Making It Stick

A new year has begun and many of us reflect at this time on our current health, fitness, lifestyle, nutrition and wellness goals. Whether you tend to do this on a regular basis or are doing it for the first time, if you’re setting goals for the week, month, year or decade, you will likely forge ahead with enthusiasm.  Perhaps you’ll just set a few mental goals or perhaps you’re the kind of person who will make health to-do lists, write down your workout time in your calendar, spreadsheet meal plans and bookmark recipes, enroll in a gym or fitness class or hire a personal trainer.

Once you’ve decided on your goals and have organized yourself to set the ball in motion, you may find that you have a hard time actually starting the regimen, or you hit a plateau, are unable stay consistent with your plan or just find yourself faltering at some point.

Firstly, let’s think about why New Year’s has become a popular time for setting goals. A calendar year has ended, and another is beginning. At the start of any new cycle we tend to reflect and look at our past and current selves, and envision how we’d like this next cycle to go. Add to that all the pressure and reminders from media and hearing the talk from your friends and family about their new year’s resolutions and you may feel it’s unavoidable to think about. 

But fitness, wellness, and healthy lifestyle design aren’t holiday events. It’s an ongoing process, and as with any process it takes time, persistence, practice and a clever edit now and again. In other words, they key is consistency and the understanding that with time your routine will need to evolve as you evolve.

Here are a few considerations for keeping consistency with your new habits: 

Find your rhythm

Often the first misstep for those of us with ambitions of improvement is setting our expectations too high or too low. It’s great to want to make several changes to your lifestyle and some of us may have the time, focus and determination to make several changes at once. For others, the best way to create lasting change is not to take on everything at once but rather focus our energies on one major change at a time. When you set goals for yourself, be realistic about how much time and energy you have to make these changes.  If it’s a big change, such as altering your diet permanently, then perhaps it’s best to dedicate your focus to acquiring recipes, purging your cabinets of unhealthy foods, learning to cook with better ingredients, and planning meals throughout your week.  Maybe you want to simply increase your exercise routine from two times a week to four and you have room to also focus on getting to bed an hour earlier and switching out packaged snacks for fruits and vegetables with healthy dips. Remember that your lifestyle design needs to uniquely fit you, and any change is great—whether it’s large or small—so long as you can stick with it.

Ferret out what’s preventing your progress

Many of us find ourselves dreaming about positive change but find that time and time again we hit various walls along the way that keep bouncing us back to our previous unwanted habits. Take time to consider what these walls are, and how you can remove them. Are you staying up too late and are therefore day after day unable to get up to do your workout or make your healthy meals for the day? Can you instead set an alarm to go to bed and drop everything when it’s time to go to bed? Can you pre-cook your lunches and snacks on Sundays and Wednesdays so you don’t have to get up so early to make all your meals in the mornings? Can you schedule your run for right after work instead of 6am? Are you prioritizing scrolling through your phone over a home yoga practice? Could you instead plug the phone in to the charger and walk away from it as soon as you get home in the evening? There are often simple solutions to these barriers, but it does take self-awareness to discover what the barriers are and then a bit of discipline not to get stuck by them. Once you identify the wall, plan for a work around so it doesn’t keep preventing you from making progress.

Visualize your new habits

While planning, scheduling, spread sheeting, researching and enrolling in classes are all very important steps to take…the next step is the follow-through. If you’re good at the planning phase but you’re faltering on execution, take a few moments each evening before bed to actually close your eyes and see your next day going the way you’d like it to. It sounds hokey but it really works, and you’ll get excited about implementing your plan the next morning. Also visualize what your successes will look like in a week, a month, six months or a year. This will help you stay motivated to stay on track. You can even do this by making reminder lists to hang on your wall or creating a vision board with motivating images if you’re more visual.

Built in accountability

For some of us, if the only person we have to answer to is ourselves, that’s not enough to keep us focused. Some of us are so accustomed to disappointing ourselves that it becomes a habit and an expectation. Give yourself a measure of accountability by joining forces with a friend, partner or family member. Personal trainers and fitness, dance or yoga instructors will usually be happy to help keep you accountable if you ask them. Commit to cooking or working out, to going to the gym early in the morning or taking a bootcamp class on Wednesday evenings. Even better—get several people to commit with you on various things. You can have a running partner on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, you can sign up for a 6-week Pilates series that you have to pay in advance for, have a stress-reducing evening with your partner once a week, and then have a meal plan at home with your family.

Change it up

Some of us thrive on routine, but we still need a change once in a while to avoid plateauing and to maintain momentum with our gains. For others, monotony will kill any habit we’re trying to maintain—we need to have new exciting things to look forward to all the time! Regardless where your personality lies, our bodies and our brains actually thrive on change. It’s good for us. How much change you need depends on you, but be sure to change it up once in a while. If you’re a runner, try different routes and different terrains, and be sure to include intervals to keep increasing your time. I love having a smoothie every morning that incorporates fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds and healthy fats but my ingredients change every single day (and yes, some smoothies are winners and others are…well…learning experiences). If you are practicing meditation, try slowly increasing your time and try meditating in different environments. If your goal is increasing strength, try a variety of weight lifting and bodyweight-based exercises, use heavier weights one day for bulk and lighter weights with higher reps the next day to keep your stabilizers strong to prevent injury.  Be sure to change up your routine to include pushing, pulling, and static holds for all major muscle groups. Whatever your routine, keep it fresh and fun to keep your body challenged in new ways and your mind engaged!

Beware expiration dates

Some goals have an end built in. The marathon will eventually happen and then be over. The photo shoot or performance or competition or game will come and go. The weight loss goal will be reached. These are truly mountaintop experiences that are totally worth the effort and should surely be rewarded, but as mentioned before, health is an ongoing process. Many of us will be tempted to fall off the wagon once we complete an event or reach a goal and it’s difficult to get started again—the longer you wait, the more difficult it becomes. So be aware of when an “expiration date” is coming and set a new set of goals for afterward before you reach your current goal.

Keep moving forward

Every day is different. Some days you’ll exceed your own expectations and other days you’ll have three cheat meals instead of one. It’s okay to go with the flow and its better not to beat yourself up. So let go of the labels “good” and “bad” when it’s in the past…keep that inner voice positive and looking ahead instead of ruminating over your previous failures. [CHEEZE ALERT] What you think about you really do bring about. If your mind is focused on the negative, you won’t make moves toward the positive because your thoughts and energies are pointed elsewhere. Fix your gaze forward. Regardless what has happened today, tomorrow is a new day.  

The process doesn’t have to be a wrestling match. View it as exciting, fun, and rewarding…and totally worth the commitment.

Staying Motivated During The Holiday Season

The seasons are changing again. The leaves are turning, there’s a chill in the air (if you live in the Northern Hemisphere) and out come our boots, sweaters, coats, hats, gloves and scarves.  Everywhere, there are signs of holiday traditions, twinkling lights, visiting family and friends, celebrations, and merry making.  Somehow, our busy lives become busier.  Kids are out of school, many of us will find ourselves traveling or hosting guests, schedules get packed and jumbled and often we begin to feel as if we’re standing on our head (or lounging in an ottoman, exhausted, staring blankly at the TV).

The holiday season is full of opportunities to find excuses to put workouts on hold, get less sleep, have an extra helping of stuffing, binge on sweets, and neglect self-care. It’s not new. And try as we might, we’ll never run out of excuses…if you look for them, you will find them! It happens every year…and yet…most of us year after year fall prey to the pitfalls of neglecting our fitness, lifestyle goals, wellness and nutrition.  Day by day we hear ourselves say, “It’s ok, I’ll start again in January.”

When we stop our momentum, it’s hard to start back up again. The longer we let something go, the harder it becomes to go back to where we were. We remember how strong we were, and it seems more and more impossible to get that back. Maybe we start to over-think it, and then we become riddled with self-doubt or frustration. Add to this the winter doldrums and a compromised immune system (probably made worse by sleeping too little, not consuming a balanced diet, and neglecting physical activity), and we literally become sick and tired. The holiday season can also be an emotionally painful or financially stressful time of year depending on your personal situation, so be sure to keep this in mind and don’t be overly hard on yourself. Perhaps the best thing you can do right now is take care of you…then you can be the best you for your loved ones.

This year, challenge yourself to re-commit to your goals, while the festivities are still on! After all, goals aren’t seasonal. Even if you have taken a break, decide to prioritize your health and wellness before the New Year is upon you. During this challenging time of year, see it as an opportunity for you to fully integrate fitness, wellness, and nutrition without pause. Then, when January comes around you can charge forward, focusing on taking yourself to the next level. Won’t that feel better than doing the walk of shame into January, trying to re-build from the rubble?

Here are some tips to help you stay on the healthy lifestyle horse during this most festive time of year:

1)   Plan ahead.

Plan out your meals and pre-cook, have healthy snacks ready so you don’t arrive at dinners or parties overly hungry. Be sure to get your workouts in pre-and post-holiday, or before and after guests or travel. Schedule in workouts early in the morning so they don’t conflict with family time, meal-prep or self-care. If your favorite dance, yoga or fitness class is cancelled for the holidays, continue a personal practice at home during the same time to keep your routine going.

2)   Organize active family time.

Bundle up and go for a hike to enjoy the seasons changing outdoors, go ice skating, teach some yoga to your niece and nephew, take all the dogs and kids for a walk, invite mom and dad to your weekly Pilates class, challenge everyone in the house to 25 pushups per day in the morning. Be creative, share your enthusiasm…it just might be contagious.

3)   Start a new tradition of reviewing goals in November or December instead of putting it off till January. 

Re-evaluate now, look at where you can make improvements in your practice, kitchen, and schedule. Start to plan and implement strategies to keep your momentum up this holiday season and all seasons to come. Instead of looking for excuses, start creating habits that stay consistent every day of the year.

4)   Make healthy substitutions. 

Whether it’s making healthier holiday treats, sipping seasonal teas instead of booze, or substituting lounging in your onesie reindeer pajamas watching cartoons on the couch for an invigorating 5k morning run, you can start tweaking your traditions so that you don’t just survive the holidays but thrive during them.

5)   Rest.

All of the extra stress and activities during this season can wear a person down. Take time to wind down before bed, and be sure to log in 8-10 hours of Z’s. If it’s wintertime where you are, your body may be requesting the extra rest as we move into darker, colder days and longer nights.

6)   Schedule in EXTRA self-care time.

That’s right.  Extra.  I know many of us feel overly busy this time of year, but the sacrifice of carving out extra ME time will be absolutely worth it. If you need to, choose self-care over the surfing internet, scrolling through social media, watching TV or playing video games. Remember, it doesn’t need to be a ton of time to be effective. Try some of these minimal time commitment strategies:

·      Wake up to 10 minutes of meditation per day in the mornings

·      Take a 20-minute bath at night before bed

·      Get in 30 minutes of cardio exercise at least three times per week

·      Commit to 15 minutes of journaling daily, in the morning over coffee/tea, before bed or during work breaks

·      Treat yourself to a massage in the month of December

7)   Celebrate!

Be sure to enjoy yourself, so you don’t begin to cultivate feelings of deprivation. Take time off. Try not to over-work. Enjoy socializing with friends and family. Make wholesome meals with fresh, seasonal ingredients. Find something to volunteer for to lift your spirits while helping others. Splurge (it doesn’t have to cost money) on something you’ll look forward to during your holiday break—go see a show or a game, do something creative like painting or making music, book a getaway to a cabin in the woods, curl up with a favorite book or just plan something extra relaxing like a saltwater float or a spa day. 

Celebration doesn’t have to hurt your body, bank account or progress. Be creative, be willing to be just a little unconventional if necessary. Making small changes now creates momentum for greater change in the future. Re-set your expectations for this time of year so that it’s not a time of stepping backwards and sacrificing your momentum but rather a time to enjoy the holidays and celebrate the changing seasons without guilt or regret. Set yourself up so that you can fully enjoy the festive time, and then be ready to take on the New Year and all of its challenges as a happier, healthier, stronger, more motivated and more focused you.

Sleep Strategies

Many of us (I daresay nearly all of us) will, at some point, struggle with getting enough sleep.  Most people go through periods of life where adequate sleep is a very difficult thing, at least temporarily.

As a follow-up to my last blog, which discusses the importance of sleep, I want to explore some strategies that may help you achieve more as well as higher quality sleep.  

But first...some disclaimers:

All kinds of circumstances can affect your ability to sleep well, on a temporary or more permanent basis. This can be anything from: having a baby (or puppy, as I learned this past December), dealing with a difficult period in one’s life due to grief or trauma, having physical pain that wakes you in the night, going through final exams crunch, or having an erratic work schedule. It could be a result of age and hormonal changes, or due to medications you may need to take. There are, of course, sleep specific disorders, such as sleep apnea, which could require medical attention.  In these situations, gentle strategies like the ones suggested below may help a lot, a little, or not at all.  No one method will work for everyone. You may need to try several things before you find what works best for you.  Above all, it’s helpful to keep some perspective.  Nothing you do or don’t do is going to be the end of the world.

Another thing to consider: in this modern world of instant gratification, it’s useful to remember that some changes need time.  Some of these strategies I suggest simply can’t happen overnight (pun intended). Certain things, like developing a regular schedule or changing one’s living situation, need a lot of planning and will take time to implement.  Others you can start today.  

So begin what you can right now and then work toward longer-term changes.  If you keep your mind focused on quality sleep as a serious goal, you can slowly start to implement one thing at a time. When you begin to regularly reach your goal of getting a great night’s sleep, it can become habit.

With that, let’s look at some strategies to earn a more restful night’s sleep:

 

Cool, Dark & Quiet

Set up your regular sleeping space for success.  Noise, extreme temperatures and light are all factors that may cause you to lose sleep.  Because we can’t control when the sun comes up or how loud your housemates or neighbors are, the best thing one can do is to rely on oneself.  Here are some ideas:

  • TEMPERATURE: Be sure your bedding is appropriate for the season.  Light sheets when it’s warm (or none at all), layers of blankets or clothing when it’s cool.  Not all of us have oodles of money to spend on heating or cooling our home, so use open windows, fans, space heaters as needed and as you are able to afford.  There’s not a universal 'perfect' temperature but the generally accepted ideal temperature is about 65 degrees Fahrenheit (about 18 Celsius). This may be up for debate if there’s more than one person in the bed. Again, knowing you don’t have total control over this, take what measures you can to create a better environment as close to this as possible.  

  • LIGHT:  Most humans are going to find themselves somewhat influenced by the rhythms of nature, with a tendency to want to sleep when it’s dark and be awake in the light.  I have known people who don’t seem to mind sleeping in the daytime and are happily nocturnal. That works for them.  If that’s you, you can probably skip this part.  For the rest of us, we’re more likely to get the best shut-eye in the dark.  One major source of light, of course, is the sun.  If you’re down for a nap in the middle of the day, you like to go to bed before the sun goes down, or get up long after it comes up, try an eye mask.  These are great because you can take them anywhere.  Find one that fits you well and is soft enough to tolerate wearing overnight.  Not everyone loves wearing these every evening, so another option is blackout curtains, or some kind of light-blocking apparatus over the window(s.)  Again, it doesn’t have to cost a million dollars. You can even make one yourself if you’ve got some thick fabric and are handy with a sewing machine.  

The next suggestion is one that often gets shocked or even angry responses.  Again, find what works for you, but I know this has done wonders for many:  

Remove distracting electronics from the bedroom.  

Some people insist they just cannot get to sleep without the TV on, so different strokes for different folks…But if you’re open to it, this means getting the TV, computers, laptops, tablets, and even phones out of the bedroom.  Now, you will find approximately 3 million excuses as to why you think you need these things nearby but you, in fact, really may not need them.  Particularly when you’re sleeping.  “Oh, but I use my phone as my alarm.” Get an alarm clock from a thrift store, preferably one that doesn’t glow at all.  Make sure it has batteries to back it up in case the power goes out.  If you’re really concerned about not getting up without the alarm then set two alarms.  The last thing you want keeping you up is worrying about getting up.  In other words, anything that glows or has a tempting screen to keep you up, get it out.

SOUND: Again, we can’t make the rest of the world be silent upon our behest so we have to work within our own personal ability to create as much quiet as possible.  Firstly, if you own pets, consider not having your pet in the bedroom.  Many animals are nocturnal, and the sounds they make may wake you up—and potentially keep you up.  As well, animals in the bed may wake you up by moving around or creating excessive heat.  I know, I know…some of you will not be willing to give up sleeping with your doggies and kitties. That’s fine.  But if it’s an issue for your sleep, it’s an option.

Remove anything that produces annoying sound in your bedroom. I have a little aromatherapy diffuser that creates a gentle sound I don’t mind one bit.  Plus, I use it with lavender or eucalyptus oil because I enjoy those scents in my sleeping area.  A leaky faucet on the other hand, will irritate the crap outta me—probably because it reminds me there’s something that needs fixing.  So until it can be fixed, I shut the bathroom door.  Other things may bother you—maybe not when you’re going to bed but when you wake up in the middle of the night, like the sound of a ticking clock or the hum of some electronic device.  Get them out of the earshot of your sleeping space.

I went through a period of time (this usually happened when I was very stressed, and more about this later) where every noise was an issue.  I couldn’t just block them out of my mind; I couldn’t just wrap the covers over my head.  And I couldn’t get rid of all of the sounds I heard—like traffic in the street or someone moving around downstairs.  The one thing that really made a difference was wearing earplugs.  I had to experiment because some hurt my ears.  Also, be aware that there are certain kinds of earplugs that can actually damage hearing, so be sure you do research before trying them.  

Lastly, try making a polite request that anyone living with you keep the volume down during sleeping hours.  Hopefully those in your living space are considerate and won’t mind keeping the noise level down when you’re resting. Of course, be willing to return the favor as well.    

Keep a Regular Schedule

Many of you will just say that this is not an option.  If you have an erratic work schedule or are a student in an intensive program, if you’re pregnant or are the parent of a young one…well, there’s only so much you can do.  Napping is a great option for those of you can do it.  If you do need to take naps, be sure to schedule them in and stick to your schedule so you don’t miss them.

For those of you who do have some regularity in your school or work schedule, try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day.  This takes an enormous amount of discipline and self-control, because it’s just so very tempting to stay up and finish work, surf the net, read comments on your social media, finish a few chapters of your book, or get in just one more episode.  This is when you’ll have to ask yourself what your priority is, and what’s going to lead to a healthier, happier you.  If it’s another episode, so be it.  If it’s another hour of sleep, make it happen.  In other words, when it’s time to go to bed, GO TO BED.

Plan ahead.  Keeping a regular schedule for sleep also depends on how organized you are in other aspects of your life.  This takes planning and practice and again, discipline.  Whatever your needs are before bed, you’ll want to make sure they’re met in a timely fashion.  Chores, studies, work all need to be done and put away.  If you’re not realistic about the amount of work you can do in a day, you may need to re-visit this and develop a different perspective or you may never feel you have the time to sleep.  If you’re a social butterfly, end conversations well before bedtime.  You’ll want to leave yourself some down time before bed, and do things that relax you.  Everyone is different…you may need 20 minutes of down time or 2 hours.  Whatever your time frame is, know that it is important to give yourself quiet time in order to wind down to sleep.  You’ll have to take into account not just your work schedule, but also ask yourself if you’re scheduling in time to do the activities that you love and that make you happy.  If you don’t schedule those things in, they’ll likely start to take precedence over your sleep.  Balance is extremely hard but with focused determination and commitment, you can eventually find a better balance in your life so you can make room for work, leisure and rest.

Meal Timing

Eating too much or too little before bed can disturb sleep.  It’s difficult to sleep well on a gorged stomach.  I’ve also been forced to wake up by a grumbling stomach at 4am when I ate dinner too early or ate too little before bed.  Because I tend to eat small meals throughout the day, I like having a smoothie or something light an hour or two before bed.  Other people prefer to leave 3-4 hours after their meal before they sleep.  Again, it’ll take some experimenting but in general, try to eat a lighter dinner 2-4 hours before bed and see if this helps your sleep.  What you consume also may affect your sleep.  Alcohol, recreational drugs, caffeine, heavy foods and sugary desserts are probably not going to improve your sleep.  Some people like to have a drink before bed because it helps them fall asleep, and it may, at first.  But this article, which takes 27 different studies into account, reveals that alcohol actually negatively affects the quality of sleep by reducing REM sleep.   Also, it’s dehydrating.  Even if I only have a glass or two I often wake up parched in the wee hours of the morning.  So in summary, choose light, easily digestible foods for dinner and avoid alcohol if you want to sleep well.  Some people swear they’re not affected by caffeine and can drink coffee at 10pm and fall right to sleep, others can’t have any caffeine after 1pm.  If you’re not sure, again, experiment.  Perhaps try going without caffeine altogether if you’re really struggling with sleep.

Exercise

Uh oh.  That dreaded word.  Yes, exercise has been proven to improve sleep even for insomniacs.  If you haven’t tried it yet…well it’s extremely unlikely that you’re reading my blog.  Anyhow, if you haven’t, give it a whirl.  In fact, it doesn’t take a ton of exercise to make a difference!  According to sleep.org, even 10 minutes of aerobic exercise can improve sleep: ”As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can dramatically improve the quality of your nighttime sleep, especially when done on a regular basis. What’s more, exercisers may reduce their risk for developing troublesome sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.”

Timing of exercise can also be an issue.  For some people, strenuous exercise in the late evening can make it hard to get to sleep.  Ideally, try to schedule your strenuous exercise in the morning or early afternoon and if you do anything in the evening try to make sure it’s gentle enough not to amp you up for hours.

Avoiding Distraction

This is probably the most difficult and the most important thing to manage on a day-to-day basis.  There are going to be so many things that want to steal sleep from you.  I’ve mentioned some already, but you’ll get to know which are the most tempting for you.  Being on the phone, chatting with roommates/spouses, binge watching TV series, finishing out that next level of your video game, reading an awesome novel, getting that last bit of work done, checking out your Instagram, cramming for a final exam.  The list goes on and on.  Ultimately, you’ll have to simply put everything away an hour or two before bed.  Again, it will vary from person to person how much time you need in order to “wind down,” so for a little while start with too much time and then whittle it down until you find the right schedule.  

Calm the Storm

Most of us humans aren’t built with an on/off switch.  Bummer.  If you lead a busy life, it’s going to be even more difficult to quiet your mind enough so those busy thoughts and worries don’t keep you up all night.  Fortunately, there’s a wealth of information out there on managing stress, and a ton of different methods you can try.  

If you are busy—and most of us are—it’ll help to plan out the next day.  Check your schedule, write a to-do list, prepare meals, pack your bag and choose your outfit.  Get everything together so you’re not worried about forgetting anything the next morning.  Then all you need to do is grab and go.  If you get up in time, you’ll have a peaceful morning to look forward to.  

To improve your sleep, see if you can carve out at least 30-60 minutes of quiet, calming activities before bed.  Try taking a bath, do some gentle stretching, journal, read some boring non-fiction (learn something and get sleepy!), use breath or gratitude exercises, meditate.  In general, unplug!  My ideal evening includes about 30 minutes of reading followed by about 20 minutes of meditation.  

Ride the Wave

And sometimes, no matter how well you plan, how organized you are, how well disciplined you are, you’ll find yourself wide-awake at 3am.  Perhaps you’ll be able to get yourself back to sleep—some people choose to practice yoga or meditation, I’ve used a phrase that I just repeat to myself that tends to get me back to sleep.  Sometimes, you’re just going to be awake.  If that’s the case, just go with it!  No big deal.  I’ve done some of my best creative work in the wee hours when I woke up for no reason.  Yeah I’ll be a bit groggy in the afternoon and if I can take a nap, then great!  Otherwise, I’ll probably fall asleep more quickly the next night.  The point is, you just earned a few hours to do something delightful.  Read, sew, meditate, write, take a walk, cook a fancy breakfast, take a swim, go for a jog, or just watch the sun go up.  The point is, don’t beat yourself up about it.  Don’t imagine how horribly your day is going to go because you got too little sleep.  Worrying about it isn’t going to get those hours back.

Remember that perfect sleep isn’t going to come every night, but you can do a great deal to get your regular sleep to improve.  Also, there are some events that are just worth losing some sleep over!  On the regular, though, to increase the hours and quality of our sleep try a few of these things—maybe just one at a time—and don’t overwhelm yourself.  Know that some habits will be difficult to break, but if you believe better sleep is truly a priority, it’s worth the effort.  Whatever happens, try not to be overly critical of yourself.  Tomorrow is another day.

 

References:

https://sleepfoundation.org/bedroom/touch.php

http://time.com/3602415/sleep-problems-room-temperature/

http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/20130118/alcohol-sleep#1

https://sleep.org/articles/exercise-affects-sleep/

The Significance of Sleep

The research is out.

Sleep is an incredibly important part of our daily lives, and affects our mental stability, mood, memory, athletic ability and recovery, motivation, coordination and so much more.

If you are habitually cutting your sleep short, you’ll suffer a myriad of problems.  If you are one that likes to try to pull “all-nighters” you’re ultimately damaging not only the work you’re trying to get done, but your physical and mental being as well.

Throughout this blog I’m including several links where you can continue some research on the benefits of sleep, and what happens when you don’t sleep enough.  A ton of research has been done on the subject, and you can continue to read about it until the cows come home.

For now, here are some useful cliff notes:

Sleep improves your mental functioning.

After a good night’s sleep, you’ll be more focused, more alert, more able to take in information.  This is extremely important for students or those who have very cerebral jobs (ahem…medical industry…) Conversely, it’s just terrible for your brain not to sleep well…especially if this is a chronic problem.  When you sleep your brain has the time to “goof off” and to clean itself, literally.  So when you get just one bad night or several, it’s like you’re walking around with a dirty brain.  Cobwebs are rather dysfunctional in there.

Sleep makes you happier.

Have you ever just tried to survive off of 5 or 6 hours, maybe several days in a row, and suddenly realize you’re more irritable, more depressed, less motivated?  According to the research even a single night of restricted sleep may cause “impairment” in emotional well-being.  Poor sleep has been linked to depression and anxiety—the issue here is also, which comes first, the chicken or the egg?  I’ll talk more about dealing with poor sleep in the next blog, and will offer some strategies to improve your sleep.

It’s an elixir for creativity.

Wise artists know…they will be more creative and more productive in their creative endeavors when they build a disciplined sleep routine.  You’ve heard the old saying, when you’re trying to make a difficult decision, you should “sleep on it.”  It’s really true, though! According to this article, “Denise Cai from the University of California in San Diego found that our brains are better at integrating disparate pieces of information after a short bout of REM…Cai thinks that REM sleep catalyses the creative process by allowing the brain to form connections between unrelated ideas.”  Whether you’re looking for a creative solution, or you’re trying to write a book, choreograph a dance, or develop a new App, sleep will accelerate the process.

Your body repairs itself when you sleep.

Bodybuilders and triathletes know that their bodies need to recover.  In fact, more and more, coaches and athletes are recognizing that recovery is just as important as training.  And good sleep is critical to recovery.  According to bodybuilder.com  “The best training routine, diet and supplement program will not compensate for insufficient rest, and sleep is the best, and only (in some instances), way of getting this rest.” When we sleep, our muscles repair themselves, and aging cells are replaced with new.  So if you sleep well after a workout or training session, you’ll continue to benefit from it!  If you don’t, it’s almost like you’ve taken one step forward and two steps back.  Athletes who don’t sleep are more likely to be injured, as well.  This article details a study where sleep was found to be the single most effective way to avoid injury in runners.  What a simple way to stay at the top of your game…and IN the game, out of the doctor’s office.

Sleep deprivation negatively effects your metabolism.

Sleep is intricately connected to various hormonal and metabolic processes in the body and is important in maintaining metabolic homeostasis.”  One of my athletic heros, Scooby, has an excellent article about sleep, muscle mass and body fat.  In summary, if you are trying to build muscle, you need to get your z’s.  Sleep deprivation will actually triggers the body to be hungrier and to burn muscle instead of fat.  According to this article, sleep loss increases the stress hormone cortisol which causes you to retain more body fat—particularly around the middle of the body.  Not awesome. 

Sleep & stress.

While it may be true that it’s harder to sleep while stressed (keep your eyes out for an upcoming blog about how to sleep better even when stressed), your body’s stress response is FURTHER triggered when you miss sleep.  This can become a viscious cycle.  So again, if you know you’re under a lot of pressure, you’ll need to budget in more relaxation time AND more sleep.  This usually means de-prioritizing certain non-sleep and pro-stress related activities, and instead prioritizing down-time and recovery, and budgeting a few more hours for under the covers.

In summary,

if you are cheating yourself of restful hours, you’re going to start suffering on multiple levels.  So why not indulge in the beauty of sleep?  You will NOT get further any faster or any better by depriving yourself of sleep.

How much is enough? 

This will depend on every individual and their situation.  One cycle of REM sleep is generally agreed to be about 90 minutes.  So, I personally divide my sleep into 90-minute intervals.  As an active female in my 30’s who is physically active anywhere from two to six hours a day, I find that I prefer NO LESS than 7.5 hours, but prefer 9 hours most days, and when I’m sick or particularly sore, I’ll sleep 10.5 or more!  Generally, men will need less than women, and younger people will need more than adults or the elderly.  It will depend on how physically and mentally active you are.  If you’re going through a particularly stressful or challenging period of your life (students, competitive athletes), you will likely benefit from budgeting a few extra hours in there.

 

“Finish each day before you begin the next, and interpose a solid wall of sleep between the two. This you cannot do without temperance.”  -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

 

THE LINKS:

https://www.sleepio.com/articles/insomnia/irritability-anxiety-and-flattened-mood/

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/between-you-and-me/201308/all-night-the-effects-sleep-loss-mood

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20131205-how-sleep-makes-you-more-creative

http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2009/06/10/sleeping-on-it-how-rem-sleep-boosts-creative-problem-solving/

http://www.runnersworld.com/sweat-science/sleep-hours-and-injury-rates

http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/drobson5.htm

http://scoobysworkshop.com/sleep-fat-muscle-and-bodybuilding/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2929498/

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9415946

Resolution Solutions: 6 steps to stay on Track!

Setting goals can be a daunting task for some.  For others, it’s easily done and just as easily forgotten.  In this blog, I’m attempting to outline a few structures with tips on how to stay motivated and focused on your goals.  The intention for this blog is to give you guidance on how to reach your goals as efficiently as possible while also encouraging you to build a happier, more balanced and less stressed self, overall.

Reaching goals is a process which includes assessing our current situation, brain-storming about where we want to go or what we want to achieve, and then setting progressive goals, scheduling in our plan of action, building in a reward system, and then regularly checking-in on how well our plan working.  

Below is a 6-step process that you can follow and edit to suit your personal needs:

STEP 1: ASSESS.  Know where your starting point is.

This is probably the most important part!  I have an entire blog about how to assess your current situation that you can read here Once you know where you are, you can then think about where you’d like to go, and then, how to go about finding the path to take you there.

STEP 2: THINK BIG!  Plan where you ultimately want to go.

In the words of Steven Covey, “Begin with the end in mind.”   (From The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)  Some individuals may have their dreams already well defined in their minds.  For those of you who do NOT, think about what you enjoy doing the most now or what you're good at and enjoy doing, how you can implement that more into your life or how you can make it lucrative, and where you can go with your passions.  It’s okay not to have super specific career or skill goals—you can have ultimate goals for any facet of your life.  Perhaps one day you’d like to own a home and have a vacation home, perhaps you’d like to retire at a specific age, perhaps you would like to have children on a certain timeline, or be in particularly good health at a certain age. 

I recommend thinking about your career, relationships, health, and home long-term.  Envision the person you’d like to be at the age of 60 and 80 years.  What does that person look like, what do they do on a day-to-day basis? 

STEP 3:  WRITE IT DOWN.  Make progressive goals.

So you know where you are, and you have an idea of where you want to go.  Now it’s time to think about how to get from point A to point Z.  In order not to get overwhelmed, and to keep yourself focused, think about things in chunks of time: weekly, 1-6 months, 1-5 years, and long-term.

Daily and weekly goals: this details how you’re going to structure your life on a daily basis.  It makes you consider how much you can fit into a day or a week and how your day is going to serve your overall purpose.  These goals may include training, practice regimen, private lessons or personal training appointments, classes or continuing education, sleep schedule, and nutrition/meals.  Daily rituals are where long-term good habits can be established. 

1-6 month goals:  This next level of goal setting is a great place to implement the S.M.A.R.T goal setting technique, something I learned about through my contortion coach, Jacki Ward.  You may have heard of this technique before, often used in corporate settings to help management and employees reach company goals.  It’s also a great training tool for those of us who have career, fitness or other skill-related goals.  There are a few variations on this method (as described here on Wikipedia), but here’s the version I use:

  1. SPECIFIC: Make your goals very, very clear!  The more specific you are, the better. 
  2. MEASURABLE: Be sure you can measure your ability by something, so you know when you have achieved your goal.  For example, you may want to “eat healthier”, but this isn’t measurable.  Maybe you want to keep your caloric intake to a specific number (this means you’ll have to track your calories), or perhaps you want to have at least half of your plate consist of veggies, or one meal a day be a salad.  Maybe you want to “drink less coffee,” then you’ll want to set a goal on how many cups per day or week to stick to.
  3. ACTION-ORIENTED:  Your goals should be achievable through your actions.  If your goal is “I want to be 7 feet tall”—realistically, there’s not a whole lot to do about that if you’re, say, 5 feet 2 inches.  In other words, if there is something you want to become, make sure there is something you can do to get there. 
  4. REALISTIC/RELEVANT: A very important piece, especially at the 1-6 month level.  Feel free to dream big for ultimate goals, but set yourself up for success when you’re looking at what you can realistically achieve in 1-6 months.  Be sure these goals are relevant, as well, to your ultimate dream goals.
  5. TIME-BOUND: Have a deadline, most of us need to have a little fire warming our buns to feel that urgency to stay on track.  Do you want to complete this goal in one week, 6 months, 5 years?

Example: In Jacki’s class December 9th 2015, I wrote that I wanted to be able to do a 10-second handstand, at least once in a day (in other words I may not be able to repeat it over and over, to keep it realistic) by January 31st, 2016.  Specific (handstand, balancing at least once a day), Measurable (for 10-seconds), Action-Oriented (I practice handstands daily, and have lessons weekly), Realistic/Relevant (I was already starting to balance inconsistently and had already been training to do them for over a year and they work into some of my dance/choreography goals), Time-Bound (by January 31st, 2016.)

1-5 year goals: Your 1-6 month goals should be working logically toward where you’d like to see yourself in 1-5 years.  Perhaps you’ll want to own a home, or have a new home, in this amount of time, perhaps you would like to be promoted or grow your business to a specific degree by this time, maybe you’re in school and plan to finish a degree or two in this amount of time.  If you’re a runner and are doing 5-10k races now, maybe you’ll be working on marathons or triathlons in this amount of time.  

Ultimate goals: These have already, really, been defined in Step 2 above.  Where do you see yourself at the end of your life?  What goals do you have personally or for your family long-term?  What are your ultimate health, fitness and career goals?

STEP 4: SCHEDULE IT IN.  Keep a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly calendar.

Get out a calendar (I love using Google Calendar, though I write goals in a personal journal) and find space for everything you want to do.  Give yourself deadlines, and look ahead to your monthly and yearly goals.  Be sure to check your calendar regularly and continue to let it evolve on the daily and weekly basis until you find a good rhythm for your progress.  Often we try to take on too much too quickly, so we set ourselves up for failure.  Take a moment to schedule all of this stuff out: sleep, working hours (include commute time), family time, recreation/down time, exercise time and your personal practice/classes/self-improvement time.  If you end up with a calendar where EVERY HOUR is spoken for, you’re scheduling too much in, and you need to re-visit the Realistic aspect of your goals.  If you have giant gaps in your calendar, then likely you can afford to dedicate more time to your goals, and less time to, say, video games, Social Media, or TV.  We all get 24 hours in the day. 

AGAIN, BE SURE TO CHECK YOUR CALENDAR!  Every evening around 8 or 9pm, I check my calendar to see what I’m doing the next day.  I set my clothing out for my morning workout, and a change of clothes for later in the day.  I remind myself when I should be going to bed.  I also look at and plan meals for the next day.  I make sure my lessons are planned for teaching, and so on.  This also ensures that I feel I have all of my “ducks in a row” so I don’t lose sleep over anything I’m afraid I’ve missed.  At the end of a week, usually on Sunday, I check the next week and make sure I know when I’m working, exercising, practicing, taking lessons, and so on—so that I continually update my calendar to organize all of the things that need to happen to keep myself on track.

STEP 5: SET UP A REWARD SYSTEM.  Work hard, play hard!

 Occasionally you want to recognize your progress and celebrate.  Plan to buy yourself something awesome, take a vacation, or practice self-care in a way that will make you feel rewarded when you achieve a big goal.  It’s okay to schedule these things in ahead of time too!  I usually have a delicious meal planned weekly, I love making time for a long bath once a week or so, I’ll treat myself to a new outfit now and again, and my partner and I plan camping and hiking trips a few times a year.  One of my big rewards was my motorcycle.  Whatever you do, be sure you take time to recognize your hard work now and again!

STEP 6: RE-ASSESS REGULARLY.  Is it working?

Be sure to re-visit your goals regularly.  I re-visit ultimate and 1-5 year goals about twice a year, and I re-visit my daily, weekly and monthly goals often—I think about them on a near daily-basis because what I am doing daily is very much related to where I’d like to see myself in a year or two.  If the plan of action you have set into motion is NOT working, think about editing your daily and weekly goals, and your schedule accordingly.  Remember that if you have to edit it does NOT mean you are failing, you’re just working on becoming MORE efficient.

In summary: 

  • Identifying where you are right now is key for setting realistic short-term goals.
  • Knowing where you’d like to go will keep you motivated on the day-to-day tasks.
  • Making progressive S.M.A.R.T. goals is a way to avoid being overwhelmed, and will help you be consistent and efficient!
  • Be sure you can fit this all into a schedule that works for you on a daily, weekly, monthly and yearly basis.
  • Reward yourself, take time off, and practice self-care.
  • Make sure to re-visit goals regularly and make any necessary edits to your schedule as you meet goals and as your life evolves.

 

Goal-Setting Foreplay: The Self-Assessment

In the spirit of the upcoming New Year, now is a great time to pause and take a moment to observe.  The weather is changing, the holidays are upon us, and before we know it we’ll be writing the wrong date on our checks.  (Does anyone write checks anymore?) 

Many of us are just a few weeks away from getting caught up in the Resolution Machine as I’ve come to affectionately call it.  This is a time when many of us feel inspired—or pressured—to make some significant changes in our lives, as we become acutely aware of the passage of time and of opportunities that may be passing us by or goals we may have let get covered in cobwebs. 

Others may start to ask you: “What’s your resolution this year???” and like a deer in headlights, you’ll start churning out sentences which may or may not actually mean anything to you, without any idea of how to get there or even why you think you need to make those changes.

That said, of course the New Year is a great time to assess, re-assess, look ahead, and plan for greatness.  Then again, any other time is good for all that, too.  But I digress.

Often we will look at a current situation and realize we are not where we’d like to be, or even more importantly, we are not on the path to getting what we really want.  This may include current employment, education level, financial situation, relationships, physical fitness, health, creativity, productivity, and all other aspects of our lives.

But hold your horses there, cowboy…before you jump into your journal and start scribbling away at numbered lines that detail all mega and minor dreams that are sure to fix all of your current problems and wipe away all potential threatening anxieties for the future, take a moment to look at where you are, who you are, how you are, and where you’ve come from.

It’s incredibly valuable to get acquainted with your current situation in order to figure out how to get to where you want to go.  It’s like looking at a map: if you can’t find the “YOU ARE HERE” spot on the map, the map does you no good. 

Here’s a list of things to consider before writing your beautiful list of short- and long-term goals.  This is just a starter list, I encourage you to get some ideas here but make a list that truly suits your lifestyle.  I like to rate each 1 (worst) to 5 (best): 

PERSONAL LIFE

1.     Overall happiness

2.     How satisfied are you with your current living situation?

3.     Mental health and ability to manage stress

4.     Intimate relationships/partnership

5.     Family life

6.     Friendships

PHYSICAL LIFE

1.     How well are you sleeping?

2.     Nutrition

3.     Hydration

4.     Physical activity

5.     How well are you making progress on any previous physical goals?

DAILY LIFE

1.     How happy are you with your current job?

2.     How stable is your financial situation?

3.     Are you satisfied with your current level of education/continuing education?

4.     How well are you making progress on creative projects? 

5.     How efficient are you at managing time?

6.     How inspired/focused/motivated are you on a day-to-day basis?

Be as detailed as possible with this.  If you have a spiritual practice, include that in the personal life category.  If you are a marathon runner, include your progress in the physical category.  If you have a few things that you juggle in your creative life like playing an instrument and painting, include both and rate them separately.  In other words, leave no stone un-turned.  Gather as much information about yourself as possible, so you can make the best plan of action for where you are right now.  Making plans for another version of you that doesn’t exist will do you no good and you’ll end up feeling like a hamster on a spinning wheel.  Cute, but frustrating…

Things won’t be perfect, of course.  Life is not perfect.  And just because things aren’t perfect is not an excuse NOT TO START making progress toward your goals.  But this helps you get an idea of what’s going on and to factor all of that in when you’re making your list of goals and plan of action.  Perhaps there is room on your goals list to make improvement in some of these other areas of your life.  It’ll help you be realistic about your expectations, and it may clue you in to some things that you were unaware were keeping you from making more progress in the past (or present.)  If you’re preoccupied by the fact that you can’t pay your rent, you’ll be stressed, this will negatively affect your mood and your motivation.  If you’re not sleeping enough, nourishing your body, or are stuck in a toxic relationship, well…you get the idea.

Regardless of what your long-term goals are, it’s important to recognize that the most efficient way of going about getting what we want is to be a balanced human being in the first place.  If your mental, physical, financial or social/romantic health is in dire need of attention and improvement, it’s unlikely you’ll be successful at beginning a new degree program, turning up to dance class or starting a new nutritional regimen.  And if you do, you’ll unlikely get as much out of those things as you could, or realize your true potential, because you’re not fully engaged—distracted by other pressing life issues.

Another tip: if you’re having a particularly bad day or are going through a very rough patch in life, it may be more helpful to go and do something that nourishes you instead of this.  Make a note of what’s going on, how you’re feeling, and later re-visit this and see if you can figure out how you got into that negative place. 

Rather, assess yourself when you’re feeling balanced, well rested and calm.  We are all hard on ourselves and it’ll do you no good to get down on yourself when you’re already feeling crappy.  Plan ahead.  Make a date with your journal or sketchpad and schedule this in your calendar, say for a Saturday morning with a cup of your favorite tea or coffee in a spot in a park or your garden.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t sleep 2 hours a night and be in debt and use heroine and NOT become an amazing actress or athlete, but it’ll be harder for sure.  Plus, you’ll be miserable the whole time.  You’ll chase those goals to become the best or obsessively work on your art as an escape (I’m not saying art or exercise aren’t great escapes—but perhaps only healthy to a point…) and mistakenly think that once you get to the Mountain Top you will find satisfaction and peace.  And you might get to the mountain top, or you might not, but either way in the end there will be no peace, happiness or satisfaction awaiting you.  You’ll work your ass off, often making terrible mistakes and unnecessary sacrifices along the way, and then you’ll get there and be just as unhappy as before.  What a waste of valuable dedication! 

Think of it like going around with a wound.  You can ignore it, and you may manage to do amazing things, but that wound will still be painful—and if left unattended long enough, it may start to ooze, fester and make you less and less able to continue doing those amazing things.

When you make your goals, make them from a place of authenticity.  Understand where exactly you are, how you got there, and where you'd like to go next, and then ultimately where you'd like to end up.  Don’t make your goals for someone else.  Don’t make your goals based on others’ expectations of you.  Don’t make your goals for another version of yourself that you wished were real.  Make that version of you real—all aspects of that person you want to be.

That’s it for the do’s and don’t’s.  Enjoy the foreplay, and take your time.  Next thing you know it’ll be time to move on to the big event…now go dream big.

The hardest part is getting started.

I once heard my yoga instructor say "the toughest pose is rolling out your mat."

How true it is. We have the best intentions. We plan, we promise ourselves, make deals with ourselves, buy the class package, enroll at the gym, fill the house with exercise equipment and stock the closet with workout clothing, but sometimes we just don't get around to STARTING. We get distracted, we lose our motivation, we tell ourselves we'll make up for it tomorrow.

This rings true not just for fitness but for many other things, such as practicing our instrument or sitting down to do our journaling or meditation. In his book Catching the Big Fish, David Lynch talks about creating a "set-up." A set-up is a space designed specifically for your needs (workout or otherwise), which is always available when the time comes to do your work. You don't even need to roll out the mat, it's just there. The idea is to give yourself a space to work in (or workout in) so you have as few obstacles as possible, and so it's as easy to start--and stick with--as possible. 

Think about how you can create a setup for yourself. This may involve converting a part of your home, checking out the local yoga or dance studio, or researching places for your running, biking or hikes.  

Now that the location is decided, you'll need to create space in your schedule as well. This will take some strategy, and may involve some experimentation, but don't get overwhelmed. Start with the most likely time you'll workout. Are you a morning person or does it feel better for you to sweat it out after a long day at the desk? Where can you place your workout so that other events are unlikely to conflict? What time-wasting activities can you eliminate in your day? I promise you, there's something you can remove to make time for yourself. Once you've established days and times, do everything you can to make it easy to stick with your routine. If at all possible, try to keep your workout or practice on a regular schedule. This may feel difficult at first, but once it's established, you will find it's just doesn't feel right to miss it.

Once you have the time scheduled, force yourself to go and do your work. My voice teacher use to tell me, "When the time comes to practice, stop EVERYTHING you're doing--even if you haven't finished your last task--and start practicing." If you are washing dishes, put them down. If you are on Facebook, Twitter, or the phone, wrap it up and move on to your next task. It's not an easy discipline, but it's simple. Consider this: it's often more about prioritization than motivation. If taking care of yourself is a priority (and it should be...because if you're not healthy, how can you be the best you at work or home and how can you be the best you for your loved ones?) then the dishes and Facebook can wait. It'll take sacrificing some time, maybe some other activities and maybe even space in your home, but if you make your own well-being a priority those sacrifices are worth it.

It's amazing to see what happens when you start. You may feel at first like it's forced or uncomfortable (you might even be grumpy about it), but soon enough you're rolling with it, and you may find you're enjoying the work in spite of all the difficulty you may have experienced getting started. Then there's the high of the workout, and the satisfying sense of accomplishment. This becomes positive reinforcement. Not only will you become so used to the routine that it doesn't feel right to miss it, you'll realize you don't feel as good if you miss it either. And who wants to feel bad?

You can do additional things to help yourself stay committed. Set goals and reassess them regularly. Find a workout partner who will hold you accountable. Keep track of your progress through a journal. Set up a reward system for staying committed, or after you achieve certain goals. Share your intentions with your loved ones, so they can help you stay focused and perhaps even cheer you on.  

Getting started is a matter of a little pre-planning and good dose of self-discipline, but it'll get easier and better as you go on. So go ahead, get started. There's no time like the present.