You hear it all the time: “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change!” or “Fitness is something you live!” It seems like every health guru out there with a diet and/or workout plan says something to that effect. Unfortunately, if you fully subscribe to their prescriptions and do so for life, you’re still only changing what you eat or how you work out.
While that’s most of the battle, it’s not enough. Diet and exercise are simply vital components of a lifestyle. If you make a permanent modification to your diet and exercise without addressing the other things that encompass a “lifestyle,” you’re selling yourself short.
Which is why I believe it is necessary to focus on the other stuff, too. I’m convinced that good health, longevity, happiness, and weight management come down to far more than just diet and exercise.
To start, you have to pay attention to the Three S’s: sleep, stress, and sunlight.
Sleep is not the cousin of death, and no, you shouldn’t hold off on sleeping until you’re dead. Sleep is restoration time. It’s when your body repairs itself. And, chances are, you’re not getting nearly enough of it.
Are you? How often do you get a “good night’s sleep?” Do you regularly wake up refreshed and ready to take on the day?
If you are like most people you are not getting good, regular sleep. You’re hitting the snooze button several times, fumbling for your coffee fix, and yawning at work. You’re staying up late with the TV going or you’re taking your laptop into bed.
It wasn’t always like this. For millions of years, up until about a hundred twenty years ago, humans all over the world enjoyed restorative, refreshing, regular sleep. When the sun went down, they either went to sleep or started getting ready for it. Life would wind down. Candles and fire were too costly to burn all night, every night, so nighttime meant bedtime.
Our genes evolved amongst bountiful sleep. Our genes aren’t used to artificial lights and television and Internet keeping us awake and disrupting our natural sleep patterns.
And so, when we get poor sleep or not enough of it, bad things happen:
- Our insulin sensitivity decreases even more than it already is, reducing our ability to tolerate carbs and burn fat, and making it harder to lose weight.
- We get an increased risk of depression.
- The normal secretion of hormones like testosterone (important for general health) and growth hormone (burns fat and promotes cellular restoration), which usually takes place while we sleep, is interrupted.
- It raises blood pressure and boosts the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.
On the flip side, when we get enough sleep, good things happen:
- Fat melts off. Carbohydrate tolerance increases.
- Exercise performance improves. Speed, strength, recovery and response times increase.
- Your immune system does its best work during sleep, improving your resistance to viruses and infections.
- Your brain works better. Memory and problem-solving abilities improve.
To name just a few.
As you see, sleep is anything but a waste of time. It’s actually essential. So get adequate amounts (around 8 hours for most people) of quality sleep.
What about the next “S” – what about stress?
Ah, stress. You might say that we’re built to handle a certain type of stress. After all, we’ve all experienced those heart-pounding moments where time slows down, the adrenaline surges, and you make your move. Twenty thousand years ago, it would have been a stare down with a mountain lion or a rival tribesman that caused the stress response. Or maybe a branch breaks while climbing a tall tree to gather some eggs or steal some honey. Either way, the stress response system was built to deal with infrequent, acute, highly stressful situations.
Nowadays? Stress comes in the form of the daily commute through rush hour traffic. Stress hits when you and your spouse fight about bills for the umpteenth time, or maybe during the tenth straight week of overtime at the office.
Stress in the modern world has become chronic, rather than acute. It’s ongoing, rather than infrequent.
But we’re still equipped with these Stone Age stress response systems that can’t distinguish between chronic and acute stress. To our adrenal system, being stuck in traffic is the same as a sabre-tooth tiger bearing down on you. They both elicit the same response: adrenaline surge, pounding heart, sweaty palms, heightened senses, hyper awareness of everything around you.
In a life-or-death situation that’s resolved in a minute or two, the stress response is helpful. It will literally save your life.
Prolonged over the course of a two-hour commute, however, the stress response will harm you.
Unfortunately, that type of stress can’t always be avoided, but it can be managed. Avoiding the obvious, easy sources of stress helps, as will consuming the foods outlined in previous lessons (i.e. meat, fish, fowl, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts/seeds), getting adequate sleep (see above), adhering to a smart workout routine (see Primal Blueprint Fitness), and engaging in some smart supplementation (see Primal Calm).
For some other info on stress management, check out my fifteen specific tips for avoiding, managing, and beating stress.
And now, perhaps the most controversial one of all: sunlight.
For years, we’ve been told to avoid the sun at all costs. To stay indoors or under shade. To draw the blinds and turn vampire between the hours of ten AM and four PM. To slather ourselves with the highest-grade sunblock money can buy if, perish the thought, we ever have to expose an inch of skin to those evil UV rays.
Now – does that make any sense, at all?
What did our ancestors do without sunscreen? What did they do without office buildings and curtains and jobs that kept them indoors all day and out of the sun?
It’s silly. We evolved outdoors. Sun exposure – regular sun exposure, even – was an important aspect of life. As such, we evolved to require a minimum dose of sunlight to ensure optimal health.
How’s that work?
Well, UVB rays (you know, the super-evil ones) from the sun interact with cholesterol in our skin to produce something called vitamin D. Vitamin D isn’t actually a vitamin; it acts more like a hormone in your body, affecting a whole host of organs, tissues, and functions.
What does vitamin D do, exactly?
- It’s essential for bone mineralization. Without vitamin D, your body won’t be able to do anything with the raw building blocks of bone, like calcium and magnesium.
- It improves insulin sensitivity and increases fat loss.
- It’s required for the production of testosterone.
- It prevents tooth decay.
- Our immune systems need vitamin D to function.
- It reduces systemic inflammation.
- It plays a role in protection against many (if not all) cancers.
And all you need is a little bit of sunlight.
So, folks, take off most your clothes and get your sun exposure. Go easy at first, since we haven’t been living outdoors and we probably aren’t ready for a full session, yet. Gradually increase your exposure by a few minutes at a time until you’re getting thirty minutes of full sun each day.
Oh, and sunblock prevents the creation of vitamin D, so go easy on it. If you’re going to use sunblock, apply it after you’ve already gotten your 20-30 minutes of sun exposure.
If you can’t find time to get sun, or you live in a place that gets very little, pop some vitamin D3. It’s almost as good as just getting it from the sun, and it’s a hundred times better than getting none at all.
Diet and exercise aren’t everything.
You can’t eat your way out of a sleep deficit. You can’t exercise your way out of a lack of sunlight. And if you try to eat and exercise your way out of too much stress, you’ll just add to the problem.
All that “other stuff” that most people consider optional actually isn’t optional at all; it’s vital, it’s invaluable, and it cannot be ignored or forgotten. Without getting your sleep, stress, and sun exposure in check, you will never be as healthy as you could be.
If you want a true lifestyle change, you have to look beyond diet and exercise.
Stay tuned for the final lesson tomorrow.
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