Is there such thing as a wellness fundamentals hierarchy? I think so. First, let's define "one" definition of a hierarchy; - a graded or ranked series. So, how does this apply to wellness and healthy living and is there an order or a map that we should follow when pursuing our wellness goals?
So often I hear and see people discuss and do things when trying to get fit and healthy and they are simply just spinning their wheels. The quote "you can't out-exercise a bad diet" surely comes to mind. I know all too many people that fit this mold. They kill themselves with excessive cardio day in and day out and go right back to eating processed and other unfavorable foods that simply don't jive with the human body and the viscous cycle continues. No progress is made as it pertains to strength gains, energy level or general health and wellness. However, this cycle is not just confined to exercise and diet, hence the hierarchy of wellness.
There are four components that I recognize as being vital for true health and wellness while yet seeming so simple, aren't necessarily that easy to dial in. They are diet, stress, sleep and exercise. Keep in mind, there is no real order of importance here as ALL of these are extremely important. If you do stop and think about it for a moment though, the order that I have placed these components in does make sense.
1. Diet - Everything that you put into your mouth has an effect on your body (basically shitty input, shitty output, great input, great output) and effects everything from mood to energy level to performance, etc. etc. If your diet is bad, you're going to have stress, both internally and externally. Your body will be in a state of chronic inflammation (internally) and your ability to handle daily stresses (externally) will be diminished. Food is medicine. When we become ill, we run to the doctor to get a pill. We pop the pill with a glass of water and wait to feel better. Most ailments are caused by a bad diet. Instead of digesting a pill after the fact (a reaction), try eating a healthy diet of real, whole, natural foods before the fact (a prevention and proactive approach) and observe how you simply won't get as sick as frequent, or if at all when simply eating better.
2 Stress - Ah, a biggie, and yet the hardest to control. If your boss is an asshole there's really not much you can do about it. If you're cut off in traffic, can't do much about that either. Bills are piling up and money is tight... yep, here we go again. How we choose to REACT to these situations on the other hand is how we manage stress and, do not be fooled, it is a choice! Stress, whether chronic or acute cause our bodies to release cortisol. Simply put, some cortisol release is good, too much is bad. Most Americans have too much of this stress hormone coursing throughout their circulation which leads back to... you guessed it, chronic inflammation, the root cause of most modern diseases. Figuring out how to manage stress is personal and I don't proclaim to be an expert in dishing out "stress management" advice. What I can suggest is to find what works for you. If it's taking a slow deep breath from time to time, wailing on a heavy bag, meditating, practicing yoga, eating some dark chocolate with a glass of wine, find what calms and relaxes you and makes YOU feel good about being YOU.
3. Sleep - 8 hrs., 7 hrs, 10 hrs., a 20 minute nap, dark room, cold room, hot room, yadda, yadda, yadda. So many recommendations but, who's right? The truth is, with the two categories above, diet and stress dialed in, good sleep will usually come fairly naturally, that is unless you're a public servant as I am and are subject to being awaken multiple times at night to run medical and/or fire calls, then, good sleep (coupled with stress and cortisol management) is tough to come by. I'M DOOMED! People do fool themselves into thinking that they need an Ambien, a night cap, or some sleep study to "fix" their "sleep disorder." 99% of the population most likely does not have a sleep disorder. 99% of the population on the other hand, most likely is not eating or managing stress as they should be and yes, this is what is REALLY affecting sleep. Again, it's up to each individual when, where and how they sleep. I like a bed, in a cold, dark room and I like to get between 7-8 hrs. Some folks can get a good night's rest in a tent out in the wilderness. It really varies. Find where you're most comfortable and relaxed and dream away.
4. Exercise - Last? You've gotta be kidding me! I thought this was a health and fitness blog! Again, no real order of importance here but, too much emphasis is placed on exercise and most people are overdoing it and underdoing the three above. Exercise is vital but it doesn't have to be regimented, routine or regulated (hey, 3 R's, maybe I'm onto something here!) Rather, think in terms of movement. JUST MOVE! When I hear people say, "I hate walking," or "I don't have time to walk," I say to myself, "then what the hell are you..., a human being or a slug?" We are meant to walk, run, jump, lift, carry, throw, etc. We are bipedal, that's what makes us human and there is no better or more natural activity than simply taking a walk. Walking actually reduces inflammation, whereas intense exercise enhances inflammation. Which do you think we should be doing more of? Walking is obviously something that can be done daily, multiple times a day at our convenience. Intense exercise on the other hand, for some people can be done daily, multiple times a day as well, the problem is, even the elitist of the elite will eventually burn out with too much exercise. And, with too much exercise, in any form whether it be frequency, volume or intensity, I'll say it again, CORTISOL RELEASE, hence chronic inflammation, hence poor sleep, hence higher levels of stress, hence chronically depleted glycogen stores, hence craving crappy food and a bad diet. See how we just went back up the ladder of this hierarchy? VISCOUS CYCLE! My advice and what I truly know works is to take it easy and be smart about how you move. Do activities you enjoy as often as you can. Get up and move frequently if you're confined to a 9-5 desk job as most of us are. You can get burned out with too much exercise but you cannot get burned out with a nice and slow daily therapeutic walk. So, walk often, do something intense once or twice a week and play and engage in activities or sports as often as your schedule allows. Play is good not only for the body, but for the mind and soul as well.
There you have it, my hierarchy of the wellness fundamentals as I see it. Though I know it can be difficult, and I consider it both an art and science; learning how to effectively manage your diet, stress levels, sleeping habits and exercise truly can lead to an overall healthy and more active lifestyle that will benefit us all in ways that for now, we can only imagine.