You're Gona Reap What You Sow

Whilst listening to a podcast last week I stumbled across the following passage that made me stop in my tracks and write it down. The passage was: -

"Much of life is about setting the conditions for good things to happen, not trying to force good things"

Another saying then immediately sprang to mind:

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe" (Abraham Lincoln)


What does this mean?

Well, one of my main priorities as a coach, when working with anybody, is to improve my client's health first and foremost. Some people seem to believe that achieving body composition results (i.e. losing fat or gaining muscle) and achieving good health are mutually exclusive.

Let me tell you that they are not.

Actually, the healthier an individual is, the better (and faster) the body composition results will come.

Let that sink in before you start a crash diet to 'dramatically drop weight'.

Health must be your number 1 priority if fat loss is your goal. 

Health, in a very broad sense, is defined as: 

"the state of being free from illness and injury"

However, I want to expand upon this definition, as being merely free from illness and injury is not enough. Brad Soper and I discussed what we view as our "Pillars of Health' recently in our Advanced Fat Loss workshop. The three pillars are:

1) Mentality: Your state of mind, mental clarity, memory recall and retention, perception of stress, management of stress, alertness, mood etc.
2) Vitality: Movement, exercise, energy, mobility, pain free, injury free
3) Immunity: Your ability to stay free from illness, starting with good gut health and digestion. 

What are some of the indicators of poor health?

  • Poor sleep quality and disturbed sleep
  • Chronic inflammation
  • High blood pressure, high blood glucose and high cholesterol
  • Memory loss and poor cognitive function
  • Water retention
  • Gas, bloating, reflux
  • Inconsistent bowel movements and texture
  • Anxiety 
  • Low motivation
  • No appetite or full signal
  • Chronic headaches
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The metaphor of a tree is a useful one here. Without looking after the roots, the tree will eventually die. It won't happen straight away, and the symptoms will be visible at the edges, leaves turning brown and dying, before eventually branches start to fall off. Humans, like trees, need to look after the roots and the 'soil' they live in. 

Which brings me back to the first quote. Are you creating the right conditions for your body to function optimally? 

Here are 2 things you need to focus on (besides good quality nutrition, which I'm not going to delve into here) to ensure optimal health: -

1) Sleep Quality and Quantity:

The importance of sleep is becoming more and more apparent. This weekend's Sun Herald even had a double page spread on the importance of sleep. However, 40% of Australians don't get enough sleep according to the Sleep Foundation Report (2017).

Sleep isn't merely about quantity, though ensuring you get enough sleep is extremely important, but the overall quality of your sleep is crucial. More specifically the amount of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and SWS (Slow Wave Sleep) are extremely important as these phases have been found to be most important for hormonal regulation and restoration. 

Not only that but your sleep quality can have a major impact on your work life. The Sleep Health Foundation Report (2017) investigated the economic consequences of inadequate sleep. These were some of their findings: -

  • Total cost of inadequate sleep in Australia was a staggering $66.3 billion in 2016-17
  • Chronic inadequate sleep can cause heart disease, obesity, depression and other serious health conditions which puts a major burden on health services

Poor sleep can also: -

  • Significantly reduce daytime physical activity (Schmid et al, 2009)
  • Decrease leptin levels (known to suppress appetite) and increase ghrelin levels (known to promote hunger)
  • Increase cravings for carbohydrate-rich, energy dense foods
  • Reduced insulin sensitivity 
  • Gonnissen et al (2012) found that just a single night of fragmented sleep resulted in reduced REM sleep & shifted insulin concentrations such that they were higher in the afternoon, which could lead to increased food intake and snacking, thus contributing to an overall energy balance

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW, 2011) reported that “sleep disturbance” was the fourth most common mental health problem for Australians aged between 12 and 24, after depression, anxiety and drug abuse. Young people’s poor sleeping habits in turn are largely caused by factors such as extensive television watching, video gaming, increased social and recreational demands, and academic pressure (Colten & Altevogt 2006).

Inadequate sleep, and sleep disturbance, can be caused by: -

  • Jet lag
  • Shift work - Both shift work and jet lag cause a mismatch between your body's internal biological; clock, and the external environment.
  • Excessive working hours - Virtanen et al (2009) found that working more than 55 hours a week was significantly associated with incidental cases of short sleep, difficulty in falling asleep and waking without feeling refreshed when compared with normal working hours.
  • Screens and Blue Light - Long periods spent watching screens has the potential to disrupt their sleep cycles. Olds et al (2010) report that the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin is suppressed more strongly by exposure to blue light. Television and computer screens emit greater proportions of blue light wavelengths and therefore exposure to screens in the evening has the potential to inappropriately reset the body’s internal clock, which increases alertness, decreases the body’s ability to initiate sleep, reduces sleep quality and deregulates sleep/wake rhythms. The AIHW (2011) indicates that children who spend on average three hours of screen time per day are more likely to experience higher rates of poor sleep, and are more likely to experience poor educational outcomes than children who spend less time in front of screens.
  • Poor Sleep Conditions - When sleeping you want your room to be a cool temperature and as dark as possible to avoid any disruption to sleep. 

2) Stress Management:

Stress can be defined as the "the generalised, non-specific response of the body to any factor that overwhelms, or threatens to overwhelm, the body's compensatory abilities to maintain homeostasis" (Torres and Nowson, 2007).

Stress can be sub-divided into: -

  • Physiological - This could be things such as illness, injury, poor posture, training, exercise etc
  • Psychological - Work, relationships, family etc.

What we need to be concerned with is CHRONIC (long-term) STRESS - which can result in chronically elevated cortisol levels. This can lead to elevated blood glucose and, in the longer term, insulin resistance. Anxiety, depression, uneasiness, anger, apathy and alienation all accompany chronic stress. 

Chronic stress can also cause: -

  • Reduced energy expenditure
  • Increased appetite
  • Carbohydrate cravings
  • Poor carbohydrate tolerance
  • Impaired recovery from training
  • Reduced muscle growth
  • Reduced strength
  • Impaired immune system
  • Increased chance of injury

We cannot reasonably expect to eliminate stress from our lives. However, we can get better at managing our stress levels. Here are 5 tips to improve your stress management: -

1) Focus on using active, rather than passive coping mechanisms. passive coping mechanisms can be seen as 'band aid' approaches to a problem; they do not help solve the root cause of the stress. Passive coping mechanisms include seeking out diversions to distract you from your stressors, and can include food, cigarettes, alcohol. Active coping involves dealing with the root of the stress.

“Coping responses directed towards problem-solving and affective regulation were associated with less severe dysfunction, whereas emotional discharge responses… were linked to greater dysfunction” (Moos & Billings, 1984)

2) Organise your day into high and low stress phases: Rather than having chronic periods of stress that last all day, schedule some downtime into your day so that you can limit the periods of high stress. Try to organise your training around your high stress times, as training is a stress on the body. Low stress periods could include meditation, naps, walks outside, reading, or any other hobbies your find relaxing and restorative. If working from home, try to have some form of separation between work and private life. Having a separate room as an office can be highly beneficial.

Schedule some downtime into your diary

Schedule some downtime into your diary

3) Mindfulness and Meditation: Both mindfulness and meditation can help with the reduction of anxiety and depression. Whilst mindfulness is a form of passive coping, using mindfulness training will help with active coping mechanisms

4) Get Outside in Nature & Sunshine: This one of the simplest tasks we can do to reduce our stress levels. Taking a walk outside, preferably in nature, will help reduce stress. Research shows that even having a plant in your office/home can reduce stress & anxiety (Lee et al, 2015). One of the first habits I put in place with corporate clients who spend most of the day in an office is to take a walk outside during the day. 

5) Keep a gratitude log/journal: This is a great way of reducing anxiety, as you cannot experience anxiety and gratitude at the same time. Something I have found useful is to write down something I am grateful for in the morning, and then at the end of the day reflect on something that went well. 

What should be apparent from the points listed above is that stress management doesn't have to be complicated. It does however require the discipline to follow through with these actions, even during times of high stress.

Stress, sleep and nutrition are all closely inter-related and can impact on each other, both positively and negatively (see diagrams below).

The negative interaction of nutrition, sleep and stress on health.

The negative interaction of nutrition, sleep and stress on health.

The positive interaction of nutrition, sleep and stress on health

The positive interaction of nutrition, sleep and stress on health

Here is a negative scenario: -

  • You are eating foods that cause digestive distress
  • This leads to reduced nutrient uptake from food, causing fatigue and reduced energy
  • The fatigue and reduced energy means reduced performance at work, leading to increased stress from bosses who expect more
  • As a result of this digestive distress, your sleep is disturbed, leading to increased appetite during the day and brain fog upon waking
  • This causes increased stress levels which serves to worsen digestion and sleep

On the other hand, these factors can all positively impact on each other: -

  • You are sleeping 8 hours a night and waking feeling refreshed
  • As a result you are making good food decisions during the day and staying well hydrated
  • You are feeling less stressed as productivity at work has increased due to improved mental clarity of proper sleep
  • Your sleep remains good as you are not experiencing any extreme amounts of stress during the day and what stress you do have you are able to cope with

So, as you can see, you must look to improve nutrition, sleep and stress to ensure optimal results, not just one of them.

Hopefully you can appreciate now that fat loss isn't merely about reducing calories and moving more. Health is paramount and should be addressed first before anything else. Spend time sharpening the saw, and see how much easier the result come.