If the excesses of the holidays have you feeling a little sluggish, why not use the new year as a motivating tool to get back to basics? Fitness fads and dodgy diets come and go, but the core principles of exercise and nutrition are more than fairweather friends to good health. In this post we'll offer a quick overview of top recommendations for exercise and nutrition, so you can start off your 2018 in a healthy and sustainable way.
How Exercise and Nutrition Affect Your Health
Staying active is essential for good health. In a whole host of ways, getting regular exercise supports cardiovascular function, digestion, stress relief, metabolism, and many other aspects of health. Good nutrition, meanwhile, is essential to provide your body with everything it needs to grow, heal, and function at its best.
Together, exercise and nutrition are the foundation of optimal health and wellbeing. We need the right nutrients to fuel exercise and help us recover, grow, and maintain strong and healthy bones and muscles. Exercise, for its part, is a great motivator for other aspects of life, such as encouraging us to eat well, to quit smoking, to moderate alcohol intake, and to stay social and active.
Nutrition and exercise help us to stay resilient and energised, which means that we are in a better position to face any unexpected challenges life throws at us.
How much activity is enough?
Most adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every week. You can split this up in whatever way works best for your schedule, interests, and abilities.
Some people might get their minimum 150 minutes in by going for a 30 minute bike ride one day, hiking for an hour on another day, and swimming for 20 minutes later in the week. Others might split this into 15 minute power walks twice a day during the working week (15 mins x 2 x 5 days).
What if you're returning to exercise?
If it's been a while since you exercised regularly, it's best to start out slow. If you have health concerns, make sure your doctor clears you for activity first. This will help you to avoid injury and illness, which are highly demotivating!
Start at your current comfort level and gradual increasing your physical activity. This will help you to get back in touch with how your body works and feels, and give you a chance to try new ways of exercising. Over time, you'll start to see a steady improvement in your muscle tone, energy, and overall satisfaction and health.
For most people, it is a great idea to start out with a 15 to 40 minute walk shortly after your evening meal. Try to keep to a pace that raises your pulse rate slightly. Mild to moderate exercise after eating can help with blood glucose regulation, and may also help stop you from overeating and snacking on less healthy foods for dessert.
How to build exercise into your day
If, like most people, the idea of dedicating 150 minutes a week to gym-time has your running scared, it's time to try something less intimidating. A hatred of the gym can cause some people to ditch fitness altogether, but there's no need to throw in the towel. Instead, build regular physical activity into your day in the following ways and you'll rack up those 150 minutes easily:
- Take the stairs at work, in the subway station, and wherever else you get the chance
- Get off transit a stop early and walk the rest of the way
- Walk across the office instead of emailing your colleague
- Plan or suggest team-building activities that are active (be sure to recognise everyone's physical abilities, though!)
- Use two water bottles as bar bells for desk-based resistance training
- Bike with the kids to school (or walk, or tow them in a bike trailer!)
- Get a trampoline/rebounder and jog while you catch up on your favourite TV show or podcast.
There are also plenty of ways to stay active on the weekend, without adopting a 'weekend warrior' persona:
- Take the kids and/or dog to the park on the weekends and kick a ball around or play tag
- If you're dating, meet for a walk or hike instead of drinks and dinner
- Go mall-walking and park as far away from the mall as you can
- Switch brunch, coffee, or drinks with friends for a bike ride, or trip to the pool, botanical garden, museum, sculpture park, or gallery
- Join a geocaching or orienteering group
- Organise a historical walking tour or scavenger hunt in your local area or across the city
- Join a city parks clean-up crew (bring the kids and teach them about environmental responsibility!)
- Help at an animal rescue shelter by walking dogs, mucking out stalls, grooming horses and so forth
- In summer, take kids foraging or to a you-pick berry farm.
Staying active needn't mean investing in expensive sports gear or carving out huge chunks of time to work up a sweat doing something you hate. Instead, making exercise a by-product of something fun and engaging helps to make physical activity a sustainable habit.
Nutrition is the science dealing with how best to fuel our bodies for optimal health and wellbeing. Breaking it down into its simplest terms, every one of us needs a good intake of macronutrients, i.e.:
- Protein – to help build and maintain muscles and other tissues, and for producing enzymes, immune system cells, neurotransmitters and more
- Carbohydrates - for energy production!
- Fats - for supporting energy levels, nerve function and cell membrane health and flexibility, and for cognitive health.
We also need a good intake of critically important micronutrients, i.e.:
- Individual amino acids.
We might also add phytonutrients to that list, which include bioflavonoids and other polyphenols found in plant foods.
Given that it can be difficult for even the most dedicated of us to ensure optimal nutrient intake at all time, it's a good idea to use a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement. Choose a formula that provides at least the recommended minimum amount of essential nutrients in active and easily absorbed forms.
How much should we eat?
The old 'calories in calories out' idea has been thoroughly debunked in recent years. The ratio of energy consumption to energy expenditure is significantly more complicated than one to one. This is because everyone is a little bit different (thanks to genetics and lifestyle factors) when it comes to digestion, energy use and storage, and nutrient absorption and use.
For most average adults, eating around 2000-2500 calories a day will usually suffice in terms of energy consumption. In general, 50% of your calories should come from carbohydrates, 30% from fat, and 20% from protein. Anyone who has malabsorption issues, higher energy expenditure than average, or specific health conditions may need to adjust these to support good health.
What to eat
Basic nutrition isn't rocket science, and yet many of us have never learned or have forgotten what goes into a healthy balanced diet.
One key principle is to choose whole foods where possible and avoid overly processed foods that have been stripped of their nutrients. Second, be sure to eat a wide variety of foods that offer a range of essential nutrients.
In terms of the make-up of a regular dinner plate, aim to fill half of your plate with brightly coloured vegetables, a quarter with a whole grain or starchy vegetable, and another quarter with a lean source of protein such as legumes or pulses (chickpeas, lentils, tofu etc.). Include nuts and seeds as snacks and keep animal products to a minimum (especially red meat and processed meats).
Exercise and Nutrition Slip-Ups
We've covered the basics, so let's assume that you're now exercising regularly and eating a healthy balanced diet. Naturally, there are going to be days where healthy habits slip a little. That's fine, just do your best to get back on track as soon as possible and try to avoid giving yourself a hard time.
If, however, slip-ups become more frequent, it's smart to give yourself some time to figure out why. Is your exercise regimen no longer working with your schedule? Did your favourite grocery store close or did you move somewhere where access to fresh foods is limited? Working out what is standing in the way of achieving exercise and nutrition goals is the first step to overcoming those obstacles and getting back in the groove of good health.