The Proven Formula For Optimal Health
So often, we have clients come to us who are truly eating a healthy diet, yet not making progress towards their goals. They eat better than all their friends and family, yet don’t see the results. Understandably, they’re quite frustrated. It feels like they’re doing everything right, so something must just be wrong with their body. In reality, it’s because they’re missing 3 of the 4 lifestyle factors for optimal health.
You’ve probably heard that you should exercise, get enough sleep, and reduce your stress, but just how important is this to your overall health? A recent review of 15 studies found that having four or more healthy lifestyle factors led to a 66% reduction in death from any cause. (1)
Similarly, another study following over 200,000 participants showed that over a six-year period, the risk of death increased exponentially with the number of bad lifestyle habits. Examples included poor diet, high alcohol intake, smoking, physical inactivity, prolonged sitting, and not enough sleep. (2) With 1 risk factor, mortality risk is 27%. If you have 2 it’s 73%, for 4 it’s 206%, and for 6 it’s a whopping 438%!
The science, and our experience, is clear: there are 4 key lifestyle factors that when added together will form the foundation for optimal health. Let’s dive into each one, and easy ways to make improvements!
This is the first lifestyle factor because it has the ability to improve your health the fastest. Our diet can make us feel better or worse within a day! Though it also has the most research proving its importance for long-term health. As mentioned above, poor diet strongly correlates with death from any cause. (2)
In addition, eating more fruits and vegetables correlates with a 12% decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Of all the different types of produce examined, the strongest reduction in risk is from green leafy vegetables. (3) Beyond heart health, a study of over 80,000 women showed that those following a better diet developed fewer cases of diabetes over a 16-year period. (4)
Unfortunately, according to a 2009 study, the percentage of people eating 5 or more fruits or vegetables per day decreased from 42% to just 26% over the prior 18 years. (5) Essentially, it’s counter-cultural to fuel your body well! This makes it even harder to eat a healthy diet because it feels you have to go “above and beyond” what’s typical. This mindset can hold you back, because your changes won’t feel sustainable. Instead, we have to realize that the way most people eat day is actually what’s atypical and odd, and that we healthy eaters are doing what’s been most normal for thousands of years!
What does a healthy diet look like though? I like how journalist Michael Pollen defines food as things made in nature, not manufactured. He calls most of what’s in our grocery stores “edible food-like substances”. His nutrition advice is:
Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly plants.Michael Pollen
While this is a good starting point, it’s important to personalize your diet for your body and health issues. Therefore, we recommend working with a nutritionist or functional medicine provider to help you figure this out (like us!). However, there are a few principles we can all follow: focus on whole foods, increase fruits and vegetables, decrease salt and sugar, avoid trans fats (hydrogenated oils, fried foods), and limit processed foods. (3, 4)
This lifestyle factor is powerful enough to undue the positive effects of your other habits for health. For our clients with high stress, we have to put in so much more effort to get even minor results compared to our low stress clients. This is because stress increases appetite and cravings, slows the metabolism, inhibits recovery after exercise, decreases sleep quality, impairs the immune system, and disrupts digestion and gut flora. Whew! And that’s just a partial list of how damaging it is. You can see how it can sabotage your other healthy lifestyle habits.
The net effect of these stress-induced changes is your overall health declines. For example, a study of 2000 adults found those experiencing a lot of stress had a greater risk of dying during the study. (6) In addition, quality of life suffers. A review paper concluded that those with higher lab markers of stress had more: (7)
- Body fat and body weight
- Clinical signs of aging
- Cardiovascular disease
- Decline in cognition: memory, focus, comprehension
- Illness and infections
- Musculoskeletal pain, physical disabilities, and bone health decline
- Poor ratings of self-reported health
- Worse mood: depression, anxiety, and PTSD
While the amount of stressors we experience may be out of our control, fortunately what matters most is how you handle it. One study showed that the association with mortality was greater in those who viewed stress more negatively. (8)
You can see it’s worth it to your health to cut stressors out of your life as you’re able. And even more importantly, to help yourself have a healthier mindset towards and recover quicker from stress. Activities such as social and spiritual engagement, being in nature and sunlight, meditation, mindfulness, and EFT (emotional freedom technique, also known as tapping) have proven benefits. In adults who had never meditated before, a 13-minute daily guided meditation for 8 weeks improved mood, attention, and memory and decreased anxiety. (9) There also many studies showing the efficacy of EFT on anxiety. (10)
We’ve all experienced a night of inadequate sleep leading to feeling worse the next day. I wrote a blog post and recorded a podcast on all the negative effects of insufficient sleep. This means not getting your 7-9 hours, but also not getting enough deep and REM. As a result, you’ll experience similar negative effects to those of stress mentioned above.
For example, getting less than 7 hours is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and all-cause mortality. (11) Teenagers, who function best with 10 hours, feel more fatigued and depressed when their sleep is restricted to 7.5 hours for just 9 days. (12)
In addition to prioritizing enough hours, you can improve sleep quality by turning off technology. In a clinical trial, when adults abstained from using their phones 30 minutes before bedtime, the time it took them to fall asleep was decreased by 1/3. Furthermore, sleep duration was increased by over 30 minutes, and their moods improved! (13)
The last lifestyle key to optimal health is moving your body. Studies show just moderate exercise improves mood and reduces inflammation. (14) Exercise is also shown to improve blood sugar control, cardiovascular risk, and weight loss in overweight individuals. (15, 16)
Not only is exercise important, but so is avoiding sitting (very difficult in our line of work, hence my standing desk!). Just prolonged sitting (without any other risk factors) increased mortality by 15%. Furthermore, lack of regular bouts of physical activity increased risk of mortality by 61%. (2) Notably, movement was the lifestyle factor that most people were the least consistent with. It’s certainly harder to be active when many of our jobs are behind a computer!
To protect your health and feel your best, aim to make movement a lifestyle habit. Move a little at least every hour. Try to make sure to go on walks or do chores around the house daily for physical activity. Also, start working your way towards 5 days per week of getting your heart rate up through exercise, as able.
Summary: Although we examined nutrition, stress, sleep, and exercise independently, they’re all interconnected. The worse your lifestyle, the worse your health. But, this effect works the other way too! Exercise can decrease your stress which will improve your sleep, and a good night’s sleep can help you to stick with a nutrition plan. (17) With this web-like effect, making a few improvements can help snowball you into better health!
Pick one of these four lifestyle factor that you think you need the most help in to improve your health. What is one thing you can do this week to improve? Let us know in the comments which foundation you chose and what your goal habit is!
If you want to dive deeper into the 4 foundations of wellness, check out our online program. It will guide you step-by-step so you can create the new habits you need to feel your best!
- The combined effects of healthy lifestyle behaviors on all cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis. 2012. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22735042/
- Traditional and Emerging Lifestyle Risk Behaviors and All-Cause Mortality in MiddleAged and Older Adults: Evidence from a Large Population-Based Australian Cohort. 2015. https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1001917
- Fruit and vegetable intake and risk of major chronic disease. 2004. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15523086/
- Diet, lifestyle, and the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus in women. 2001. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11556298/
- Adherence to Healthy Lifestyle Habits in US Adults, 1988-2006. 2009. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0002934308012072
- The extent to which childhood adversity and recent stress influence all-cause mortality risk in older adults. 2009. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31704635/
- Psychological stress reactivity and future health and disease outcomes: A systematic review of prospective evidence. 2020. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0306453020300184
- Affective reactivity to daily stress and 20-year mortality risk in adults with chronic illness: Findings from the National Study of Daily Experiences. 2018. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29154603/
- Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators. 2019. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30153464/
- Emotional Freedom Techniques for Anxiety: A Systematic Review With Meta-analysis. 2016. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26894319/
- Prevalence of Healthy Sleep Duration among Adults–United States, 2014. 2016. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26890214/
- Sleep duration and mood in adolescents: an experimental study. 2021. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33245773/
- Effect of restricting bedtime mobile phone use on sleep, arousal, mood, and working memory: A randomized pilot trial. 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7010281/
- Exercise reduces depression and inflammation but intensity matters. 2018. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29408464/
- Exercise and insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes mellitus: A systematic review and meta-analysis. 2019. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877065718314830?via%3Dihub
- The effect of 12 weeks of aerobic, resistance or combination exercise training on cardiovascular risk factors in the overweight and obese in a randomized trial. 2012. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23006411/
- Increased physical activity improves sleep and mood outcomes in inactive people with insomnia: a randomized controlled trial. 2015. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25903450/