Why We Need Meditation and Mindfulness Now More than Ever

meditation illustration

With the way we’re living in the world today, many of us struggle with stress, anxiety, and other harmful mental states. Many people struggle with worrying, overthinking, or ruminating. Some struggle with “monkey mind,” with thoughts swinging wildly in different directions. In some cases, we’re too frazzled to have a rich inner life, and our hearts are heavy with the burdens of the day and concerns of the world.

Enter meditation.

With meditation, we can train our minds to become more present, focused, and still. We can train our attention and awareness, helping us feel calm and clear. Meditation is a means of quieting and focusing our mind.

Though we can stop there if we wish, focusing only on the psychological benefits, we’d be missing a big part of the point—and the other potential benefits. As a time-honored practice in several religious traditions, with roots in the teachings of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions, meditation is a contemplative practice intended to help us achieve greater spiritual insight. It can awaken our compassion and help us feel more connected to others, potentially including all beings, God, and the universe. And for some, it can lead to a more mindful and enlightened state of awareness and existence.

That leads us to the deeper territory of mindfulness. So, what is mindfulness, and how does it relate to meditation?

 

Mindfulness

According to Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Science Center, “Mindfulness describes a moment-to-moment awareness of your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. It’s a state of being attuned to what’s going on in your body and in the surrounding environment—being in the present moment without thinking about the future or what happened in the past.” Quite simply, we can think of it in terms of just three words:

Be here now.”
-Ram Dass, psychologist and spiritual teacher

When we’re mindful, we’re fully aware of the present moment while calmly noticing and accepting our thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in or judging them. Mindfulness is both a state and a practice. When we’re practicing it, we deliberately refocus our attention on experiencing the present moment, or what spiritual teacher Eckart Tolle calls “the now.”

Mindfulness has seen a surge of interest in recent years—from mindfulness in the workplace (including at companies including Aetna, Alphabet, BlackRock, Facebook, Ford, General Mills, Meta, Pixar, and more) and mindful eating to the rapid spread of mindfulness-based stress reduction programs at medical schools, hospitals, and other institutions around the world.

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The Link between Meditation and Mindfulness

Though some people use the terms “meditation” and “mindfulness” interchangeably, that’s a mistake. They’re related but not the same.

Meditation is a practice that can lead to a state of mindfulness, and mindfulness meditation is one of several forms of meditation. (See below for examples of different types of meditation.)

 

The Benefits of Meditation

University of Wisconsin neuroscientist Richard Davidson has conducted experiments on the effects of meditation on the brain. His results suggest that meditation may lead to changes in the physical structure of the brain regions associated with attention, fear, anger, compassion, anxiety, and depression. According to Jason Marsh of the Greater Good Science Center, brain imaging studies reveal that a half-hour of daily mindfulness meditation can increase the density of gray matter in the parts of the brains associated with memory and empathy.

According to researchers, meditation has many beneficial physical effects, including potential improvements in:

  • blood pressure
  • metabolism
  • immune response
  • sleep
  • longevity
  • alleviation of pain (including chronic pain)

Researchers also point to many mental and emotional benefits. For example, meditation, when done well over time, can:

  • improve brain activity and cognitive function (including mitigation of cognitive decline)
  • enhance attention, focus, and concentration
  • improve our mood and increase positive emotions that help provide resilience against negative emotions
  • help us cultivate self-awareness
  • promote empathy and compassion
  • decrease our anxiety and emotional reactivity
  • help us manage and reduce worrying and rumination
  • help improve performance on specific tasks (e.g., ones that require attention and accuracy)
  • help us manage our cravings (e.g., if we struggle with alcohol or overeating)
  • help us overcome burnout
  • help reduce symptoms of depression

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Different Types of Meditation

With its long history through the ages and its practice in different parts of the world, it’s not surprising that there are many different ways to practice meditation. Here are several different types of meditation:

Mindfulness meditation. We observe our thoughts nonjudgmentally without reacting to them, acknowledge them, and then let them go. It can also include deep breathing and bringing our attention to our mind and body. Many people consider focused attention meditation and open monitoring meditation as branches of mindfulness meditation.

Body scan meditation. We direct our attention to sensations happening in our body. We can mentally scan over different regions of our body, from head to toe.

Loving kindness meditation (also known as metta meditation). We silently repeat in our mind phrases of benevolence or good wishes directed at ourselves and people we love—and perhaps other people we don’t know or even rivals, animals, and/or the world or universe.

Transcendental meditation. We use a silent mantra repeated in our mind for a certain period of time or turn our attention within and end up with simple being, perhaps leading to what’s called “pure awareness” or “transcendental being.”

Death meditation (maranasati). We meditate on the fact that death can strike at any time. The idea is that being mindful of death can help us live well. According to the Buddha, “of all mindfulness meditation, that on death is supreme.”

 

Mindfulness Practices

Beyond meditation itself, there are also other things we can do to help make us more mindful. Here are several:

Deep breathing practices. During deep breathing practices (also included in many different types of meditation), we can place our attention on our breath (e.g., we can focus on the top of our head when we breathe in and our diaphragm when we breathe out). This can include exercises like box breathing, in which we breathe in while slowly counting to four, hold our breath for four seconds, slowly exhale for four seconds, and then hold our breath again. (Each of these four steps forms one side of an imaginary box.)

Being aware of your breath forces you into the present moment—the key to all inner transformation.”
-Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth

Engage in everyday activities mindfully. When we’re doing something—anything—we can place our attention on what we’re doing and only that. For example, we can focus on the taste, texture, and smell of the food we’re eating, or on the sensations and smells of the dishes we’re washing.

Reduce distractions. It seems like the modern world is designed to agitate our monkey mind with a barrage of inputs and distractions. Put our smartphones away (out of sight) and turn off notifications. The goal here is breaking our addiction to numbing and distraction so we can be more mindful about what we’re doing and experiencing.

Play the “game of fives.” Notice five things in our immediate vicinity that we see, hear, or smell. Then, fully experience them. It may help to imagine that it’s the first time we’ve ever experienced that thing. When we do this, all our attention moves to what we’re noticing in the now. (1)

Find sanctuary. Find or create places or practices of peace that reconnect us with our heart—and build them into the flow of our lives. (See our article, “Renewing Yourself Amidst the Chaos.”)

Engage in prayer, worship, or spiritual contemplation. By doing so, we can rise above the immediate concerns of our busy days and tap into something larger than ourselves with reverence, gratitude, awe, and wonder.

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Resources

  • Greater Good Science Center’s guide to mindfulness practices
  • UCLA Health guided meditations
  • Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness
  • Ellen Langer, Mindfulness
  • Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment
  • Calm app

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Meditation and Mindfulness

  • “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” -Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
  • “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” -John Milton, Paradise Lost
  • “By the practice of meditation, you will find that you are carrying within your heart a portable paradise.” -Paramahansa Yogananda, Indian Hindu monk, yogi, and guru
  • “Learn to watch your drama unfold while at the same time knowing you are more than your drama.” -Ram Dass, spiritual teacher, psychologist, and writer
  • “As you walk and eat and travel, be where you are. Otherwise, you will miss most of your life.” -Jack Kornfield, American Buddhist monk, teacher, and writer
  • “You can learn more in an hour of silence than you can in a year from books.” -Matthew Kelly, The Rhythm of Life
  • “What your future holds for you depends on your state of consciousness now.” -Eckhart Tolle, A New Earth
  • “Regardless of how we get there, either through meditation or more directly by paying attention to novelty and questioning assumptions, to be mindful is to be in the present, noticing all the wonders that we didn’t realize were right in front of us.” -Ellen Langer, Mindfulness

(1) A similar approach is the “54321 grounding method,” in which we take deep breaths and become aware of our surroundings and then look for five things we can see, four things we can touch, three things we can hear, two things we can smell, and one thing we can taste.

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Benefits of Nature and Getting Outside

Nature – path by water trees and mountains

How much time do you spend inside? How about staring at a screen? These days, we’re spending more and more of our time indoors and online. Many people don’t get outside enough.

Too many of us are nature-deprived. It’s part of a larger historical trend from the Industrial Revolution. With bigger cities and factories and more office work and indoor living, more and more of us have started feeling separate from nature—or even alienated from it. This has real implications. Richard Louv, an author and co-founder of the Child & Nature Network who coined the term “nature deficit disorder,” noted:

Nature is not only nice to have, but it’s a have-to-have for physical health and cognitive functioning.” (1)

 

The Benefits of Getting Outside and Being in Nature

Being in nature has all sorts of benefits. According to the research, being in nature can lead to a reduction of anxiety, blood pressure, heart rate, stress hormones, anger, attention fatigue, muscle tension, the effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder (a mood disorder in climates where there’s less sunlight during parts of the year), and more.

Furthermore, spending time in nature can help promote the following:

  1. greater attentional capacity, including focus and concentration
  2. our ability to connect with others (a key contributor to our happiness)
  3. creativity and creative problem-solving abilities
  4. empathy and love (2)
  5. more exercise
  6. immune function
  7. a sense of meaningfulness
  8. physical wellbeing
  9. positive mood
  10. sleep quality
  11. vitality
  12. healthy management of body weight
I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people.
I thought, ‘This is what it is to be happy.
’” -Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

To be clear, being in nature doesn’t have to mean deep wilderness expeditions. Many people these days live in cities or suburbs, and they’re wise to take advantage of what Linda Åkeson McGurk, author of The Open-Air Life, calls “nearby nature.” That means just getting outside in our local neighborhoods and finding whatever green or blue (water) spaces we can.

Nature – CITY PARK WITH LAKE AND FALL FOLIAGE

Sunlight plays an important role here. Direct sunlight has about 200 times the intensity of office lights. Our body’s internal clock depends on the daily cycle of sunlight and darkness. Getting exposure to sunlight helps us feel more tired at night and shorten the time to fall asleep. Sunlight exposure can help with fatigue and low mood. It also helps us get Vitamin D, which is important for our bones, blood cells, and immune system, as well as absorption of certain minerals (e.g., calcium and phosphorus). Also, it helps keep our serotonin levels up, which keeps our mood calm, positive, and focused.

Getting outside can also help us be more social. When we go outside, we get more chances to see and connect with people, which is essential for our health and happiness. (See my article, “The Most Important Contributor to Happiness.”)

There are different theories as to why being in nature is so beneficial. One is “biophilia theory”: since we evolved in wild, natural settings and relied on the environment for survival, we have an innate drive and need to be in nature. Another is “attention restoration theory”: being in nature replenishes our cognitive resources, like our ability to pay attention and concentrate, when they get depleted.

If you’ve been using your brain to multitask—as most of us do most of the day—and then you set that aside and go on a walk, without all of the gadgets, you’ve let the prefrontal cortex recover. And that’s when we see these bursts in creativity, problem-solving, and feelings of well-being.
-David Strayer, professor of cognition and neural science, University of Utah

Most likely, it’s a combination of these and other factors.

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10 Tips for Getting Outside

When we learn about all the benefits of getting outside, it can motivate us to do so. Still, we have work obligations, time pressures, and all sorts of online distractions and temptations. It’s a challenge for many of us. So, here are ten tips for getting outside more:

1. Keep it simple. It doesn’t have to be trekking into the deep wilderness. Take advantage of your nearby nature and do simple activities like walking.

2. Make it a habit and create outdoor rituals, like morning coffee on the deck, mid-day walks, or evening chats on the patio.

3. Exercise outside sometimes, including walks, hikes, runs, bike rides, or other outdoor activities or sports. (See my article, “Exercise and Movement for Health, Wellbeing, and Great Work.”)

4. Limit screen time, since it keeps us from enjoying the great outdoors. Don’t check your phone first thing in the morning. Check those daily screen time stats regularly. And be sure to unplug sometimes when out there walking or running so you can listen to the birdsong and be present where you are.

5. Experience nature with a friend. This comes with several benefits: deepening our social relationships (a primary contributor to our happiness), exercise, and all the advantages of nature.

6. Try gardening. It has many positive health benefits, according to a large body of research. Gardening, with its digging, planting, raking, carrying, squatting, kneeling, and more, entails functional movement that incorporates whole-body exercise, including movements similar to squats and lunges. According to the research, gardening can:

  • lower levels of stress and anxiety
  • improve our cognitive function and mood
  • reduce our body mass index
  • provide helpful structure to our days or weekends
  • increase our psychological wellbeing, quality of life, and sense of life satisfaction
  • enhance self-esteem and creativity
  • reduce the effects of dementia

What’s more, it’s gratifying to plant, tend, harvest, eat, and share home-grown food. It’s healthy and good for the environment as well. Gardening is also a great activity for practicing mindfulness.

7. Visit city parks, nature reserves, and national parks. They’re there for a reason. They can help bring calm, gratitude, or awe back into our lives.

8. Go camping, boating, climbing, or trekking. These are great ways to bring fun and adventure back into our lives.

9. Try forest bathing (spending time in a forest environment). The Japanese call it Shinrin-yoku. Studies show that it can help boost our energy and immune system as well as help us sleep better and recover more quickly when we get sick.

10. Go wild sometimes, i.e., do go to the forests, jungles, prairies, mountains, lakes, seas, or oceans sometimes. As writer Linda Åkeson McGurk points out, the wilder it is, the more restorative it’s likely to be.

 

What about Office Workers?

Thankfully, office workers aren’t doomed to nature deprivation. They’re wise to take breaks (including lunch) outdoors and have walking meetings whenever possible. It helps to have a supportive workplace. (3) For example, managers wanting to support the health, wellbeing, and productivity of their team can:

  • provide a space for employees to relax and get away from the office (e.g., an outdoor area with comfortable seating)
  • give workers flexible hours
  • offer wellness programs
  • have bicycles on the workplace grounds, if applicable, and/or provide incentives for commuting by bicycle
  • employ outdoor team-building activities
  • incorporate nature in company meetings and retreats

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What the Nordic Countries Taught Me About This

When I moved to Sweden many years ago, the temperature dropped to minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 30 degrees Celsius) that first winter. A bit colder, and we could have reached the place where Fahrenheit and Celsius converge (minus 40 Fahrenheit equals minus 40 Celsius). For this man who grew up in southern California, it was a shock. But not as big of a shock as seeing all the Swedes get out into that bone-chilling cold. There’s a famous saying in Swedish:

Det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”

Enter what the Swedes and Norwegians call friluftsliv (which we can translate as “free-air life,” “fresh-air life,” or “open-air life”). Linda Åkeson McGurk wrote a book about it: The Open-Air Life: Discover the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv and Embrace Nature Every Day.

Friluftsliv is about connecting with nature in simple ways. It’s a lifestyle in the Nordic countries that’s been passed down across generations, that’s taught in schools, and that’s used as preventive care for mental health (nature therapy), often for people with burnout.

When in the Nordics, you can see it all around you, from people enjoying time in their summer cottages for weeks at a time, to grilling hot dogs outside in the middle of winter (grillkorv), to baby strollers placed outside on the porch of daycare centers and preschools in the middle of winter, with the children swaddled in cozy blankets and breathing fresh air. It’s also a part of the work culture, with gå och prata möten (“walk and talk meetings”). There’s also a conservation aspect: the more connected we are to nature, the more likely we’ll be good stewards of natural places and resources.

During that first winter in Sweden, my inclination was to hunker down by the fireplace. Eventually, I learned a better approach. In Sweden, you just pile on with about seven layers of clothing, including snow pants and great winter gloves, boots, and hats, and you get out there in that magical winter. And in the dark rains of November. Rain or snow, you just get out. It makes a big difference. Friluftsliv.

What are your favorite ways to get outdoors?
How can you build more of them into your routines?

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Books and Podcasts

  • Book: Linda Åkeson McGurk, The Open-Air Life: Discover the Nordic Art of Friluftsliv and Embrace Nature Every Day (TarcherPerigee, 2022)
  • Book: Linda Åkeson McGurk, There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather: A Scandinavian Mom’s Secrets for Raising Healthy, Resilient, and Confident Kids (Touchstone, 2018)
  • Richard Louv, Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life (Algonquin Books, 2016)
  • Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2008)
  • Podcast: “We Know Nature Is Good for Us. Here’s How to Make Time for It, Scandinavian Style,” Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris podcast interview with Linda Åkeson McGurk, August 28, 2023.

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Nature

  • “In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous.” -Aristotle, ancient Greek philosopher
  • “They will forget the rush and strain of all the other weeks of the year, and for a short time at least, the days will be good for their bodies and good for their souls. Once more they will lay hold of the perspective that comes to those who every morning and every night can lift their eyes up to Mother Nature.” -Theodore Roosevelt, former U.S. president, naturalist, and conservationist
  • “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” -Henry David Thoreau, American naturalist, essayist, poet, and philosopher
  • “Nature itself is the best physician.” -Hippocrates
  • “If you wish to know the divine, feel the wind on your face and the warm sun on your hand.” -Buddha
  • “It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.” -Albert Einstein, theoretical physicist
  • “The earth has music for those who listen.” -William Shakespeare, English poet, playwright, and actor
  • “We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and Titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” -Henry David Thoreau, Walden
  • “I have just come from four days rest in Yosemite… Lying out at night under those giant sequoias was lying in a temple built by no hand of man, a temple grander than any human architect could by any possibility build….” -Theodore Roosevelt, former U.S. president, naturalist, and conservationist

 

Appendix: Research on the Benefits of Nature

A study of 19,806 people by University of Exeter environmental psychologist Mathew White and his colleagues found that people who spent two hours a week in green spaces (e.g., local parks or other natural environments) were substantially more likely to report good health and psychological wellbeing than those who don’t. This finding held true whether the visits to green spaces were all at once or spread out over multiple visits. Source: White, M.P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J. et al. Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Sci Rep 9, 7730 (2019).

“Walk in nature and feel the healing power of the trees.”
-Anthony William

In a Japanese experiment, researchers measured the heart rate and blood pressure of people who were assigned to either walk in a forest or an urban center. The walks were of equal length and difficulty. Those who walked in forests had significantly lower heart rates and reported better moods and less anxiety than the others. Finnish researchers found that city dwellers who walked for as little as 20 minutes through a city park or woodland reported significantly more stress relief than people who walked in a city center.

Dr. Gregory Bratman and his Stanford University colleagues conducted a 2015 study in which 60 participants were randomly assigned to walk for 50 minutes in either a natural setting of oak woodlands or in an urban setting along a four-lane road. The people who walked in nature experienced less anxiety, rumination, and negative affect (likelihood of experiencing negative emotions), plus more positive emotions and better performance on memory tasks. Dr. Bratman and his colleagues noted evidence from a review of the research that contact with nature is associated with increases in happiness, subjective wellbeing, positive social interactions, and a sense of meaning and purpose in life—as well as decreases in mental distress. Source: Gregory N. Bratman et al., Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Sci. Adv. 5, (2019).

According to a meta-analysis from Dr. Alison Pritchard at the University of Derby in England and her colleagues, people who feel more connected to nature have greater “eudaimonic wellbeing” (experiences associated with living a life of full flourishing, growth, authenticity, meaning, and excellence). Source: Pritchard, A., Richardson, M., Sheffield, D. et al. The Relationship Between Nature Connectedness and Eudaimonic Well-Being: A Meta-analysis. J Happiness Stud 21, (2020).

Peter Aspinall and his colleagues at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland studied participants while they walked through an urban green space. Mobile electroencephalogram (EEG) monitors showed lowered engagement, arousal, and frustration while in the green space and higher engagement levels when departing from the green space.

Roger Ulrich and his Texas A&M University colleagues conducted an experiment in which participants viewed a stressful movie and then either videos of natural scenes or videos of urban settings. The people who viewed natural scenes demonstrated a much quicker and more complete recovery from their stress. In a study of gallbladder surgery patients, with half of the patients given a view of trees and half given a view of a wall, the patients with the view of the trees tolerated pain better and spent less time in the hospital. Nurses also reported that they had fewer negative effects from the surgery.

Juyoung Lee, Dacher Keltner, and other University of California, Berkeley researchers showed participants nature scenes, independently rated for their levels of beauty, and then observed their behavior in two games, one measuring generosity and another measuring trust. Those who viewed the more beautiful nature scenes experienced greater positive emotions and acted with greater generosity and trust in the games than the others.

Penn State University sound researcher Joshua Smyth has found that when people hear songbirds, the tension in their nervous system falls. The opposite occurs when they hear cars and airplanes. Another study compared participants who listened to nature sounds (e.g., waves crashing and crickets chirping) to those who listened to urban sounds (e.g., traffic and the noises of a busy café). Those who listened to nature sounds performed better on demanding cognitive tests. Source: Van Hedger, S.C., Nusbaum, H.C., Clohisy, L. et al. Of cricket chirps and car horns: The effect of nature sounds on cognitive performance. Psychon Bull Rev 26, (2019).

According to a 2015 study of 2,000 people in the United Kingdom, more exposure to nature was associated with more community cohesion and substantially lower crime rates. Source: Netta Weinstein et al., Seeing Community for the Trees: The Links among Contact with Natural Environments, Community Cohesion, and Crime, BioScience, Volume 65, Issue 12, 01 December 2015.

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
-William Shakespeare, English poet, playwright, and actor

The benefits of nature aren’t limited to green spaces. They also come from blue spaces, including marine and freshwater environments.

(1) According to researchers, concentrations of air pollutants are much higher indoors than outdoors, and there’s a risk of respiratory problems because of that. Being outside can also help reduce the chances of contracting airborne viruses like the flu and covid-19.

(2) When study participants viewed nature scenes, it activated the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love, according to fMRI scans.

(3) More and more organizations are paying attention to and investing in this. We’ve even seen an increase in “forest schools” in many countries. Forest schools are found in Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, China, and Japan, among other countries.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Great Sleep for Health, Wellness, and Great Work

Good nutrition, exercise, and sleep are three key drivers of our health and wellness.

No surprise there, but that doesn’t mean we’ve got them covered. In this article, we focus on great sleep for health, wellness, and great work. (We covered nutrition and exercise in previous articles.) Sleep is the “sleeper” of the three—often overlooked but hugely important. I used to focus mostly on exercise and nutrition but have recently come to see how sleep really is the linchpin.

“Sleep is the most underrated health habit.”
-Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer, Wellness Institute, Cleveland Clinic

 

Many People Struggle with Sleep

Many people struggle with not sleeping well. The National Sleep Foundation reports that about 40 million Americans have a chronic sleep disorder, 62% of U.S. adults have trouble sleeping at least a few nights a week, and 30% of Americans experience insomnia at some point over the course of a year. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than one in four U.S. high school students gets the recommended amount of sleep per night. (1)

Of course, this is a worldwide problem. According to the International Journal of Epidemiology, about 30% of adults report having had “some insomnia problems over the past year”—and about  10% report having chronic insomnia.

 

The Problem of Not Sleeping Well

There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is widely considered to be a form of torture. With poor sleep comes a wide range of risks and side effects. For example, it leads to a higher risk of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, hypertension, obesity, and depression.

Sleep loss slows our metabolism and triggers food and sugar cravings. (2) It elevates cortisol, a key stress hormone, and scrambles our blood sugar.

Poor sleeps impairs our memory—both short- and long-term—including our ability to consolidate learning during the previous day. It downgrades our mood, negatively affecting our relationships and parenting. And it reduces our productivity.

“When you are tired, you are not yourself. Well, at least not the best version of yourself.”
-Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter

Generally, sleep deprivation may facilitate or intensify all sorts of problems, including:

  • accidents
  • addictive behaviors
  • anxiety
  • appearance issues (e.g., dark circles under our eyes)
  • appetite surges
  • attention problems
  • blood pressure problems
  • concentration problems
  • confusion
  • depression
  • reduced enthusiasm about positive events
  • headaches
  • increased stress hormone levels
  • immune system suppression
  • impulsiveness
  • irritability
  • lower libido and sexual health in both sexes
  • memory lapses or loss
  • motivation drops
  • obesity
  • relationship problems
  • violent behavior
  • temper tantrums in children (and some adults)
“Without enough sleep, we all become tall two-year-olds.”
-JoJo Jensen

According to a study in The Lancet, surgeons who had not slept the previous night took 14% longer to complete a task and made 20% more errors than those who had a full night’s sleep.

 

Effects of Poor Sleep on Leaders

For leaders, poor sleep can be an occupational hazard—especially if they work in an organization with a culture of burnout.

Too many leaders brush this aside. “Sleep is for wimps,” they say, or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

“The Western workplace culture… is practically fueled by stress, sleep deprivation, and burnout.”
-Arianna Huffington, Thrive

Unfortunately, poor sleep negatively affects skills and capacities that are important for leadership effectiveness, including:

  • ability to focus
  • cognitive speed
  • decision-making capacity
  • mathematical processing
  • performance on tasks

In a nutshell, being tired is a terrible state for leading and living. Importantly, sleep deprivation also makes us less ethical, according to researchers, in part by reducing our resistance to pressure. In his book, Sleep Smarter, Shawn Stevenson notes that when we don’t sleep, our parietal lobe and prefrontal cortex lose a significant amount of their glucose, impacting our social control and ability to tell the difference between right and wrong.

According to researchers Christopher Barnes, Brian Gunia, and Sunita Sah writing in their Harvard Business Review article, “people who didn’t sleep well the previous night can often act unethically, even if they aren’t unethical people.” In an experimental study, tired participants (after an all-nighter) were given the opportunity to play along with a lie to earn money. The result? Tired participants were more likely to abandon their morals for cash.

Author Ruth Haley Barton, founder of the Transforming Center, distinguishes between what she calls “good tired” and “dangerous tired”:

“Dangerous tired is an atmospheric condition of the soul that is volatile and portends the risk of great destruction. It is a chronic inner fatigue accumulating over months (and sometimes years)…. it can actually be masked by excessive activity and compulsive overworking. When we are dangerously tired we feel out of control, compelled to constant activity by inner impulses that we may not even be aware of. For some reason we can’t name, we’re not able to linger and relax over a cup of coffee. We can’t keep from checking voice-mail or e-mail ‘just one more time’ before we leave the office or before we go to bed at night.”

Our state of sleep deprivation impairs our judgment and can bring out the worst in us, causing damage to our health, families, teams, and organizations. (See my article, “The Problem with Tired Leaders.”)

“We continue to live by a remarkably durable myth: sleeping one hour less will give us one more hour of productivity. In reality, the research suggests that even small amounts of sleep deprivation take a significant toll on our health, our mood, our cognitive capacity, and our productivity.” -Tony Schwartz, “Sleep Is More Important than Food,” Harvard Business Review, March 3, 2011

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Benefits of Great Sleep

By contrast, quality sleep comes with an incredible array of benefits. For example, it has positive effects on:

  1. appearance
  2. bones
  3. cognitive function
  4. disease prevention
  5. emotional regeneration
  6. hormonal balance
  7. immune system function
  8. inflammation (reduction)
  9. longevity
  10. memory
  11. performance
  12. relationships
  13. sexual function, including desire and arousal
  14. skin health
  15. stress resilience
  16. weight loss
“Sleep… will magnify the results you get from your food and movement in the most amazing way if you allow it to…. Sleep is the secret sauce. There isn’t one facet of your mental, emotional, or physical performance that’s not affected by the quality of your sleep.” -Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter

Good sleep is also a driver of athletic performance. It’s no secret that top organizations, from the U.S. Olympic Committee to professional sports teams, as well as athletes (including LeBron James, Tom Brady, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Phelps), musicians, and artists, have worked to tap into the amazing power of great sleep. Stanford University researchers tested members of the men’s varsity basketball team after increasing the amount of sleep they got and discovered the following:

  • increased speed (faster sprint times)
  • improved shooting (9% improvement in free-throw and three-point shooting)
  • faster reaction times
  • less fatigue
  • improvement in mood and overall physical wellbeing

According to Cheri Mah, a researcher at the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, “What these findings suggest is that these athletes were operating at a sub-optimal level” before their sleep time was extended. “They’d accumulated a sleep debt…. It’s not that they couldn’t function… but that they might not have been at their full potential.”

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Top Strategies for Getting Great Sleep

So how should we go about it? Here are top strategies for getting great sleep:

Make sleep a priority, since it affects everything we do so profoundly. Turn the good sleep practices below into rituals and habits. Reject a “grind culture” at your office or a mentality of toughing out late nights.

Get enough sleep, consistently. Most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. (1) Find out what works best for you by learning to listen to your body. If in doubt, start by increasing sleep by just 30 minutes for a few days and see how it feels—or take a short nap (20-30 minutes) during the day, if possible.

Awaken early in the morning. According to researchers, waking early can help reduce negative thoughts and set us up for better quality sleep the next night. Also, “night owls” tend to sleep less overall than early risers, and they’re more likely to develop sleep disorders.

Get adequate sunlight during the day—including some sunlight as early as possible after waking up. Our sleep cycle depends in part on the amount of sunlight we get. Not getting enough sunlight can disrupt our circadian timing system.

Get adequate exercise. When we sleep, our body releases many beneficial hormones and does the repair work necessary for us to benefit from our workouts. The relationship between sleep and exercise is powerful—and bidirectional. Getting good exercise—including strength training two or three times a week—helps us sleep better, and getting good sleep helps us exercise and perform better. Morning workouts are ideal for the best sleep, so be sure to move in the morning even if you do your main workout in the afternoon. When we exercise early in the day, it gets us in a good cortisol cycle. Meanwhile, exercising too late in the evening raises our temperature, which can make it harder to fall asleep.

Limit screen time, especially before bed. According to researchers, using electronic devices before bed can negatively affect our alertness and our circadian clock. Shawn Stevenson notes that eliminating screen time at night is “likely the number one thing you can do to improve your sleep quality immediately.” If we shut off all screens at least 90 minutes before bedtime, we help our bodies normalize our natural melatonin and cortisol levels. Little things like blue light blockers and “Do Not Disturb” phone settings can go a long way.

Manage caffeine intake and set a caffeine curfew. Caffeine is a powerful stimulant that excites our nervous system, and it causes our adrenal glands to produce adrenaline and cortisol, both of which work against our sleep. If taken in excess, caffeine can make us jittery and can cause insomnia. It has a “half-life” of between five to eight hours. Avoid energy drinks because they provide excessive amounts of caffeine (e.g., 80-300mg) and use natural sources (e.g., green and black tea or coffee) instead. According to many experts, most people need a caffeine curfew of 2:00 p.m. (3)

Calm our inner chatter. Many people have difficulty falling asleep because their mental wheels won’t stop spinning. Many struggle with overthinking, rumination, and worrying. Simple calming or relaxation techniques can go a long way. For example, try deep breathing or meditation, or listen to calming apps (e.g., the Calm app), stories, or audiobooks.

“A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.”
-Charlotte Bronte, English novelist

Create a sleep sanctuary—a cozy place that your mind and body associate with rest and sleep. That begins with a comfortable bed with a quality mattress, sheets, pillows, and blankets. Set it up for peace, quiet, and comfort.

Create a relaxing bedtime ritual. Start winding down 30 to 45 minutes before bed. Do something relaxing, like listening to light music, journaling, or reading a book (ideally, fiction, poetry, or something spiritual—and not something that will generate stressful thoughts about work).

“A bedtime ritual teaches the brain to become familiar with sleep times and wake times.
It programs the brain and internal body clock to get used to a set routine.”

-Jessica Alexander, National Bed Federation

Maintain a regular bedtime. Keeping a consistent sleep schedule (both going to bed and arising in the morning—even on weekends) can dramatically improve our sleep quality because our body gets into a good sleep rhythm.

Set an eating and snacking curfew well before bedtime. It’s best to give our bodies at least 90 minutes to digest food before bedtime—and even better with more time.

Avoid or reduce alcohol consumption. Alcohol can significantly disrupt our REM sleep and prevent our brain and body from fully rejuvenating. When we do consume alcohol, it’s best to stop at least three hours before bedtime.

Remove devices from the bedroom. According to a 2023 Reviews.org survey of 1,000 Americans, 60% sleep with their phone by their sides (e.g., nightstand) at night, and many check alerts and notifications in the middle of the night, seriously disrupting their sleep. Watching television before bed also disrupts our sleep cycle.

Make sure it’s dark when we sleep. Light sources can disrupt our sleep patterns significantly by throwing our biological clock out of whack. We sleep better when it’s dark enough that we can’t see our hand in front of our face. Blackout curtains are a good investment.

Maintain a cool temperature in the bedroom—ideally, between 60-68 degrees Fahrenheit, or 16-20 degrees Celsius.

Use technology to measure sleep duration and quality (e.g., sleep tracking devices), and make adjustments accordingly.

 

What to Do If You’re Having Trouble Falling Asleep

If you’re having trouble falling asleep, get up out of bed after a while and go do something relaxing (without a screen), instead of just lying there and getting frustrated. If there’s a lot on your mind, such as unfinished projects or ideas about how to address a problem, write it down. That way, you can avoid having your working memory churning on it. (A caution: Don’t try to suppress unwanted thoughts because that only makes it worse. Consider scheduling worry time in the afternoon and writing down worries and stressors so they’re captured on paper—leaving no need for your mind to keep spinning on them. See my article, “What to Do About Overthinking, Rumination, and Worrying.”

Other recommended practices:

  • Think of three things you’re grateful for about your day while lying in bed.
  • Count backward from 100 to zero as slowly as possible.
  • Check with your doctor for underlying sleep conditions (e.g., sleep apnea) if the problem persists.
  • When needed, take natural, herbal supplements (e.g., nighttime tea with chamomile)—and don’t go straight to sleeping pills or melatonin. (4)

 

Conclusion

In the end, sleep is pivotal to everything we do. It affects everything. If “sitting is the new smoking,” as they way, then sleep is the new cool. So hit that pillow without guilt and enjoy the experience of life when we feel rested, fresh, calm, energized, and ready for the day. Our lives are too important to spend them in a foggy state of fatigue.

Wishing you well with it!
Gregg

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Resources

Books:

  • Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter (Rodale, 2016)
  • Arianna Huffington, Thrive (Harmony Books, 2014)

Podcasts:

  • “Model Health Show” (Shawn Stevenson)
  • “Feel Better, Live More” (Dr. Rangan Chatterjee)

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Sleep

  • “Sleep is a necessary part of life, though most of us scrape by with as little as possible. Most physicians and public health officials ignore it as a cornerstone of optimal health…. It turns out that sleep can make or break your ability to lose weight, age slowly, prevent cancer, and perform at a high level.” -Dr. Sara Gottfried, physician-scientist
  • “Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.” -Thomas Dekker, English dramatist
  • “Proper sleep has helped me get to where I am today as an athlete, and it is something that I continue to rely on every day.” -Tom Brady, American football quarterback and champion
  • “A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book.” -Irish proverb
  • “Never waste any time you can spend sleeping.” -Frank H. Knight, economist
  • “The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.” -E. Joseph Cossman, inventor, entrepreneur, and author
  • “When you’re sleep deprived at work, it’s much easier to simply go along with unethical suggestions from your boss because resistance takes effort and you’re already worn down.” -David Welsh, a University of Washington professor
  • “With too little sleep, people do things that no CEO in his or her right mind would allow.” -Dr. Charles Czeisler, Professor of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School
  • “Tired officers are always pessimists.” -General George S. Patton, World War II U.S. Army General
  • “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” -Vince Lombardi, legendary football coach
  • “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” -Bill Clinton, former U.S. president (famous for getting five hours of sleep a night)
  • “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.” -John Steinbeck, writer

 

References

(1) Most teens should get between eight and ten hours of sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. The amount of sleep we need changes throughout our life. Here are guidelines for recommended amounts of sleep by age group:

  • newborns: 14-17 hours
  • infants: 12-15 hours
  • toddlers: 11-14 hours
  • preschoolers: 10-13 hours
  • school-aged children: 9-11 hours
  • teenagers: 8-10 hours
  • adults: 7-9 hours

(2) Sleep deprivation triggers higher activity in our amygdala, an emotional and reactive part of the brain associated with our motivation to eat. Also, it reduces activity in the more advanced parts of the brain associated with judgment, maintaining social appropriateness, social control, and decision-making.

(3) Those who take too much caffeine are wise to consider reducing it gradually, because it can have withdrawal symptoms, including headaches, nervousness, and fatigue. Few people realize that decaffeinated coffee actually contains some caffeine (e.g., 2 to 15 milligrams), though much less than regular coffee.

(4) Stevenson points out that many experts agree that melatonin supplements can be very effective for some people, but it’s a hormone that has a risk of potential problems, including down-regulating our body’s natural ability to use melatonin on its own and creating a dependency. Many people turn to sleeping pills prematurely without understanding the causes of their sleep problems (e.g., too much caffeine, irregular schedule, anxiety, depression, chronic stress, physical problems, side effects from other medications, etc.).

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Exercise and Movement for Health, Wellness, and Great Work

There are three key drivers of our health and wellness: good nutrition, exercise, and sleep.

They may seem simple and obvious, but that doesn’t mean we’ve got them covered. In this article, we focus on exercise for health and wellness. (We cover nutrition and sleep in separate articles.)

 

The Problem of Not Enough Exercise

Many people struggle with not getting enough exercise—and with too much sitting and sedentary behavior. Adults between age 20 and 75 (from a sample of more than 2,600) reported spending an average of 9.5 hours of sedentary time each day, not including sleep.

It’s been said that “sitting is the new smoking” because of its serious adverse health effects. Our bodies were made to move, and they pay a price when we don’t. When we’re sedentary, there’s a dramatic drop in the production of enzymes that burn fat (a drop of as much as 90%) and our metabolism slows.

“Sitting is the new smoking….
Sitting is more dangerous than smoking, kills more people than HIV, and is more treacherous than parachuting.”
-Dr. James Levine, professor of medicine, Mayo Clinic

Excess sitting is associated with a shorter life span. According to Dr. Michael Greger in his book, How Not to Die, “men who sit for six hours or more per day have a 20% higher overall death rate compared to men who sit for 3 hours or less, while women who sit for more than 6 hours have a 40% higher death rate.”

“…exercising for 30 to 60 minutes does not come close to making up for the damage done by sitting….
We are built for motion.”
-Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life

 

24 Benefits of Exercise

Exercise comes with an incredible array of benefits. For example, it has positive effects on:

  1. management of anxiety and depression
  2. appearance
  3. balance and coordination
  4. blood pressure
  5. bone health and strength
  6. brain health and cognitive capacity and function, including concentration, focus, learning speed, mental stamina, memory, and mitigating cognitive decline
  7. body weight (both preventing excessive weight gain and maintaining healthy weight levels, which is important for blood pressure and cholesterol as well as lower risk of heart disease and diabetes)
  8. chronic condition management (e.g., arthritis, diabetes)
  9. confidence
  10. creativity
  11. disease prevention (including the flu, pneumonia, covid-19, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, stroke, and cancers such as bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, lung, stomach)
  12. energy
  13. happiness
  14. immune system function
  15. longevity
  16. mental health and wellness
  17. mood
  18. motivation
  19. muscles and strength
  20. relaxation
  21. sex drive and sexual function (including enhanced arousal for women and fewer problems with erectile dysfunction for men)
  22. sleep (including quality, latency, and depth)
  23. stamina
  24. stress management

Exercise improves our ability to do daily activities, and it helps us avoid falls—a leading cause of injury and deaths, especially among older people. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one out of four Americans aged 65 or older falls each year. Falls are the leading cause of injuries (both fatal and nonfatal) among older adults. Exercise helps lower the risk of premature death from all causes, according to the research.

Because it stimulates brain chemicals, exercise leaves us feeling happier, more relaxed, and less anxious. Also, it delivers oxygen and nutrients to our tissues and helps our cardiovascular system work more effectively.

If we want to live good lives, we need to move our bodies. Nearly every marker of vitality—from reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes to enhanced brain function, elevated mood, better ability to deal with stress, reduced anxiety and depression, and amped cognitive and physical abilities—is made better by exercise. Exercise is powerful medicine.” -Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life

 

Exercise, Productivity, and Work

How does exercise affect our work capacity? According to a Leeds Metropolitan University study of the effects of daytime exercise among more than 200 office workers who had access to a company gym, workers—on days when they exercised at the gym—reported managing their time more effectively, being more productive, having better interactions with colleagues, and feeling more satisfied at the end of the day.*

Equally telling, when we don’t exercise, we get tired more easily and lose energy and stamina. We get stressed, irritable, and more forgetful and impulsive.

Importantly, exercise is also a “keystone habit” with multiple spillover benefits in other areas, from mood and mental health to confidence, nutrition, and productivity.

“Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. Exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change.”
-Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Why Exercise Is Hard for So Many

Though we know exercise is good for us, that doesn’t mean we’ll do it—or stick with it. When we were children, most of us moved a lot naturally. Exercise came naturally through play and curiosity.

That often changes as we grow older. Why? Many reasons. We tell ourselves we’re too busy to exercise. We say we’re too tired, or we don’t feel like it. Perhaps the weather isn’t quite right (too hot, or too cold, or wet or humid). Perhaps we think of ourselves as lazy.

In some cases, we’ve had bad childhood experiences with exercise. Maybe we felt self-conscious in gym class at school. Or we were embarrassed in sports—or felt guilt about letting our teammates down. Maybe we were hurt by overly critical parents, coaches, or physical education teachers.

Some have pain, injuries, or disabilities that make exercise harder. Others view it as punishment or something to be endured instead of something fun.

Many of us nowadays feel time-starved. We’ve allowed our days to get so packed with meetings, activities, deadlines, and deliverables that we’ve cheated ourselves of the health and energy needed to allow those to continue effectively. It’s a recipe for stress, resentment, and burnout.

“Instead of viewing exercise as something we do for ourselves—a personal indulgence that takes us away from our work—it’s time we started considering physical activity as part of the work itself. The alternative, which involves processing information more slowly, forgetting more often, and getting easily frustrated, makes us less effective at our jobs and harder to get along with for our colleagues.”
-Ron Friedman, “Regular Exercise Is Part of Your Job,” Harvard Business Review, October 3, 2014

There are also biological and evolutionary factors at work. According to Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, we humans are hard-wired by evolution to tend toward inactivity. When food was scarce, going for a workout was maladaptive because it wastes precious energy. By resting as much as possible, our ancestors would wisely conserve their energy for when they really needed it. In today’s world of material abundance for so many, people have to override those ancient instincts to conserve energy.

 

Top Strategies for Getting Enough Exercise

So how should we go about it? Here are top strategies for exercise and movement:

Start small and keep it simple. Exercise doesn’t need to be complicated. We don’t necessarily need workout clothes, equipment, or a gym membership. Walk more. Take the stairs. Park at the back of lot. Get off the bus a stop early. Walk or bike to work or school, if possible.

“Some physical activity is better than doing none.”
-World Health Organization

Make exercise and regular movement as easy as possible. Keep those running or walking shoes by the bed. Have that gym bag packed and ready to go. Eliminate barriers and excuses.

Choose activities we enjoy. A little fun factor goes a long way. We tend to feel more confident and perform better when we enjoy what we’re doing. Incorporate play or a challenge into exercise, making it fun again, with novelty and change. Use the principles of “flow”: ensure there’s a clear set of goals, immediate feedback on our progress toward goals, and a good balance between perceived challenges and our skills (so things aren’t too difficult or too easy). Facilitate exercise through enjoyable hobbies that require some movement (e.g., gardening).

Find powerful and sustainable motivation to drive our exercise. Connect our exercise to a deeper why and our higher aspirations and life goals—ones that have emotional resonance for us. Keep those higher aims front and center in our minds. Examples:

  • “I exercise and stay healthy so I can feel great when I work on my new business.”
  • “I work out so I can be alive and energetic with my kids (or grandkids).”

Create habit loops for exercise so we stop thinking about it and just do it automatically. In his book, The Power of Habit, investigative reporter Charles Duhigg notes that we create more effective and lasting habits when they have a three-step loop:

  1. Cue: a trigger that tells our brain to go into automatic mode—and which habit to use.
  2. Routine: a physical, mental, or emotional practice that becomes standard.
  3. Reward: a psychological or emotional payoff that helps our brain decide that this habit loop is worth remembering and repeating.

Duhigg writes, “The cue, in addition to triggering a routine, must also trigger a craving for the reward to come.” He provides an example:

“Want to exercise more? Choose a cue, such as going to the gym as soon as you wake up, and a reward, such as a smoothie after each workout. Then think about that smoothie, or about the endorphin rush you’ll feel. Allow yourself to anticipate the reward. Eventually, that craving will make it easier to push through the gym doors every day.”
-Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit

Set challenging but realistic goals. Too many people don’t have any goals or set unrealistic goals and end up quitting out of frustration when they fall short. Good goals help us with focus, motivation, and commitment—especially when we keep them visible and top of mind. Write them down, display them, and talk about them.

Set milestones to shoot for and celebrate on the way to achieving goals. This will help us avoid the problem of insufficient or fading motivation from goals that are distant. Examples: 500 more steps walked per day on average vs. last month, or celebrating each pound lost on the way to a target weight. (See my article, “Goal-Pursuit: Best Practices.”)

Use implementation intentions. These are concrete plans to follow through on our goals. They come in a specific form: “I will (BEHAVIOR) at (TIME) in (PLACE).” Example: “I will exercise for 40 minutes at noon on weekdays at my local gym.” In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear cites research from the British Journal of Health Psychology on 248 people and their exercise habits. Researchers placed the people into three groups:

  1. the control group (asked only to track how often they exercised)
  2. the “motivation” group (asked to track their workouts and to read and hear from the researchers about the benefits of exercise, e.g., improved heart health)
  3. the “plan” group (who received the same presentation as the second group but were also asked to devise a plan for when and where they would exercise: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”)

The results were surprising: a much higher percentage of people in the third group exercised at least once a week (91% vs. 38% and 35%). See the chart below.

Find out what works for you and do more of that. There’s no need to try everything. Start with one or two simple approaches that seem promising and see what works and what doesn’t. Don’t expect perfection and risk getting frustrated.

Replace bad habits with good ones. For example, go without devices for an evening and focus on walking or moving instead. This comes with a double benefit of building momentum while reducing harm.

Build in social and group components to exercise. Join a team or enlist a workout buddy, trainer, accountability partner, or hiking hive. Note that there are different types of “social.” In one type, we’re doing things individually but in the presence of others (e.g., at a yoga class). In another type, we’re working together as a group on things (e.g., doubles tennis or pickleball, or a sports team). The latter can be more effective in instilling routine and accountability because it involves more mutual dependence.**

“We tie physical activity to community. I think that has ancient and deep roots…. The most effective exercise programs are ones that are social and communal and it’s always been that way.
People for millions of years went out [hunting and gathering] in groups.”
-Daniel Lieberman, expert in human evolutionary biology

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

10 More Tips for Exercise and Movement

Here are 10 more things we can do to ensure we’re moving and exercising more:

  1. Walk more, including a brisk walk daily***
  2. Use a step counter or other technology to track our progress
  3. Calendarize exercise to help instill regularity and accountability
  4. Build movement into regular microbreaks
  5. Engage in both cardio and strength training
  6. Get out into nature and get some sunlight (e.g., try “forest bathing”)****
  7. Build in enough recovery time to avoid injury and ensure our exercise is sustainable
  8. Drink enough water and ensure proper hydration
  9. Don’t exercise too close to bedtime, as it may give us too much energy and make it harder to fall asleep
  10. Give ourselves grace and avoid harmful self-judgment

 

How to Make It Stick

How to ensure we keep exercising and don’t give up? A New Mexico State University study of 266 people looked into not why people exercised but why they continued to do so regularly.***** The reason, in a nutshell, was the reward they began to crave. The majority of people in one group continued exercising because they felt good after doing so (with the endorphins and other neurochemicals generated by exercise), and they grew to expect and crave that feeling. The majority in another group reported that they continued exercising because it gave them a sense of accomplishment, and they craved the positive feeling they got when they tracked their performance.

In the end, one of the most powerful things we can do is change our mindset about exercise and movement. Not everyone has the gift of health and movement. Too often, we take it for granted. Better to view movement as a privilege, not a chore—and something we can invest in so we have the ability to do all the other important things in our lives.

Wishing you well with it!

Gregg

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Resources

Books:

  • Kelly McGonigal, The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage (Avery, 2021)
  • Kelly Starrett and Juliet Starrett, Built to Move: The Ten Essential Habits to Help You Move Freely and Live Fully (Knopf, 2023)
  • Caroline Williams, Move: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind Free (Hanover Square Press, 2022)
  • Michael Greger, How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease (Flatiron Books, 2015)
  • Michael Greger, How Not to Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss (Flatiron Books, 2019)
  • Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter (Rodale, 2016)

Podcasts:

  • Feel Better, Live More (Dr. Rangan Chatterjee)
  • Model Health Show (Shawn Stevenson)
  • The Rich Roll Podcast (Rich Roll)
  • The Driver (Dr. Peter Attia)
  • Found My Fitness (Dr. Rhonda Patrick)
  • 20 Minute Fitness Podcast
  • Nutrition Facts (Dr. Michael Greger)

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Exercise and Movement

  • “It is exercise alone that supports the spirits and keeps the mind in vigor.” -Marcus Tullius Cicero, ancient Roman statesman and philosopher
  • “Walking is the best possible exercise. Habituate yourself to walk very far.” -Thomas Jefferson, former U.S. president
  • “Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness.” -Joseph Pilates, German-born physical trainer, writer, and inventor
  • “A fit, healthy body—that is the best fashion statement.” -Jess C. Scott, writer
  • “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.” -Jim Rohn, entrepreneur and author
  • “The greatest wealth is health.” -unknown
  • “Time and health are two precious assets that we don’t recognize and appreciate until they have been depleted.” -Denis Waitley, speaker, writer, and consultant
  • “Happiness lies first of all in health.” -George William Curtis, writer
  • “Good things come to those who sweat.” -unknown
  • “Exercise is a celebration of what your body can do. Not a punishment for what you ate.” -anonymous
  • “When it comes to health and well-being, regular exercise is about as close to a magic potion as you can get.” -Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, author, and teacher
  • “If you don’t make time for exercise, you’ll probably have to make time for illness.” -Robin Sharma, Canadian lawyer turned writer
  • “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” -Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols
  • “Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.” -John F. Kennedy, former U.S. president
  • “A feeble body weakens the mind.” -Jean-Jaques Rousseau, Swiss philosopher and composer
  • “Exercise is amazing, from the inside out. I feel so alive and have more energy.” -Vanessa Hudgens, actress and singer
  • “A healthy outside starts from the inside.” -Robert Urich, actor and producer
  • “Physical activity can be an effective treatment for mental health problems.” -Ben Singh, lead author of a large new meta-analysis with 97 reviews and more than 128,000 participants, research fellow, University of South Australia
  • “Sustained high achievement demands physical and emotional strength as well as a sharp intellect. To bring mind, body, and spirit to peak condition, executives need to learn what world-class athletes already know: recovering energy is as important is expending it…. When people feel strong and resilient—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually—they perform better, with more passion, for longer. They win, their families win, and the corporations that employ them win.” -Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, “The Making of a Corporate Athlete,” Harvard Business Review, January 2001
  • “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.” -1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (New International Version)

* Coulson, J.C. & McKenna, Jim & Field, M.. (2008). Exercising at work and self-reported work performance. International Journal of Workplace Health Management.

** Finlay, Krystina & Trafimow, David & Villarreal, Aimee. (2006). Predicting Exercise and Health Behavioral Intentions: Attitudes, Subjective Norms, and Other Behavioral Determinants. Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

*** According to Dr. Michael Greger in How Not to Die, “Walking 300 minutes/week (about 40 min./day) drops overall mortality by 14%.” Try walking meetings. They get us moving instead of sitting and they can also make the meeting more collaborative and enjoyable, with added benefits of fresh air and sunshine.

**** Forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) was started in Japan in the 1980s. According to the research, it can help us manage stress and anxiety, improve our circulatory health and resilience, and generate an enhanced immune response.

***** In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg points to fascinating research conducted by a social scientist and a mathematician to help the YMCA figure out what got people to keep working out at their facilities. Emotional factors were big drivers of retention. An example: whether YMCA employees knew members’ names and greeted people when they walked in. “People,” Duhigg writes, “often go to the gym looking for a human connection, not a treadmill.”

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Good Nutrition for Health and Wellness

Three things can rev up our health and energy engine: good nutrition, exercise, and sleep.

They may seem simple and obvious, but that doesn’t mean that they’re easy to implement consistently over time. Here, we focus on good nutrition for health and wellness.

 

The Problem of Poor Nutrition

Unfortunately, many people struggle with poor nutrition. The “standard American diet” as they call it is, well, SAD.

In his book, How Not to Die, esteemed American physician and author Dr. Michael Greger notes the following:

  • “Our diet is the number-one cause of premature death and the number-one cause of disability.”
  • “More than two-thirds of American adults are overweight.” (A healthy weight is important for heart health, blood pressure, cholesterol, avoiding diabetes, and more.)
  • “We may be in the process of raising the first generation of children in America with a shorter predicted life span than their parents.”
“Health is not valued until sickness comes.”
-Thomas Fuller

Unfortunately, most of our calories come from unhealthy sources, and very few come from the healthiest sources (such as whole plant foods), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. See the chart below.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

 

15 Benefits of Good Nutrition

Good nutrition comes with an incredible array of benefits. For example, it has positive effects on:

  1. energy
  2. growth
  3. repair
  4. heart health, including lower risk of heart disease (the top killer in the U.S. and around the world)
  5. immune function
  6. muscles
  7. bones, including lower risk of osteoporosis
  8. skin
  9. eyes
  10. teeth
  11. blood pressure
  12. cholesterol
  13. weight
  14. sexual function
  15. longevity

Good nutrition can also play a big role in prevention of diet-related illnesses, including some cancers and Type 2 diabetes, and avoidance of vitamin deficiencies, which can weaken parts of our immune system. And it affects not only our mood but also our mental capacity and stamina.

“The foods we eat affect us more than we realize…. Food has a direct impact on our cognitive performance.”
-Ron Friedman, “What You Eat Affects Your Productivity,” Harvard Business Review, October 17, 2014

With four healthy lifestyle factors (eating healthier, not being obese, exercising 30 minutes a day, and not smoking), we may reduce our risk of having a heart attack (our top killer) by more than 80%, reduce our risk of developing diabetes by more than 90%, cut by half our risk of having a stroke, and reduce our overall cancer risk by more than a third.*

“To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.”
-Francois de la Rochefoucauld, 17th century French author

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What Constitutes Good Nutrition?

Many of us grew up learning about some form of food pyramid, a basic guide to healthy eating. A food pyramid was developed in Sweden in 1974, and in 1992 the U.S. Department of Agriculture developed its own “Food Guide Pyramid,” updated in 2005 (renamed “MyPyramid”) and then replaced in 2011 by “MyPlate.”

More recently, Harvard University researchers have developed the “Healthy Eating Plate,” a guide for creating a healthy and balanced diet. It offers updated and more specific and more accurate recommendations for following a healthy diet. It’s based on updated nutrition research, and it’s not influenced by the food industry or other special interest groups.

The Healthy Eating Plate recommends the following:

  • Make most of your meal vegetables and fruits – ½ of your plate. Aim for color and variety, and remember that potatoes don’t count as vegetables on the Healthy Eating Plate because of their negative impact on blood sugar.
  • Go for whole grains – ¼ of your plate. Whole and intact grains—whole wheat, barley, wheat berries, quinoa, oats, brown rice, and foods made with them, such as whole wheat pasta—have a milder effect on blood sugar and insulin than white bread, white rice, and other refined grains.
  • Protein power – ¼ of your plate. Fish, poultry, beans, and nuts are all healthy, versatile protein sources—they can be mixed into salads, and pair well with vegetables on a plate. Limit red meat, and avoid processed meats such as bacon and sausage.
  • Healthy plant oils – in moderation. Choose healthy vegetable oils like olive, canola, soy, corn, sunflower, peanut, and others, and avoid partially hydrogenated oils, which contain unhealthy trans fats. Remember that low-fat does not mean ‘healthy.’
  • Drink water, coffee, or tea. Skip sugary drinks, limit milk and dairy products to one to two servings per day, and limit juice to a small glass per day.
  • Stay active. The red figure running across the Healthy Eating Plate’s placemat is a reminder that staying active is also important in weight control….
  • The type of carbohydrate in the diet is more important than the amount of carbohydrate in the diet, because some sources of carbohydrate—like vegetables (other than potatoes), fruits, whole grains, and beans—are healthier than others.
  • …avoid sugary beverages, a major source of calories—usually with little nutritional value….”

(Of course, not everyone agrees. For example, some people advise going oil-free, if possible, so they take issue with its mention of healthy plant oils, even in moderation.)

 

Tips for Good Nutrition

What can we do to eat better? So much! The Healthy Eating Plan is a great place to start—and even better when supported by additional tips and tactics addressing mindset, behavior, and habits. Here are dozens of things we can do to ensure we’re eating well:

  1. Eat more whole, plant-based foods, including more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts
  2. Consume less processed foods (products created by the food industry with unhealthy artificial ingredients to extend shelf life and in some cases to become addictive)
  3. Eat less meats
  4. Consume more fiber (which helps with digestion and our microbiome, and makes us feel full so we stop eating)
  5. Shop for groceries intentionally
  6. Have more home-cooked meals, eating out and ordering takeout less often
  7. Plan and prepare healthy meals on a regular schedule (e.g., for the week)
  8. Limit portion size with smaller plates and other strategies
  9. Stop eating when full
  10. Eat more organic and locally sourced foods
  11. Consume a rich variety of foods—and shoot for all the natural colors (from white, green, and yellow to orange, red, and purple; see the “Rainbow of Health” image below)
  12. Make unhealthy foods inaccessible
  13. Minimize soda
  14. Reduce sugar
  15. Minimize salt
  16. Avoid or reduce junk food and eliminate it from the pantry
  17. Minimize saturated fat
  18. Avoid or reduce fast food
  19. Use less frying in preparing meals, with more grilling, roasting, braising, baking, stewing, broiling, and steaming
  20. Maintain regular mealtimes
  21. Eat slowly and mindfully while savoring the taste, texture, and experience
  22. Enjoy meals together as a family most days, if possible
  23. Pay attention to our body’s reaction to food during and after meals
  24. Drink water before meals
  25. Ensure proper hydration throughout the day**
  26. Impose a curfew on eating, including snacking, at a certain time in the evening
  27. Try time-restricted eating or intermittent fasting (ideally under medical supervision)
  28. Avoid binge and emotional eating and drinking
  29. Consume healthier caffeinated drinks (e.g., with green and black tea, not artificial ingredients)
  30. Check food labels and learn about natural versus artificial ingredients
  31. Track our food intake
  32. Experiment with vegetarian or vegan eating; start by replacing more and more of our plates with plant-based foods
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
-Michael Pollan, author and journalist

Quality of Life Assessment

Evaluate your quality of life in ten key areas by taking our assessment. Discover your strongest areas, and the areas that need work, then act accordingly.

 

Top Strategies for Good Nutrition

The tips above will serve us better when supported by higher-level principles and strategies related to health and nutrition, including:

1. Develop a healthy mindset about food, with clarity about the benefits of good nutrition and a positive attitude, including a good balance between self-discipline, self-acceptance, and self-compassion. And don’t equate health with weight loss—or a healthy body with a skinny one.

“Your diet is a bank account. Good food choices are good investments.”
-Bethenny Frankel

2. Find out what works for you and do more of that. There’s no need to try all the tips above. Start with one or two and see what works and what doesn’t. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good: don’t expect perfection and risk getting frustrated.

3. Replace bad habits with good ones. This comes with a double benefit of building momentum while reducing harm. For example, creatively sneak in more vegetables during meals (including at breakfast), and curb snack cravings with healthier options, including protein. Consuming a good variety of healthy foods every day leaves less room for foods that are processed and high in sugar.

4. Make healthy eating as easy as possible—not only by making healthy foods accessible and unhealthy foods inaccessible but also by building habits and routines out of healthy eating.

5. View health holistically. Consider not just good nutrition but also exercise and sleep (which we address in separate articles), and not just physical health but also mental and emotional health. Together, their effects compound, creating incredible value across all dimensions of our lives over time.

“Looking after my health today gives me a better hope for tomorrow.”
-Anne Wilson Schaef, clinical psychologist and author

Wishing you well with it!

Gregg

 

 

 

Tools for You

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.

 

Related Articles

 

Related Resources

Books:

  • Michael Greger, How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease (Flatiron Books, 2015)
  • Michael Greger, How Not to Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss (Flatiron Books, 2019)
  • Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter (Rodale, 2016)

Podcasts:

  • “Feel Better, Live More” (Dr. Rangan Chatterjee)
  • “Model Health Show” (Shawn Stevenson)
  • “Nutrition Facts” (Dr. Michael Greger)
  • “The Rich Roll Podcast” (Rich Roll)

Films:

  • “The Game Changers” (Netflix)
  • “Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones” (Netflix, forthcoming)

 

Postscript: Inspirations on Healthy Food, Nutrition, and Eating

  • “The greatest wealth is health.” -unknown
  • “The first wealth is health.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson, American philosopher and essayist
  • “It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver.” -Mahatma Gandhi, Indian lawyer and transformational leader
  • “He that takes medicine and neglects diet, wastes the skill of the physician.” -Chinese proverb
  • “Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.” -unknown (though often misattributed to Hippocrates)
  • “The food you eat can be either the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison.” -Ann Wigmore, Lithuanian–American holistic health practitioner, naturopath, and raw food advocate
  • “Moderation. Small helpings. Sample a little bit of everything. These are the secrets of happiness and good health.” -Julia Child, American chef, author, and television personality
  • “Any food that requires enhancing by the use of chemical substances should in no way be considered a food.” -John H. Tobe, researcher, naturalist, and author
  • “Vitality and beauty are gifts of nature for those who live according to its laws.” -Leonardo da Vinci, Italian painter, scientist, sculptor, and architect
  • “Time and health are two precious assets that we don’t recognize and appreciate until they have been depleted.” -Denis Waitley
  • “Happiness lies first of all in health.” -George William Curtis

* Source: Dr. Michael Greger, How Not to Die (Flatiron Books, 2015).

**Water is the main component of our blood. It’s essential for carrying nutrients to our cells and eliminating waste products. We tend to feel fatigue when we’re dehydrated.

Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter

Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, TEDx speaker, and coach on leadership and personal development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose, passion, and contribution) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out his Best Articles or get his monthly newsletter. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!