Earlier this week I was talking to a group of final year students at the University where I work about self care. They are currently entering their final stages of their undergraduate degree, on placement, writing dissertations, and balancing all of that with family and personal life. I mentioned the importance of exercise and one student rightly observed, “how am I meant to fit exercise in when I have so much to do!?” This got me thinking over the following days, “How do you fit self-care in when you have many things demanding your time?” I began to ponder how much self care can you get away with?
This has dominated my thoughts for the last few days. The problem here is that if you encourage people to do just enough then they’ll do just enough. The Chief Medical Officer in the UK, writing about how much exercise is enough, rightly says, “some is good, more is better”. I’m reminded of the zen adage that you should spend 20 minutes in meditation every day unless you are too busy to do so. In which case you should spend an hour in meditation! That’s because, if you have a colossal amount to do then you need the gains from effective self care more than someone who doesn’t have much to do.
I spent the last few months of 2019 incredibly busy. I looked back through my diary in early January of 2020 and noticed that not a day had gone by between mid September and mid December where I hadn’t done some sort of work for at least a few hours every day, even weekends. My self-care did suffer. But, I maintained a level of self care that meant I remained productive. I had to! there was so much to do! So that got me thinking that maybe there is a minimal level you should engage in to ensure that you get through, remain well, and stay focussed and productive. Maybe there is a baseline that you shouldn’t drop below until you reach a point where you can do more. “Some is good, more is better”.
My journey to understand how exercise, nutrition, sleep and being organised improve productivity has led me to conclude that if you don’t get these things right consistently your mental and physical well-being will suffer. Not might. Will. So…. can just enough ever be enough?
Dr Ranjan Chatterjee (author of the The Four Pillar Plan – that explores well-being) refers to exercise as a gateway habit. If we can establish exercise as a routine then we will be able to establish routines in other places. Exercise can be uncomfortable and hard going but if we can apply ourselves to it then it helps us drive ourselves to manage other challenges that make us feel uncomfortable. It helps us manage our stress response. Exercise though is merely a subset of being ‘physically active’. We don’t need to be gym bunnies or marathon runners for physical activity to have a positive impact on our well being and productivity.
The Chief Medical Officer recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. That’s just over 20 minutes per day. Are you telling me you can’t achieve that? Park the car and walk the long way to the office – 5 to 10 minutes. Walk back to the car at the end of the day the same way – 5 to 10 minutes. Take a lunch break and walk outside for 15 minutes (and have something to eat away from the desk). That’s easily more than 20 minutes. Add in things like getting up from your desk and walking to a colleagues office to talk to them rather than phoning them and you’re upping your step count. If you want to do ‘more’ and improve your response, you can do more by doing less. You could aim for 75 minutes of vigorous activity, also recommended by the Chief Medical Officer in the UK. That’s just over half an hour twice a week, or just over 1 (that’s one, ‘1’, uno) gym session per week. You can achieve enough moderate exercise as I describe above to off-set the 15 minutes vigorous exercise you are short by doing maybe 30 minutes of gentle exercise over the week. So, a combination of vigorous and moderate exercise to hit the target.
The benefits are huge. Exercise ‘burns off’ the cortisol and adrenaline that are your bodies response to stress. Too much of these hormones in your body, over the long term, cause serious health problems. In fact excessive cortisol has been linked to depression. Exercise generates the production of serotonin, noradrenaline and dopamine which makes us feel good. Dopamine is the brains reward system and fuels motivation and drive. You will work more productively as a consequence. These levels are increased after just one bout of vigorous exercise and to a lesser extent after moderate exercise, but still elevated nevertheless.
But there’s something else… Brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), is a protein that stimulates the production of new brain cells and strengthens existing ones. When you release BDNF it helps grow brand new brain cells and pathways. High levels of BDNF makes you learn faster and remember better. BDNF also increases your brain’s plasticity – it’s ability to adapt. When you face stressful situations BDNF protects brain cells and helps them come back stronger. Exercise naturally raises levels of BDNF in your body. Cardiovascular exercise is best and, while a one-off session does no harm, BDNF increases more effectively with regular engagement in exercise.
So, how much exercise is enough. What’s the minimum you can get away with? The answer is in what you have just read. 150 minutes of moderate exercise, or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise, per week. This level of exercise may well be sufficient to maintain your well-being in the short term but…. Some is good, more is better.
The other two elements of the self-care triangle, sleep and nutrition, I feel, are largely non negotiable. You need to eat. But you need to make sensible choices. An increasing body of research is showing that you are what you eat. Or at the very least your emotions are driven by what you eat. Your gut biome – the microbes in your gut, have a significant impact on your emotions and emotional reactions. A healthy diet, free from additives and excess sugar, and rooted in fresh produce is best. You can read more here. The office environment can also be a hellish experience of a steady supply of cake and biscuits and busy people tend to grab something to eat on the go and often make poor choices. Planning is everything. You can read more here and get some tips.
Then there’s no getting away from the need for 8 hours sleep. Ideally from about 10/10.30 to 6/6.30. You can read more here and here. But, what I know, because people tell me and I’ve expereinced it myself, is that the ‘churn’ of things to do keeps you awake or has you tossing and turning in the early hours. The secret here for me is having a trusted system – your diary, a spreadsheet, a to-do list – whatever works for you – that captures everything in your sphere of responsibility so that you can go to bed not worried about remembering what you need to do tomorrow. If it’s all in a system somewhere (and I wholeheartedly recommend David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology – it’s what I use) then research has shown that it helps alleviate some, if not all, of the stress associated with what is to do.
Even with such a system it can be difficult to get to sleep when it’s not what is to be done that’s troubling you but rather the emotional content of what you have been involved in or need to be involved in. Meditation helps. Meditation has been shown to improve general feelings of well-being, reduced feelings of anxiety and depressive symptoms, and reduced feelings of job strain in the workplace. Even one session was shown to have a short term impact. When I can’t sleep I try breathing exercises, or I do a body scan. A body scan if a great meditative technique. Start at your toes and tense them then relax them, concentrating on how it feels. And then continue relaxing each part of your body working your way up to your head. When I do this I don’t get as far as my head as I fall asleep. How you prepare for sleep is also important so have a look at the links above. Meditation also increases levels of BDNF (see above on exercise).
Being organised is crucial. A good week needs planning. A good month needs planning. If you plan what you are going to do in detail and write it down either in your calendar or in a journal then you are more likely to do it. I spend some time on a Sunday looking ahead to the following week and thinking about where I can fit exercise in. I spend some time preparing things to leave in the fridge to make food prep for taking lunch to work easy. My back up plan is always to have tins of soup in the cupboard. If I don’t have time to make something I grab a tin of soup chuck it in my bag and that’s lunch sorted (assuming of course you have access to a microwave at work!).
I’m not saying it’s always easy but I do feel there is always a way to maintain at least some level of engagement in things that keep you well and productive. As I often say self care is not a luxury. It has to be a priority. You can only invest in others for so long if you are not investing in yourself. And if you are not investing in yourself through positive habits then you risk not being available to the very people you are trying to support.
It’s not selfish to prioritise yourself.