Health is interesting to me because the more I learn and grow I realize more and more that we often don’t need to do more or near as much as we think. I used to always try to workout until I was beat into the ground and limping off the soccer field, or not feel like I truly exercised unless I was so sore and I had trouble sitting. Looking back I know that I lost many good years of health and wellness to this problem . Now as I have people training under me I see that this is a common problem in our approach to not only exercise, but its infected all aspects of our lives. When you catch up with a friend the small talk invariable goes:
-“How have you been?”
-”Oh you know busy man, busy.”
-”Yeah I only got like 5 hours of sleep last night.”
The conversation often goes on for awhile like this as we brag/ complain about how busy our lives are and how hard we are working. These conversations always cue the thought for me that if you are doing so much why are you not happier or talking about the duration of this “busy” time and when and how it will end. (Side note, friends do not like you trying to sit and problem solve the stress in their life). This article is going to argue the case for why we should go slower and do less in order to get more done, Why downtime is required to be productive, and then analyze how these concepts apply to exercise, sleeping, and general relaxation for healthier more productive lives.
Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
A common thing in exercise is “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. If you want to run faster or move better in order to build healthy joints that you can trust, you need to slow your movements down and work on doing it slow without much wasted movement or bad mechanics. You can also get more out of a workout out by pacing yourself rather than going all out. A story I always like to look at when talking about this is the Tortoise and the Hare. In the story, the slow tortoise beats the hare in the race because the much faster hare took a nap in the middle of the race while the tortoise kept going while the hare was sleeping. Often in the story it’s presented that the hare was arrogant and felt he had time to take a nap because he was beating the tortoise by such a wide margin. I always like to look at the story in the light of exercise. Possibly the hare felt he could take a nap because he was winning by so much, but he was possibly tempted to take a nap in the first place because he was running fast enough to be a little tired. The hare would have never even wanted to take a nap if he wasn’t sprinting right out of the gate. This concept applies to an exercise session. Take a 20 minute run for example. Your goal is to cover as much distance as you can in this 20 minutes. You have options. You can run as fast as you want right away but at some point you will need to walk. Or you can run steady (or even planned walk runs). Invariably you will be able to cover more distance and feel better with the second option. 20 minutes is too long to sprint and when you do eventually have to walk it will be very slow to catch your breath. The person who sacrifices 30% less speed to run the whole distance will go a lot further. You can try this for your next two workouts. Compare the two. This concept applies all across our lives. When our car is driving 100 miles an hour it is using much more gas per mile than driving 40 miles an hour. Going hard is expensive. All nighters for work come at a cost, Staying up late and not getting enough sleep comes at a cost, Hard workouts come at a cost. This isn’t to be said that we should not workout hard. There are amazing benefits to working out as hard as you can. It just needs to be less often than lighter stuff. Hard work builds a debt that your body has to repay.
The Value of Downtime: What actually happens inside of you.
Imagine that you have two seperate switches. One switch is to recharge you and the other is your overdrive. You get intense work done with the overdrive switch but you risk breaking yourself. The other recharge switch repairs and builds you to be better and more powerful when you do decide to flip the overdrive switch. Think of the Overdrive switch as the big red button that says “Do Not Touch” on the car or spaceship in a movie. You know the switch, the one where at the beginning of the movie the sidekick asks what it does and the hero slaps his hand and tells him to never ever ever touch that! One hour later into the movie the hero presses the button to shoot some giant gun, or drive super fast and save the day. We have both of these switches. These switches are part of what is called our Autonomic Nervous System. Your autonomic nervous system controls everything you can’t voluntarily control like hunger, sleepiness, heart rate, whether to build muscle or not, digestion and many other processes . Your overdrive switch is called your Sympathetic Nervous System and your recharge switch is called your Parasympathetic nervous system.
Your sympathetic nervous system is in charge of your fight and flight system. When this switch is turned on you are prime for work. Your heart rate increases and blood flows away from your internal organs and rushes to your skin and muscles so you can be as strong, fast, and work as hard you possibly can. Your overdrive is great but comes at a cost. When your sympathetic nervous system is on you are like a country at wartime. Your body is willing to do anything to handle the situation. It is willing to risk joint injury by reducing your pain response. Food digestion stops because that food will do you no good if you don’t live to use it. You don’t feel the need to sleep as acutely because as far as you know life is too dangerous right now to sleep. Activation of the sympathetic system comes at a cost. Eventually you will run out of fuel and need a way to pay back the huge debt you built while saving the world (or whatever emergency you are dealing with)
So what happens when we don’t need our overdrive turned on? What about the other 95% of the time? That is when the switch is turned the other way. When our Parasympathetic system (recharge) system is active. Many important activities in our body only happen when we have our parasympathetic system switched on. Building muscle only happens when your parasympathetic system is turned on for example. If our hormones don’t get swapped out when we recharge then we don’t burn fat well or even store more fat even though we are eating well.
If we think of our body as a business. The overdrive system is when business emergencies happen and you have to pay a lot of overtime to keep the business going, or have to take a loan to try and grow. Both of these things have risk but are needed to keep things going. Our parasympathetic (recharge) system is all the steady years where everything goes according to plan and the business can steadily grow.
The best growth happens with a steady balance of the two switches.
I often compare fitness to watering a garden. You water the garden for 5 minutes every day and all the other minutes of the day is when all the growing of the plants is actually happening. Our biggest problem is we are trying to water our garden with a firehose. A firehose doesn’t make our plants grow faster but actually can break the stems, flood the roots, and ruin our garden. We are all hard workers from the moment we wake up. We get up without enough sleep (overdrive), drink coffee (small delicious shot of overdrive), get into traffic (overdrive), work (possible overdrive) ,Lunch (recharge), workout (overdrive), Family time (hopefully recharge, but possibly not), go to bed too late, then start over. In that scenario you spend a lot of time with your overdrive switched on and virtually no time building yourself up. Pretty much all of these stresses are unavoidable and it would be unreasonable for me to ask you to get rid of all of them. Luckily for us our autonomic nervous system is less of a switch and more of a dimmer switch. We have variable degrees of relaxation and intensity. All we need to do is take some of those stresses and slowly dial them back.
All or nothing is not the best strategy.
We live in a work hard play hard society. We live for the weekend and we run ourselves ragged. Remember our bodies thrive on balance and they are going to demand it. When we spend all work week completely in overdrive we have no choice but to spend what down time we get completely in recharge mode. Of course we need to sleep in if we have been sleep deprived. It makes sense that we need to binge on food if we have been under eating on some new diet all week. Forget little jobs around the house, or other home activities if you have been late at the office every night. Work hard,play hard is a real biological thing. If we learned anything from the tortoise and the hare it’s that work hard play hard is not the best way to get ahead. Your average day should be steady and balanced so you are not stealing from tomorrow. We need to make our relaxation more active and our work less intense. This doesn’t happen right away. It will take practice but it’s worth it. Little things add up. Going to bed a bit earlier could mean you have enough energy to cook tomorrow night. Cooking could save you some money and lower some financial stress you have been feeling. Both of these things could make you more productive at work and allow you take more than a 15m lunch break. All of these little shifts add up and move us a bit more towards a healthier more stable life. Next we will have my top 3 ways to start to implement this in your life
Your exercise is a momentary push of the overdrive button that tells your body to change you when you are in recharge mode later. That is what makes exercise different from physical activity. Physical activity can actually be parasympathetic , walking your dog, gardening, playing with your kids. All these things actually recharge more than drain us. I suggest everyone find time for physical activity before they find time for exercise. If our goal is to get healthier bodies and we are not getting enough recharge time, don’t take what little free time you get adding more stress to your life. The harder the workout the more expensive the cost to recover from it is. If you are exercising ask yourself, “Are my hard workouts an actual amount that I can recover from session to session?” Either lower your intensity a bit to a recoverable amount or do a few less intense super hard sessions a week.
It amazes me how much we love sleep, hear about how good it is for us, yet never prioritize it. Prioritizing sleep can be as big a lifestyle change as drastic diet change, consistent exercise or moving to another country. When you get enough sleep you are choosing to have less hours in the day, but you are choosing to be a better version of yourself. You will live longer and do more in your free time if you are rested. If you have ever wanted to have energy for evening or weekend activities, getting enough sleep is the first step. Being well rested is what allows us to be fully present in each day. The first step I suggest for getting enough sleep is telling yourself it is ok to get enough sleep. A lot of people feel lazy or guilty if they prioritize sleep; don’t do this.You need to be the best version of yourself for those around you. Your happiness is affected and effects your ability to go to sleep on time. I can always gauge my happiness and quality of life by how easy it is for me to go to bed on time. If I feel excited about the next day I will find it easy to go to bed on time because I almost want to rush to the next day. You see this with kids on christmas, they may be so excited they have trouble going to bed but they will get in bed so easily so the next morning can start. On the other end of the spectrum if I hate my job or feel the next day is going to be rough I will watch another episode or pour another glass of wine just fighting for some me time. The problem is this perpetuates the cycle because now I have made an already hard day harder by going into it tired again. Don’t steal from tomorrow. Getting enough sleep will allow you to have the will and mental energy to make other changes needed to make your whole life better.
Cooking and Eating: to Recharge
This topic here goes hand and hand with sleep and finding a way to pace yourself throughout your day. Meals are much more important than food in our mouths. As a kid who grew up overweight, this was a major shift for me. I always ate fast and ate just for the taste. When we sit down to eat and give it some actual time we tap into our recharge center. By taking time to sit and eat at each meal we tell our bodies to slow down and recharge just a bit to help us pace ourselves for the rest of the day.Eating is not just about food. I realized how off I was about this when I spoke with a friend about our upcoming thanksgiving. My friend who has a very healthy relationship with food was talking about family coming into town and people who they couldn’t wait to see and talk to. I only had the food to talk about. It’s not that I don’t love my family, it is just that meals where only about food for me. After this conversation I began to think of meals as a chance to recharge.We don’t need to meditate or do deep breathing exercises to relax, that is what meals are supposed to be. I recognize this is once again a shift that shouldn’t be underestimated. Any time you are asked to carve out an extra 15 minutes for something you should give it some thought. If you do this you will find that you have more energy and actually achieve more. You are not that productive when you are eating lunch at your desk. Take baby steps. Sit down to eat. Try to prioritize the time spent as a valuable part of being a productive responsible person.
Leave some savings for emergencies.
If you begin to try and break down the work hard play hard mentality you will find all the little health behaviors that seemed impossible before now you have more energy to try to implement. Really take stock of your life and ask, “What kind of results am I getting?” The person who is working hard but not moving forward is wasting their time and energy. Make sure you live in a way where you always have that “savings” of energy for random stressful situations. Live in a way where you can handle a random work overnighter, live in a way where you have a reserve of energy to not snap at your spouse for a tiny issue. Trust me you will improve better than ever if you can actively seek to lower the stresses and prioritizes recharging activities.