Modern life is characterised by busy but largely sedentary and unhealthy lifestyles. People are rushing around doing things but not physically moving enough, or they are eating quick meals on the go but not eating healthily enough, or they are working hard, but not relaxing and resting enough. The health statistics reveal a problematic picture. Despite greater wealth and easier access to sport and healthy pursuits, poor health and obesity are on the rise. In Ireland, the average person is 20lb heavier than 20 years ago (putting a pound on a year in a seemingly unstoppable trajectory).
Aside from the serious physical illnesses that our unhealthy lifestyles can cause, our mental health is also taking a hammering. Increased levels of insomnia, stress, depression and anxiety are often related to a simple neglect of our health and fitness.
Our mental health and our physical health are intimately intertwined. Someone who is tired or stressed may be less likely to exercise and more likely to comfort eat and thus increase their stress in the long term. While eating well, exercising and relaxation might alleviate mental-health problems such as depression and anxiety, many people make poor choices to manage their pain such as drinking to excess or over eating, which only further damages their health and exacerbate the original problems.
Our positive mental health and well-being are always rooted in the care of our body. A healthy mind is closely related to a healthy body. It is much harder to thrive and be happy while at the same time neglecting your health and fitness. The three pillars of physical health are eating well, being physically fit and getting enough relaxation and sleep
In many ways, we have never known as much as we do now about the importance of diet and eating well. Health and cookery books are best sellers, TV programmes on food and diets abound, and most people know the elements of the food pyramid and the importance of eating vegetables.
Yet despite this, on average, we continue to eat badly and struggle to sustain a good diet. The problem is largely environmental – we are surrounded by unhealthy foods in shops and are too time-poor to prepare healthy dinners at home. When working with people moving to a healthy lifestyle, I encourage them to take charge of their environment and to make small changes that give them some control. This can include simple things like bringing a water bottle to ensure you drink more water (and avoid unhealthy drinks) or making sure your breakfast at home is a filling healthy one (to avoid eating snacks) or bringing your own lunch to work prepared in batch for the week (so you avoid eating unhealthy takeaway food).
Being physically active
According to the WHO, adults should do at least 150 minutes weekly of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity (ie working hard enough to raise your heart rate and break a sweat). This type of activity could be brisk walking, cycling, swimming or even vigorous housework! Even if you don’t reach the WHO weekly goal, increasing your level of activity has enormous benefits to your well-being, including helping you concentrate better, feel more energy and even to sleep better. Just like making positive changes to your diet, making small steps is the key with physical activity.
Look at easy ways you can integrate activity into your day, whether this is choosing to walk instead of driving when you can, using the stairs rather than the lift at work or even trying the new business trend of conducting walking meetings instead of sit-down ones. In addition, take steps to make exercise fun and enjoyable, whether this is committing to an activity you love, be it a team sport or an outdoor activity such as hill walking, or even dancing or aerobic classes. Also, join an activity with a friend or family member, which make it all the more social and more likely that you will continue.
Sleep and relaxation
In a recent best selling book, Why We Sleep, neuroscientist Matthew Walker exploded the myth of the high-performing person who gets by on five hours of sleep or less and instead enumerated the many studies that show people who get about eight hours of restful sleep are the ones who perform best (as well as being more likely to be happier, slimmer, and even more able to ward off diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s). Taking time to a create good sleep routine is crucial to your well-being and positive mental health.
This is something I have always known as a psychotherapist working with families. Most of the stressed families I encountered who had children acting out had poor sleep routines which were late and often fractious. The first important step with these families was building relaxed, early bedtime routines, which in turn would reduce stress and conflict and make family life more harmonious.
Tips for going forward
1. In your journal, draw three circles representing health – your diet, physical activity and sleep and relaxation.
2. In each circle, write down any good habits you have in that area that you want to keep in your life.
3. Now consider any small changes you would like to make and any new habits you would like to start. Remember, pick the smallest and easiest ones first (for example, not taking sugar in your tea, using the stairs instead of the lift, going to bed 20 minutes earlier etc). What matters is getting started with small changes and building momentum from there.
John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, April 2018
This is the one of a six-part series of articles by John Sharry, originally published in The Irish Times newspaper in February – April 2018.
Links to all the articles in this series are:
Part 1: Purpose and Meaning
Part 2: Self-compassion and Self-acceptance
Part 3: Relationships and Belonging
Part 4: Strengths and Flow
Part 5: Health, Rest and Fitness
Part 6: Cultivating a Positive Mind