by PJ Nestler
In the first post in this series, I made the contention that while advanced athletes can find benefits in marginal gains, too many people are stuck majoring in the minors. As a result, they’re directing their time and energy towards small details that do little to impact their overall health, fitness, or wellbeing, while ignoring the larger factors that hold them back.
To remedy this, my suggestion is that we do what the title of this piece suggests: return to simple things that are pillars for everything else. When I’m coaching and presenting, I often get asked questions about nitty gritty details. While I’m happy to answer these as helpfully as I can, I believe that people should earn the right to ask them by consistently doing the basics well day in and day out. Once you’re checking the big boxes regularly, then we can dive deeper to find ways for you to keep progressing.
During part one, we explored the first three of five factors that I believe should form the bedrock of your healthful routine: breathing, movement, and nutrition. Now, let’s move on to the remaining two: sleep and connection. I’ll then share a bonus: a simple check-in I use at least weekly to help me assess how I’m doing and course correct when required.
Pillar #4: Sleep
Like our first building block, breathing, sleep is one of the most elemental things every human does daily. Just like our breath, we often neglect how we’re sleeping in the mistaken belief that it isn’t important – so much so that nearly a third of Americans routinely get less than six hours a night. But it does matter, because how long and well we sleep impacts every aspect of our physiology. As sleep and chronobiology expert Dr. Michael Breus told one interviewer, “Literally everything you do, you do better with a good night’s sleep.”
From a health perspective, getting more quality sleep can improve hormonal balance, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, regulate cellular function, stabilize appetite and blood sugar, and more. From a psychological perspective, getting consistent, solid sleep is correlated withimproved emotional stabilityand a reduction in depression and anxiety. If you’re targeting improved physical performance, sleeping more can reduce your risk of injury by up to 65 percent, speed muscle repair by elevating growth hormone levels, boost endurance, and improve reaction speed. The verdict is in: if you want to be healthy and perform well, you have to get sufficient slumber. So it’s time to stop making excuses and start sorting out your sleep habits.
- Prioritize sleep so you’re not starting from a deficit every day – aim for seven to nine uninterrupted hours a night. The first step to achieving this is going to bed and setting your alarms for times that will allow such a duration – if you have to be up at 6 AM, going to bed at 1 AM won’t give you sufficient time.
- Logging off all electronics at least two hours before bedtime, and keeping them out of your bedroom will also help. Instead of cramming in more screen time, read a real book instead.
Going back to one of our earlier pillars, you could also try doing five minutes of slow, nasal breathing from your belly. You can also journal, meditate, or pray (more on this below).
Pillar #5: Connection
The modern world often encourages us to build a bubble around ourselves – whether it’s on social media, keeping our headphones on all day, or pursuing activities alone. While the deliberate practice of solitude is beneficial from time to time, we do not exist in isolation, but are fundamentally connected to the people and environment around us. In our natural state, we’re also supposed to be highly aware of ourselves. This is why nurturing connection is crucial.
We can break connection down into three main areas:
Connection to other people
As a species, we’ve perpetuated ourselves by thriving in groups, from the time that humans first formed tribes onward. This is why at XPT, our community is what helps us embrace new challenges and pushes us to do more than we think we’re capable of. We were not made to do life alone. So rather than trying to build up your online following, make a concerted effort to invest more time and energy with your family and close friends. Also try training with a friend or joining a running club instead of just pumping iron in your garage or pounding the pavement solo.
- Try making more time for deep face-to-face connections rather than superficial virtual ones, and fully engage in conversation with your phone off and put aside.
Connection to ourselves
Being connected to ourselves ensures we’re getting the self-care we need to thrive. If we can treat ourselves with greater love and compassion, we’ll be better able to handle day-to-day problems and bigger adverse events. I recently heard someone say, “Treat yourself like someone you love.” Imagine what it would look like if you put that into action and started treating yourself like your significant other, your children, or your best friend.
Another consideration is how our self-talk largely influences our attitudes, behaviors, and habits. Without training, we can allow ourselves (often unwittingly) to become fixated on the negative and to develop a cynical view of the world. Becoming more aware of what you’re saying to yourself is the first step to remedying this.
- Starting a meditation/mindfulness practice is a great way to get back in touch with your true self. You can use an app to guide you or simply sit quietly, breathe through your nose, and observe both your thoughts and feelings and what’s going on around you.
- Try to become aware of every time your inner narrative turns negative. Then consider if you’re viewing the situation objectively or simply emotionally, and try to turn your self-talk in a positive direction.
Connection to everybody/everything
The third component is fostering connection to all. If this sounds a little “woo-woo” to you, I get it. But consider that out of the 263 centenarians (people who live to be 100 or older) surveyed by Dan Buettner for his Blue Zones book, all but five belonged to some kind of faith community. If you’re not religious, then you might still experience connection to something greater than yourself when you’re out in nature. We’re hardwired to need to belong to and believe in something, so explore what that might mean to you.
- Bookend your day with a few minutes of studying your sacred text or praying, spend time in nature feeling the connection to the earth, trees, water, or animals, or pursue any other activity you view as connecting you to the greater world.
I’m confident if you cut out complexity and instead concentrate on the five pillars we’ve just covered, you will be healthier, happier, and more fulfilled. This is going to get you 90 percent of the way to where you want to be in your life. We can then start to work on the remainder. Like a Jenga tower, if you can carefully place each block, you will have a strong and sturdy foundation and will have brought balance to every area.
You don’t have to be perfect in everything at all times. That said, if you find yourself struggling in a specific area and can’t seem to make positive change, then seek an expert to help you. Also recognize that when you’re excelling in something, you might be better off focusing your attention on other things – you don’t need to fill a cup that’s already close to overflowing. So if you’re feeling fit and strong, then take a look at your sleep, connections, nutrition, or breathing. While I’ve described the building blocks as basic, the good news is that you have the rest of your life to experiment and improve in all five areas.
PERMS Balance Check-In
I’ve come up with an acronym that encapsulates the five areas included in the check-in I use at least weekly to assess how I’m doing in different parts of my life. When I’m weighing difficult decisions or have something going on that requires more introspection, I find myself going through these even more often. Hopefully asking and answering the questions in this check-in can help you, too. For simplicity’s sake, you could start by rating each area on a one to 10 scale, with one being the lowest and 10 the highest:
Physical:How does your body feel? What are your pain and energy levels like? What have you done this past week to move your physicality in a positive direction?
Emotional:Beyond the basic emotions of happy or sad, what’s going on with your deeper feelings? Are you fulfilled or frustrated, joyful or mournful, purposeful or apathetic? What happened to trigger these feelings?
Relational:How well are you connected to others and yourself? Do you feel like you’re building stronger relationships or have they become stagnant? How well are you taking care of yourself?
Mental (Psychological): Are you feeling alert, focused, and motivated, or sluggish, distracted, and lazy? Are you driving steadily forward or stuck in park? Are you challenging yourself or just settling?
Spiritual: Are you being consistent with a daily practice like prayer or meditation? How connected or disconnected do you feel to a higher power or the natural world? What are you doing to serve your community?