only limit!

-Leftover dinner for lunch

I’m not big on cooking every day- most of us just don’t have time for it. Cook less often, make bigger portions when you do cook and eat leftovers for lunch. If you don’t want to repeat the same meal all the time, cook extra protein at dinner and serve it on top of a salad with a light oil and vinegar or lemon juice.

-Simplify dinners by using your slow cooker

Throw in a piece of your favorite meat into the slow cooker. Add some herbs and spices and then top it up with water. Turn it onto low for the day and voila you have a lovely protein source for dinner. Cook bigger amounts than you need so you can either freeze it for later or take for lunches. 

Some of my favorite, easy dinners include: 

-Slow cooked pork loin seasoned with thyme, pepper, garlic powder; When you get home- toss baby potatoes with your favorite oil and seasoning into the oven. Grill some asparagus on the BBQ when the potatoes are almost done. While the potatoes cook, pack your breakfast and lunch for the next day and do most of your dishes for easy clean up after you eat.

-Salmon- pop on tinfoil, season with dill and lemon juice; mixed veggies in tinfoil package seasoned with Italian seasoning, pepper and a touch of oil. Bake them for the same time- super easy clean up!

-Slow cooked roast beef- I love smoked alder salt and pepper with a touch of garlic.  Throw some wild rice into the rice cooker and put a tray of green beans in the top basket to maximize your efficiency.

-Fill half your plate with veggies with most meals

Veggies are where most of your vitamins and minerals are, so you want lots of them. Eat a variety of veggies- all the different colors are important, even the white ones! Make a big salad at the start of the week that you can serve with each meal and buy pre-chopped veggies that you can grab and go. Rotate your veggies each week so you get lots of variety.

-Eat off a smaller plate

Force yourself to have portion control by eating smaller amounts. You are programmed to fill your plate, so the bigger the plate, the more you’re likely to eat. Set yourself up for success by eating smaller portions and stop going for second helpings!

-Carry a water bottle

Most people forget to drink because it’s not available. Start your morning with a glass of water before you start your day and carry a bottle of water with you so it’s available to sip on all day long.

-Don’t go nuts!

I love nuts for snacks- but most people end up having far too many calories and gaining weight.  Keep your portion to ¼ cup per day or less to avoid excess weight gain from nuts. That works out to about 15-20 nuts per day, depending on the type.

-Dining out

It’s often not the food choice, but the sauce or dressing choice that packs on the calories.  Be wary of creamy or sweet sauces, they have a ton of calories. Ask your server not to bring bread or chips to the table before your meal.  And stick to calorie free drinks like good old water, carbonated water or club soda with a lemon if you crave something fancier. Keep your alcohol to a minimum, those calories add up quick!

I know you love those business lunches and dinners so here’s a few tips for eating out.  If you are eating at a chain restaurant, chances are extremely high that you’re going to get a meal LOADED in bad fat, sugar and salt. Find your favorite protein and ask for the sauce on the side, and an order of steamed veggies to go with it. Or pick a salad with protein and get oil and vinegar on the side. Chain restaurants have little options to eat healthier, so eat at these places less often.

When choosing better quality restaurants, stick to meals that have a side of carbohydrate (rice, potato) where you can control portion size. Do your best to stay away from entrees that have carbohydrate as the main part of the meal (pizza, pasta). You can also ask your server if they have healthier options on their menu, they will be more educated to help you with this decision.

What About Exercise?

Some people love exercise, while others hate it. We all need to do it! With anyone older than 30, there is a natural decline of muscle mass, bone density, and balance. That just makes it even more important for all of us to actively build bone and muscle mass.

Exercise can help to prevent or delay these natural changes and help to keep you in better shape to do what you love. By being stronger you can maintain better posture and prevent chronic or overuse injuries that often result from poor mechanics.

You’ll want to include a variety of different exercises into your routine. Include the components of cardiovascular, endurance, agility, flexibility, power and balance. Too often I see people going cardio crazy and burning themselves out by doing too much high intensity cardio. Balance things out and make sure that you do resistance training to keep your body strong. Women often worry about getting bulky from weight training, which almost never happens. The other components are key to creating good balance. Keep things interesting and change your routine every four to six weeks or sooner to keep getting benefit from your routine.

I’m also going to call out anyone who thinks that grocery shopping, puttering around the house or doing laundry are exercise. They are NOT exercise, they are activity!  It’s important to participate in daily activities, but they do not give you the same benefits as exercise.

Why it’s Important!

There are so many really amazing reasons why you should exercise that I can’t list them all here for you.  I’ve summed up the best ones that directly apply to you:

  • Increased alertness, focus and concentration
  • Improved mood/sense of well being
  • Reduction in sick days (for you busy entrepreneurs this is a good thing!)
  • Reduction in stress/anxiety/depression- as effective as antidepressants without the weight gain
  • Decreased fat mass, increased muscle mass- this keeps your metabolism higher, helping you to be leaner with less effort
  • Balance your blood sugar, blood pressure and increase your good cholesterol
  • Reduction in chronic diseases
  • Improved joint stability, balance, coordination 

The current recommendations suggest getting 150 minutes of exercise per week. That’s a lot of time that you’d probably rather do anything else. It doesn’t have to be as painful as it sounds, and you can start with less time to build up healthy habits. I encourage clients to start with only five minutes per day and build up as they tolerate it.

How to Hack it!

-Bite sized workouts

I like to fit in shorter workouts, more often. I start my day rolling out of bed and then hitting the gym for the first 30 minutes. I do a mix of weight training and cardio so that I know it’s done. Otherwise I’ll get busy, make excuses and never workout. What gets planned, gets performed.  Schedule your workouts and make them happen. On days that I don’t have time for my 30-minute workout I’ll do three, 10-minute workouts spread out during the day. The only catch to this approach is that your intensity in those 10-minute intervals needs to go way up to get the same benefit. So, break a sweat in those shorter intervals- rev up your heart rate and make it count!

-Fast, focused fitness

Not sure what to do in shorter fitness routines? Not used to working out? I’ve created a simple routine that anyone can do starting from any fitness level. Start your morning with a quick 10-minute routine so that it’s done first thing. This avoids the excuse that you got busy or forgot to workout.

Start with a one minute warm up, then move into four minutes of intense cardio. This is intense for you based on your current starting point. Then do one minute each of: 

-Strength exercise- bodyweight or weights

-Rehabilitation exercise- focus on your weakest link: stretch, roll, cupping etc.

-Spinal mobility- slow roll downs or twists side to side

-Balance exercises- standing on one foot, using wobble board or other balance equipment

-Core exercises- do planks/bridges, abs, back, hip and glute exercises

While this is far from perfect and definitely not enough time to get a full body workout, it gives you a great start to building an exercise routine. Keep adjusting the exercises so that you aren’t neglecting parts of your body.

-Slip in the steps

These tips won’t take you from flab to fab overnight but help you to add activity into your day without adding a formal workout time. Things you can do to move more include biking to work, get off the bus or train one stop earlier, take the stairs, park at the far side of the lot, walk to colleagues’ desks instead of calling them, walking at lunch.

-Find a workout buddy

Working out with other people increases your accountability and makes it more fun.  Find someone with a similar schedule that can meet you to make sure that you do your exercise.  It could mean hiring a trainer or joining group classes. Just find someone or something that keeps you coming back for more.

-Double duty

Combine exercise with work tasks to increase efficiency. I’ll quite often jump on the treadmill and listen to a podcast on a topic I’m trying to improve my knowledge in. Or I’ll sit on my bike in the basement and program my social media posts for the week from my phone. Consider buying a treadmill desk or at one that converts from sit to stand. Pick lower intensity exercise that you can do with work tasks so that you can get more done with less investment in time.

What About Mental Health?

I’ve noticed that mental health issues such as depression and anxiety seem to be connected to five key components of mental health. By addressing these key components, I’ve been able to positively impact many lives and get them feeling better without the use of prescription medications that have many side effects. Those five key areas include people, pleasure, pauses, purpose and positive self-talk. 

People contribute to relationships and other interactions that keep you balanced and levelheaded. They provide intimacy and physical touch, which are necessary psychological needs. Pleasure is the component of fun, enjoyment, and satisfaction, in your day that gives life balance. Pauses are any break, downtime, interruption or gap, that helps you reset, recover or rest. Purpose may be tied to a lofty life goal or life purpose, or something that gives you a perception of value in your day. Positive self-talk will help you keep your thoughts in check to build confidence, self-esteem, and resiliency.

Why it’s Important!

Your body has a stress response system to help you deal with what life throws at you. It’s the fight or flight system that releases hormones to help you rest and digest food or run away from the lion that’s planning on making you his dinner. Your body can’t tell the difference between eustress– the good stress that you love, or distress– the bad stress that has you strung out.

If you aren’t giving your body a break from stress, which is often the case, you may start to hit burnout.  Symptoms include anxiety, memory loss, behavioral changes, insomnia, headache, irritability, cravings, weight gain/loss, and fatigue. Sound familiar??? So how do you fix this picture? Read on!

How to Hack it!

-Schedule social activities into your calendar

This helps give you a break from all that hard work you are doing and to maintain social connections! Schedule at least one event a week and make sure you do it.

– Slow down to go fast

Take time away from work tasks and find ways to slow down- this will make you more productive when you are working. What is the minimum commitment you know you can be successful at every day? For some people it’s as little as blocking off time to take 3 deep breaths. Start there without the expectation to do more. It’s better than to build success in small step than to experience epic failure. If you plan to meditate for 30 minutes daily and never get it done, you’re creating feelings of failure.  Start small and build.

-Outsmart yourself

Use positive self-talk to trick your brain that you’re more successful than you currently feel. Develop a support network that understands what you’re going through. Plan activities that are in line with your goals. Speak in present tense to tell yourself that you already are successful (I have lost weight, vs. when I lose weight.) And when in doubt, fake it ‘till you make it!

-Ration your willpower

You only have a finite amount of willpower in the day. Do your most important tasks first thing in the morning. Come up with a script for the first 30-90 minutes in your day.  Start with things that energize you, set your intention for the day and then work on your most important work task before other distractions unfold. 

-Focus on your 5 P’s

Do things every day that build up your 5 P’s. These are the five key areas that will supercharge your resilience to the stressors that life throws at you. Include people, pleasure, pauses, purpose and positive self-talk into your regular mental health practice and you’ll be well on your way to feeling your best.

What’s Next?

Alright- this is just the beginning! You’ve had a little taste of the information that I’ve used for over 20 years to help hundreds of people redesign their health. You’ve gotten your feet wet, like what you see and want to learn more. Now what?

For more information on how to use these principles to support employee wellness, please go to www.healthredesigned.com. If you have other specific questions that aren’t answered there, feel free to email me at shawna@healthredesigned.com

To your success and good health,

Shawna Curry

Contributor

Tim Carwell President & CEO of The Commalert Group Read More
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