My Top 5 Non-Negotiable Health Practices
(Supported by Science)

Following a healthy lifestyle often seems incredibly complicated.

There is no shortage of information available online all offering tips for living a healthy lifestyle, and yet advertisements and experts all around seem to give conflicting advice.

 

A recent study suggests healthy habits may help people add years of life and sidestep serious illnesses

 

Though many of us live stressful, demanding lives, with just a little tweaking here and there, we can develop habits that will help us live healthier and more productive lives.

Author: Nicky Forster

As a former professional sportsman for over 18 years, I had to understand my body both mentally and physically in order to perform in one of the most competitive environments in the world of sport.

There are lots of ways to be healthy, most of which we are familiar with and understand, and indeed I try where possible to live a balanced life of work, rest and play regarding my nutrition, hydration, and alcohol intake.

There are, however, daily protocols that I consistently apply to my life to maintain optimum health and feel at my best.

 

So, here are my Top 5 Non-Negotiable Health Practices, supported by science.

 

Early Morning Exposure to Daylight/Sunlight

Starting the day with a walk outdoor and exposure to daylight/sunlight creates a visual flow across the retina which in turn triggers the release of cortisol (non-damaging level), cortisol is described as the stress hormone of which high levels over a long period of time is not a good thing but a small increase in cortisol levels each morning boosts metabolism and is the body’s own mechanism to increase activity at the start of the day. So, a morning mini shot of cortisol production is good for taking the body from a state of sleep or rest to prepare it for the action of the day ahead.

So we’re talking about a 5 to 10 minute walk outdoors each day with exposure to daylight, and hopefully sunlight. This increases that visual flow across the retina and stimulates your metabolism to fire up, improving alertness, focus and concentration for the first part of the day. I always start my day with a 5-10 minute walk outside prior to my cold shower.

Note: Artificial lights, there are many on the market that wake you up by lightening the room in small increments from dark through to daylight. They are good for arousing you but they do not increase production of cortisol and do not stimulate the system in the same way that natural light does. Research suggests that they have little or no impact in stimulating cortisol production to boost your metabolism to start the day

 

Cold Water Immersion

Although many people’s nightmare, exposure to cold water via ice baths or cold showers has significant psychological and physical benefits proven by science. Research shows that the benefits of cold-water therapy include improved circulation, increased immune system, improved metabolic function, increased energy levels, improved sleep, and mood. Daily commitment to this practice is an effective way to overcome barriers and improve resilience, by subjecting ourselves to micro stressors (barriers or walls) and overcoming these stressors, we prepare ourselves for unforeseen stresses in our daily lives, allowing us to cope with them better when they arise.

A good starting point is to build up time with cold showers, it’s absolutely fine to start off with a warm shower, finishing with a 30 second cold shower, increasing that each day or week up to a shower lasting two or three minutes. I have bought into this practice to the extent that I have installed a cold water outside shower and take a three minute shower every morning after my early morning walk.

Visualisation of the ice bath or shower is a proven way to prepare mentally for the action, helping you to overcome the stress when it arises.

Make sure you focus on the negative aspects of the action i.e. that it will be cold, don’t tell yourself that it won’t be cold because the reality is that it will be.

Normalise it into your everyday practice and it will soon become a habit, the commitment especially on days where you have decreased motivation (increased limbic friction) will help you to improve resilience.

Give it a go and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

 

 

Exercise

This is the most important life habit that we should focus on after sleep.

You may have seen the following quote,

Food is the most abused anxiety drug, and exercise is the most underutilised antidepressant”

As a former professional sportsman for nearly 20 years, I’ve become institutionalised in the need to exercise and if anything has helped me to keep increased anxiety, stress, and depression under control then exercise is most definitely it.

 

The health benefits of regular exercise and physical activity are hard to ignore, this includes cardiovascular, strength training and flexibility exercises.

 

While lifting weights and exercising can help you look better, improving your appearance is just the tip of the iceberg. For me, exercise makes me feel better about myself than any other of my daily routines. It is well known that we produce endorphins when we exercise which block pain and increase sensations of pleasure, leading to that calm euphoric feeling you get after a hard workout.

 

The neurotransmitters, like dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline, that we release while exercising are responsible for processes in our bodies, such as regulating heart rate, sleep cycles, mood, attention, motivation, memory, learning and pain processing.

 

Exercise also promotes neuroplasticity and increases oxygen supply to the brain.

 

Getting at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, or Zone 2 cardiovascular activity, and strength training all major muscle groups at least 2/3 times a week will provide huge health benefits. But even small amounts of physical activity are helpful, so little amounts will always be better than nothing at all.

 

Non Sleep Deep Rest – NSDR

NSTR or Non-Sleep Deep Rest is a really important way of maintaining focus and has been proven to improve neuro plasticity, the forming of new neural circuits connecting different areas of the brain and helping to create new habits.

 

There are lots of these NSDR protocols like the Wim Hof breathing method, Yoga Nidra, meditation, box breathing and hypnosis, which are all proven to improve brain health & function.

A deliberate shift in mental state, accompanied by focussed relaxation of a physical state has proven benefits to reduce anxiety, stress and depression, increase physical performance, increase mental performance, improve sleep and mood. These protocols have an added benefit that you can target specific outcomes or goals, especially using hypnosis. These can be linked to improvements like dealing with depression, obesity and for quitting smoking.

Research has also shown that these can help with self-awareness by focusing our attention on our interoception, which is everything that is happening within our body.

Spending at least 10 minutes, once a day, is a great place to start, but like everything, the more you do it the easier it becomes. I spend 15 to 20 minutes on this every day as part of my daylight exposure/breathwork/cold shower immersion (Wim Hof) morning routine.

Ideally, it would be best if we practiced NSDR twice a day, incorporating these as part of your morning and evening routine, by book-ending your day, you have a focused routine of self-care that sets you up for the day ahead and a good night’s sleep.

This is a difficult habit to form, often we give these practices a low level of importance within our own mind and skip them regularly as a result, but, continued practice of these protocols can reap huge rewards in the long-term.

 

Sleep

Sleep is the single most important thing we can do to reset our body and brain health. Seep is not as passive as we may think it is, there are stages of sleep, like REM where your brain can work up to 30% more than when you are awake. Sleep is fundamental to both our physical and mental restoration.

There have been times in my life when I’ve been a very poor sleeper, understanding the long-term detrimental health effects of this has been important in me prioritising sleep and improving both the duration and quality of my sleep. I now make sure that I am in bed and asleep between 10.00 and 11.00 pm and will always wake up at 5:30 to 6.00 am.

Supplementing the sleep hormones like serotonin & melanin to help sleep has been found in some people to lead to destructive sleep, in terms of the initial response is to fall asleep very quickly and be in a deep sleep, but only for a short period of time such as three hours (two cycles of 90 minutes) and then wake up and then subsequently find it very hard to go back to sleep.

 

There are ways in which we can enhance our sleep like having a carbohydrate snack prior to going to sleep. About 60 to 90 minutes before you actually go to sleep have a starchy carbohydrate snack like a piece of toast or some porridge (this does not include simple sugars so sweets chocolate is not the same thing it will spike energy levels dopamine and the metabolism, so it needs to be a starchy carbohydrate), this triggers the release of serotonin which is the neurotransmitter that we need in order to fall

 

Make sure that you start to dim the lights in your living areas from around 7:30 to 8:30 pm in preparation for sleep, blue light or any sort of bright light stimulates and creates activity within the brain preventing serotonin and melatonin to be produced.

 

If you get up to go to the toilet during the night or need a drink then try and keep lights to a low level or turn them off completely, don’t turn the lights on as it will start to spike metabolism and the production of cortisol in preparation for the new day which you don’t want to be the case at 2.00 am in the morning.

 

If you wake up in the middle of the night and a struggle to get back to sleep, then using an NSDR has been proven to be not quite as effective as sleep, but the next best thing, so rather than put on an episode of you latest show on Netflix, look at NSDR breathing and meditation.

This is where using an app like Calm can be very beneficial, however just make sure that the illumination of the screen is turned down to a minimum and maybe put the phone on night-time mode – a lot of her smart phones now have night-time mode which does reduce the harmful blue light from entering our eyes, especially in the middle of the night.

 

As with any new habit the more we do it, the easier it becomes to incorporate into our daily routine. When starting any new routine, it is always best to schedule these new actions into our day, this ensures that the actions are planned and even if we are running low on motivation, have a high level of limbic friction, which is a high resistance or reluctance to act on a given task.

 

Latest research suggests that it can take anywhere from 19 days to 254 days to create a habit, it is also the case that we can complete some habits more easily than others, so if you find it hard to create one habit, it doesn’t mean that you will find it hard to create another habit.

 

The fact is that the longer we continue a new routine, the stronger the neural circuits are created within our brain and the easier it is to maintain this over a longer period, so keep going, keep reminding yourself that you are working on you for you, and that YOU CAN DO THIS!

 

Good habits are the foundation of success, any change of habits for the good will lead to a change in the quality of your life for the good.

There will always be times when we cannot fulfil daily task or a morning routine, and this is completely natural so firstly don’t struggle with having some missed days, try not to have too many consecutive days off though as the habit of not adhering to this routine can begin to form. There is also something called habit compensation, where we will try to deal with a missed day by doubling up the follow day, so if we want to run a 5k every day and miss a day, we try to run a 10k the following day to ‘catch up’ and compensate. This increases pressure and anxiety on us and can be demotivating which is far more destructive than missing just one run, so don’t compensate for missed days, just get back onto the plan the following day.

A habit is something that we do every day as part of our life, so there are two ways to gauge this, a habit is formed when we are confident that we will incorporate the action into our daily life (where possible) every day, and secondly, when we can move away from a structured time and manage to fit the action in when it suits us, rather than when we set out and it is regimented, it becomes a lasting habit.

 

So, you see, habits are a big part of our lives, we are what we repeatedly do, excellence is a habit. If you want to change your habits, the more you know about them, the easier it will be for you to change them.

For advice on how to incorporate these in to your daily life, then contact me for information nicky@nickyforster.com

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