The Four Pillars
The Four Pillars of Health
As coaches we often get asked what workout style is or “diet” is the best. Earlier in my career, I would not have hesitated to give some well thought out answer highlighting the benefits of weight training while recommending some type of protein supplement. The conversation would have likely ended there. If you asked me the same question today, I would give a similar answer in regards to weight training. I would also emphasize protein intake, however I would recommend that the composition be mostly from plant and animal sources, with supplements added to get you to your goal.
These recommendations would be at the end of my conversation now. My questions would now go in this order...
How much do you sleep?
How’s your nutrition?
What is your current stress level?
Do you currently have a fitness routine?
I call these the Four Pillars of Health. Most everyone thinks the keys to good health are simply fitness and nutrition. While these are crucial, not enough sleep and/or stress levels that are unmanageable can completely derail progress.
Sleep is by far the most underrated one of the four so let’s start here. In some circles, particularly with men for some reason, it’s almost a badge of honor to get less sleep. You’ll often hear people say, “I only need 5 hours of sleep!” as if this makes them super cool. While some might think this, it’s been scientifically proven that virtually all people require somewhere between 7-10 hours of sleep per night to function optimally.
It was explained to me like this. If you only get 5 hours of sleep, you don’t know any better. Your “baseline” is all you know, so you think if you feel the same as usual you are ok. I operated this way for years and thought I was ok. Then, I became more educated about proper sleep and began getting 7-8 hours a night. Then, when I got only 5 I did not feel good. I had changed my baseline.
There are all kinds of negative impacts from sleep deprivation, including but not limited to: Increased insulin sensitivity - makes you gain weight, crave sugary foods
Increased cortisol - which increases your overall level of stress, decreases ability to sleep
Increased adrenaline - increase heart rate, blood pressure, cause insomnia, increase anxiety
Increased inflammation - may contribute to a wide range of chronic diseases, such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity
Increased neurotoxins - memory problems, depression, increase risk for Alzheimer’s or dimentia
Decreased endorphins - higher stress & anxiety, increased risk for depression
How sleep affects the other three
So, decreased sleep reduces your ability to be successful with nutrition, increases your stress levels, and makes fitness more challenging to recover from and makes you less likely to want to work out in the first place.
What to do now? You don’t have to be perfect, just do better. Take a nap. Go to bed 30 minutes early or sleep an extra 30 minutes. Do something to improve your baseline. The extra 20 or 30 minutes will add up and next thing you know you’re getting several more hours of sleep a week.
Nutrition is quite honestly the lowest hanging fruit. You can see the greatest improvement with just moderate changes. There is so much information out there and people tend to be all or none on a lot of different strategies and diets.
The best advice I can think of is to just keep it simple. Just do better.
Drinking 5 sodas per day? How about switching to diet drinks. Don’t eat breakfast? Just have an egg or toast with peanut butter. No snacks during the day? Try a protein shake or some kind of bar.
I think it’s extremely beneficial to remember that nutrition, like life, is a journey. It does not have to be and will not be perfect. There should always be balance. An all or none philosophy is a losing proposition.
How nutrition affects the other three
Poor nutrition habits negatively impact sleep. For example, if you are undereating it will generally lead to poor sleep quality. (waking up frequently throughout the night). Undereating increases the body’s stress levels as it attempts to function properly with a lack of fuel. Overeating and obesity increases blood pressure and inflammation which increase stress & cortisol levels (in addition to the physiological damage caused by these factors).
Nutrition is personal. What works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for everyone. It’s important to try different strategies, give yourself some grace, learn, and try again. Having a support system and someone to hold you accountable is extremely beneficial and will lead to a greater opportunity for success.
Stress management is a can of worms that most people are reluctant to open. I often hear a version of the following: I have a lot of stress but I can’t do anything about that. This statement is untrue. It should be worded differently, perhaps, I have a lot of stress but I am UNWILLING to do anything about it. We have to be willing to make changes to see any improvement. Stress isn’t going to go away, it’s just life. But, we can make improvements
What does improvement look like? Start with using all of your vacation days in a given year. When I had a corporate job, I would end my year with unused vacation time because I thought I didn’t have enough time. I do that at the gym as well, working 60 hour weeks for the better part of 8 years. There is always going to be work to do, no matter how much vacation time I take or don’t take.
How effective are we if we’re stressed out anyway? Not very effective. It is extremely important to take time for yourself, away from work, away from kids, away from things that make us more stressed. Again, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It might just be going and getting a pedicure once a month. I like to go for a boat ride or go “hunting” which for me is just getting out in nature with no phone where it’s quiet. Breathing exercises are another great way to reduce stress. My wife gets a massage once a month or goes out to dinner with her friends. These are all things that add to our life and serenity.
Another simple stress reducer is to remove stressful people from our lives. Do an assessment and see if those around you are adding to your wellness or taking away from it.
The human body responds to ALL stress the same way. It releases a hormone called cortisol. This could be in response to the physical stress of working out, a fight with your spouse, or lack of sleep. Cortisol has a good function in our bodies, it’s what wakes us up and gets us going every morning. If our bodies are functioning properly, our cortisol levels peak in the morning and then decrease throughout the day. When we have too much, however, these levels can remain elevated throughout the day.
How stress affects the other three?
In stressful situations, insulin typically helps cells convert glucose to energy. When elevated for an extended period of time, the pancreas struggles to keep up with the body’s increased demand for insulin and glucose levels in your blood remain high and your cells don’t get the sugar they need to perform at their best. As your cells request energy, your body tells the brain you’re hungry and need to eat. These hunger signals can lead you to crave high-calorie foods and possibly overeat. So, it makes proper nutrition more difficult. Elevated stress negatively impacts both sleep quality and amount. Increased stress levels also make it more difficult to recover from exercise. If it’s difficult to recover, you are less likely to want to work out and have an increased risk of injury.
Along with nutrition, fitness is the pillar that most people think of first. As we have discussed, all four are necessary to achieve long term health. Fitness is a broad term and encompasses many things but for our purposes, let’s just say that being fit means having healthy markers in the following: blood pressure, LDL/HDL Cholesterol, body fat, triglycerides, bone density, and muscle mass.
There are multiple ways to achieve these from a fitness perspective. Again, I believe that what type of fitness regimen a person chooses is an individual decision. As a general rule, to achieve the above standards, it would likely need to include some type of strength training and some type of cardiovascular component. You have to enjoy it, at least a little, to ensure consistency over the long term. For sure, long term consistency generates better results.
How fitness affects the other three?
Exercise reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, and stimulates the production of endorphins, which are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. There are also non-measurable improvements such as improved self-image, pride and self-confidence. Additionally, the discipline of regular exercise carries over to other areas of your life and helps with achievement of important lifestyle goals.
Moderate or very intense exercise can increase sleep quality for adults by shortening sleep onset (how long it takes to fall asleep) – and also decreases the amount of time one lays awake during the night. Exercise can also reduce daytime sleepiness and reduce or eliminate the need for sleep medications. Obviously, exercise can decrease the risk of weight gain which is a key symptom in sleeping disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea. In addition to improving the amount of sleep, exercise improves the quality of sleep by increasing the amount of deep sleep. Deep or slow wave sleep is where the brain and body receive the greatest amount of recovery.
Those who are participating in a fitness routine are more likely to want to improve their nutrition and make healthier choices. Anecdotally, several of our members have mentioned to me that when they are coming to the gym regularly, their nutrition is better.
ACTION STEPS - What do do next?
Do something small. Set a goal that isn’t a dramatic change to your current routine. For example, if you get 6 hours of sleep per night, get in bed 20 minutes earlier two nights per week. Or, if you don’t eat any vegetables at all, try adding one vegetable to a meal three meals per week.
Long term progress and permanent lifestyle changes aren’t usually the result of wholesale, sudden changes. More often, they are the result of small, consistent alterations in behavior. The accumulation of these, sometimes over the course of years, results in new patterns of behavior that are sustainable ways of living.
So make one small change today...be happy with where you are now and enjoy the process as you better yourself.