November 2, 2020

A Beginner’s Guide to Self-Care

In times of stress (hello 2020!) self-care is more important than ever. But when we are feeling strung out or overwhelmed, it is easy to forget how to look after yourself.

Once we find ourselves in that place where we have let our healthy habits lapse and we are not living our best life, it is time to put the brakes on and get back to basics. With that in mind, here’s a timely reminder of the core principles of self-care.

I’m a big believer that the best way to get good results in almost any domain is to avoid complicated advice that focuses on minutiae, fads, specific gadgets, or any other form of getting fancy. Instead, focus on learning the fundamentals and executing them with consistency. Nine times out of ten, this simple approach will be easier to stick to and be more effective than opting for esoteric methods or following the latest trends.

Working from first principles, let’s take a look at the three pillars of good health. If you want to improve your wellness, these should be your priorities:

  • Healthy eating
  • Regular exercise
  • Quality sleep

Healthy eating

Diet and nutrition play a big part in maintaining your health, and not all food is created equal. The typical Western diet is rich in calorie-dense foods that offer little nutritional value. We all know that pizza and fries, delicious as they may be, aren’t that good for you. You can enjoy them as the occasional treat, but don’t make them the cornerstones of your diet.

But it gets more subtle than that. Fast food may be an obvious thing to avoid, but you also need to be aware of the types of carbohydrates that you eat. You want to avoid starchy carbs like white potatoes, white bread, and white rice or pasta. These highly refined carbs are quickly broken down into simple sugars by your body, making you prone to energy fluctuations and weight gain.

Low carb diets are great but they can be hard to stick to, day in, day out. If you are going to eat carbs, a good rule of thumb is the darker, the better. Opt for sweet potatoes, wholemeal bread and pasta, and wholegrain rice instead of their lighter-colored counterparts. They take longer for your body to break down, making them slow-release sources of energy that help to avoid energy spikes and crashes, regulate your energy levels throughout the day, and feel full for longer.

Keep processed food to a minimum and focus instead on foods rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, and healthy fats. A simple, fool-proof way to do this is to steer clear of food that comes pre-prepared in a box. Choose fresh produce such as eggs, meat, fish, nuts, seeds, and vegetables instead.

The other biggie for a healthy diet is to avoid drinking calories. If you have a soda, choose a diet option to eliminate the 50g of sugar and 200 calories that a typical 500ml soda contains.

Being Active

Humans have evolved over thousands of years to be adapted for regular physical activity. Our ancestors used to have to go out hunting for food. And if they wanted something (like a tool, or a chair, or a house), they had to make it with their hands. That meant physical labor. Our modern lifestyle is sedentary in comparison, so we must carry out planned physical activities to meet our evolutionary needs and keep our bodies fit and healthy. Regular physical activity has many benefits, including:

  • Regulating body weight
  • Reducing the risk of illness and disease
  • Boosting serotonin levels and elevating your mood
  • Stress relief
  • Promoting good quality sleep
  • Increasing your life expectancy

Playing sports a couple of times a week is the easiest way to get regular exercise. If you don’t play a sport already, consider taking one up. It doesn’t have to be competitive — you can play for fun with friends or do solo activities such as running, cycling, or weightlifting. You can even just do bodyweight exercises in your house. All that matters is that you enjoy it and do it regularly.

Two twenty-minute sessions per week is the minimum dose you should aim for. Forty-minutes, three times per week, is ideal. Anything more than that is a bonus. Shorter sessions of high intensity are better than longer durations at a lower intensity. Try interval sprints instead of a long run or a game of badminton instead of a gentle afternoon of cycling.

If sport is not your thing, find some other physical activity you can enjoy a couple of times a week. Dancing, hiking, yoga, and drumming all provide similar physical benefits to athletic activity.

If your body is not used to physical exertion, start small and take it easy before building the intensity or duration. To prevent injury or soreness, do some light stretching for a few minutes before and after any exercise sessions.

When carrying out technical activities like lifting weights, have a more experienced person present at first to talk you through it and help you develop the correct technique. Don’t let your ego get the better of you — start out light and focus on proper form rather than how heavy you can lift. You will reduce your risk of injury and get better gains in the long run.

Sweet dreams

Good sleeping habits are essential for your health and wellbeing. Try going without sleep for any length of time, and things will quickly unravel. Rest has many benefits, including:

Physical recovery. Your body uses rest to repair itself. Lack of sleep deprives your body of the opportunity to recover from the stresses of daily activity, which can lower your immune system and lead to illness.

Combating fatigue. It’s amazing how, no matter how exhausted you are at the end of the day, a good night’s sleep is usually all it takes to feel fresh again.

Improved mental performance. The new things you learn get committed to your long-term memory while your head is on the pillow. Lack of sleep will drastically reduce your ability to concentrate, problem-solve, and remember things.

Improved physical performance. Sleep deprivation will make you tired, uncoordinated, and more prone to making mistakes, having accidents, or getting injured. In extreme cases, you may even struggle to perform basic tasks.

Stress reduction. When you are well-rested, you are more relaxed. When you are tired, you become more irritable, which elevates your stress levels.

Given how many aspects of your life are influenced by your sleep quality, don’t underestimate the importance of developing good sleeping habits. For most people, the optimum amount of sleep is between six and eight hours per night. The exact amount varies slightly from person to person. 

More sleep is not necessarily better, and too much sleep can be detrimental. Have you ever woken up feeling fine but then gone back to sleep, only to wake up later feeling sluggish and struggled to get going for the day? If so, you have felt the adverse effects of too much sleep. Figure out what works for you then get into a routine that suits your needs.

Tips for a good night’s sleep

Stop looking at electronic screens at least an hour before you go to bed. Yes, that includes your phone. Sorry, not sorry. The blue light emitted from electronic screens tricks your brain into thinking it is still daytime, which inhibits sleep. Read a book instead.

Do some form of regular physical activity. It will help you get rid of excess energy and promote a relaxed state that allows you to sleep well. My sleep is noticeably better on days when I have been to the gym.

Switch off your problem-solving brain before going to bed. Find a simple, absorbing activity that has no real-life consequences. It will help your mind switch off so you can relax before going to sleep. Reading fiction, doing puzzles, doodling, or playing simple games are all helpful pre-bed activities. Journaling is an absolute power move.

Avoid noisy disturbances. If that’s not possible or you find silence eerie, try some quiet music or a white noise machine in the background.

Make sure your room is dark. Any light emitting from electrical equipment, shining under the door or through the window, will make it harder for you to get a good night’s sleep. Wear a sleep mask and/or invest in some heavy black curtains.

Diet, exercise, and sleep are all essential for a healthy lifestyle, but some people find that one impacts them more than the other two. Try to be mindful of your habits in these three areas of your life so you can work out how different factors affect you.

To that end, you may find it helpful to keep a daily journal for tracking your habits so you can look for patterns. It can be an excellent tool for spotting correlations between your habits and how you feel, making it easier for you to take corrective action.

If you would like to try journalling but are not sure where to start, I recommend Ryder Carroll’s “Bullet Journal” approach. It’s a fantastic tool for daily reflection, organizing your life, and clearing your brain.

And, to underscore the point at the top of the article, there isn’t a pre-defined template of the perfect lifestyle you should be aiming for. What works for someone else won’t necessarily work for you. Instead, master your diet, exercise, and sleep patterns by being mindful of them and adapt them until you find the balance that works for you. Take control of these three crucial aspects of your life, and you take control of your wellbeing and long-term health.