In the same way that our brains can be affected by exercise, they are also adversely affected by stress. Stress can be the trigger for harmful behaviours such as excess consumption of alcohol, cigarettes and prescription drugs, or poor sleep and hydration. Cortisol has been shown to damage and kill cells in the hippocampus, and there is robust evidence that shows it also causes premature ageing.
Nutrition and a balanced diet
Following a balanced diet is absolutely essential for positive mental health, a healthy, lean body shape and a healthy, well-functioning heart. Optimal nutrition requires our diets to include fibre, vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) and food energy in the form of macronutrients such as carbohydrates, fats and oils, and protein. Each of these macronutrients take a bit of a bashing sometimes; fats have become associated with bad fat, weight gain, heart disease and obesity, whereas the reality is that whilst not all fats are good for you, some fats are essential to our daily diet. Balance is key. My belief is no diet should completely eliminate one of the macronutrient types completely; we need a balance of fats, protein and carbohydrates in our diet, combined with plenty of water and a good source of micronutrients.
Nutrition is often overlooked by people who have a very busy lifestyle. However, what you eat is absolutely vital to how you will perform, and what you look like, both on the inside and the outside. Food should be viewed as a fuel when it comes to exercising both your brain and the rest of your body. The commonly-used analogy is that of a car: in the same way that you wouldn’t fill your car’s petrol tank with toilet water and expect it to carry you sixty miles up the motorway, you can’t expect diet coke and junk food to fuel your body through a 5K run, through a busy working week, or to give you the best chance of having a long and healthy lifespan. You get out what you put in. Begin by giving your body the nutrients it needs, and the right amount of calories, and you’ll be amazed what it’ll enable you to do in return. Ker Tyler, one of my case studies, uses the term Business Athlete, which I love. A professional (or even recreational) athlete wouldn’t neglect any aspect of their nutrition or training, and it’s the same for executives; if you want to perform well, you need to train well and stick to a plan.
Diets that drastically reduce what to eat are far less likely to work long term, and can have the opposite effect by making you store body fat by kicking in the body’s starvation response, as well as potentially depriving your body of certain types of nutrients which are vital to its wellbeing. The starvation response can occur as a result of a sudden and dramatic reduction in calories consumed. The hormone leptin sends a signal to the hypothalamus in the brain that not enough energy is being ingested into the body. The hypothalamus responds by preserving the energy it has stored as fatty tissue, and at the same time begins to lower its daily calorie needs by reducing the volume of energy-hungry muscle tissue. So you start to consume muscle for energy, and store fat, which is counter-productive to most people’s goals when dieting. This probably sounds really unhealthy to most people – that’s because it is. It’s also a very unpleasant way to try and lose weight; constant hunger combined with frustration at lack of results, or possibly even a weight gain.
Here are a few tips on what to look out for with your diet:
• Adopt a balanced diet which includes fresh fruit, vegetables, lean meats, dairy products and oily fish
• Check the ingredients of your breakfast cereal, and specifically the levels of salt and sugar. A lot of cereals are of low nutritional value so beware
• Eat whole grain toast rather than white bread, and avoid margarines which contain trans-fats and saturated fats. Use organic butter
• Cook meals using fresh ingredients rather than buying ready-meals or processed, pre-prepared foods
• Avoid refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, white pasta, cakes, biscuits and pastries
• Drink plenty of water – aim for two litres per day
• Cut down on saturated fats and avoid hydrogenated fats where possible
• Don’t skip breakfast – this is your most important meal of the day!
• Buy fresh, local, organic produce where possible
• Don’t consume more than six grams of salt per day
• Avoid fizzy drinks – they can be full of sugar, additives and calories
• Moderate alcohol intake and drink water in-between alcoholic drinks
• Consider a multi-vitamin supplement – a lot of today’s foods don’t contain what we need in terms of daily vitamins and minerals; taking a daily supplement makes certain you’ve got what you need for the day
• Check and be aware of the sugar content of foods
It’s worth saying a little more about sugar. There are often very high levels of sugar found in foods, especially processed (ready-meal) foods and in reduced fat or low-calorie options. Sometimes these sugars are concealed as additives like aspartame or Acesulfame K, which is just sugar by another name. You are often better off buying the full-fat option and having small helpings of it. A lot of people suffer from the ‘sugar bounce’, which are the highs and lows associated with sugar intake. It’s well-known too that sugar also contributes to tooth decay, and contains ‘dead’ calories, which have no nutritional value.
There’s a lot that can be said on this subject, but it’s vital to appreciate that eating healthily isn’t an option if you want to prolong your lifespan and improve your health. You can still love food whilst eating healthily, but be careful not to allow time – or more specifically, lack of it – to be an acceptable excuse for making poor food choices. You might need to plan ahead a little more, or walk a little further to find healthier food options, but it’s definitely worth the investment in time.
Leanne Spencer is an entrepreneur, TEDx speaker, author of the Amazon bestselling book Rise and Shine: Recover from burnout and get back to your best and Founder of the Rise Method® and Bodyshot Performance Limited. Connect with me @riseshinemethod or Facebook.
If you would like to have a free, no-obligation chat about how The RISE Method® could help you, or to check availability, please contact Leanne on +44 7401 441 818 or send an email to email@example.com and one of the team will get back to you within 24 hours.