Four Simple Things You Can Do to Improve Your Health

Photo by Ragesoss-Own Work, CC BY-SA 4.0

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple[ of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.”

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

Taking care of your body not only honors God, it is good leadership. It gives you more energy and enables you to think more clearly, so you can be at your best for God. Your body, which includes your brain, will either make you better or hold you back.

I’m a productivity geek. I’m always looking for ways I can make the most of my efforts. If I’m going to put time and energy into improving my life, I want to make sure the potential payoff is the highest possible.

Here are four things I have found that do that. They are working for me. They are the things that have taken the least amount of time and effort, but have made the biggest improvement in my health.

All that said, I’m not a doctor, so consult your physician first.

One: Get a good night’s sleep

This seems obvious. But, it wasn’t to me. For most of my life, I thought I could survive on five or six hours sleep. It wasn’t enough. A year ago I started getting seven to eight hours a night and I noticed a huge improvement in my personal effectiveness. I also noticed that I stopped nodding off while driving home from work.

As this WebMD article shows, getting enough sleep will improve your mood, memory, ability to think clearly, weight control and immune system. So why wouldn’t you?

Two: Cut out or cut back refined sugar consumption

I’m going to meddle. Sugar consumption is the American way. Most processed foods contain sugar or high fructose corn syrup. Then there’s candy, cookies, ice cream and other yummy desserts. But, other than the taste, there isn’t a lot of good to say about sugar. It’s a major contributing factor in belly fat and weight gain.

According to myfitnesspal.com, cutting out (or cutting back on) sugar can lower blood pressure and bad cholesterol, decrease heart attack risk, improve cognitive function, reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, dementia and depression and lower the risk of diabetes and certain cancers. Talk about a high payoff for a simple thing.

Three: Practice Time-Restricted Feeding (TRF)

This one was a revelation to me. Also known as intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating, TRF is based on the idea that our bodies weren’t designed to eat continuously. Early hunter-gatherers didn’t get three meals a day. They ate when they had food and their bodies did without food for long stretches.

In TRF, it’s not about what you eat, it’s about when you eat. You consume all of your calories during a limited period of time, say eight to ten hours. A typical TRF or intermittent fast would be to eat during an eight-hour period and fast for 16 hours. So, for example, you might eat between 9am and 5pm, then fast from 5pm until 9am. You may get benefits from a fasting period as little as 10 hours, but the longer the fast, the better the results.

Studies show that even if you eat the same foods, with TRF you are likely to gain less weight or even lose it. This has been true in animal studies and early human studies. According to this article from the National Institutes of Health, TRF protects against weight gain and can even reduce weight for the same number of calories consumed. It can also reduce fat accumulation, the risk of Type II diabetes, as well as improve metabolism and cholesterol levels.

The good thing about TRF is you don’t have to change what you eat. It’s not a diet. And you don’t necessarily need to do it every day. Even occasional practice and have benefits. There are a variety of TRF approaches, so check out this article to see six different approaches.

TRF is working for me. But your results may be different. You should definitely consult your doctor on this one.

Four: Do High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

This is not new. When you think of HIIT you probably think of those insane Crossfit people. But, research by Martin Gibala at McMaster University has shown that interval training is incredibly effective, even in sedentary people. In one study, Gibala found that one 60-second period of intense exercise (think running for your life) was as effective in improving health as 45 minutes of steady, moderate exercise.  This one-minute period was embedded in a total exercise session of 10-minutes that included warm-up, recovery and cool-down.

The great thing about HIIT is that it can be done with just about any exercise including walking, running, biking (real or stationary), elliptical and isometric exercises, just to name a few.

Walking, you say? Yes…if you normally take a 30-minute walk, then try walking as fast as you can for one minute at some point during your walk. Better yet, do several intervals of intense walking interspersed by one-minute cooldowns. Start with one and work your way up. Consult your doctor first, but give it a try.

For me, HIIT means I get to do more for my health in less time. On non-running days, I’ll often do a very short workout on a stationary bike. I do 11 minutes and I get five one-minute intervals of intense pedaling interspersed with one-minute warm-up and cool down periods. Afterwards, I feel like I’ve been exercising for a half-hour or more. Again, your results may vary.

A word of caution.

Don’t try to do all of these things at once. They are working for me and they have allowed me to get healthier for the same amount of time and energy (or less) than I was spending previously. However, I added each of these to my daily routines at separate times. If you saw my blog on developing habits, you know that we only have so much cognitive energy and developing a new habit uses a lot of it. So pick one thing and try it. Once it becomes a habit, you won’t have to think about it anymore and you can try something else. By adding one thing at a time, you can continually improve your health and feel great about it, too.

Questions for Reflection:

Which of these four changes gets you most excited?

How can you get started?

What will it feel like to succeed?

 

Four Things You Can Do When You Are Anxious

Photo by Olu Eletu

“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Matthew 6:34

Jesus says, “Do not worry.” It’s good advice. But it’s hard to follow. If you could just will yourself to do it, you would. Maybe you can.  If so, this post is not for you.

Seth Godin says anxiety is experiencing failure in advance. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Today is tough enough. Anxiety gets in the way.

The key to effective leadership is the ability to be a non-anxious presence. And the key to being a non-anxious presence is self-differentiation. This is the ability to clarify and articulate your own goals and values in the midst of surrounding togetherness pressures.

My recent posts on how to take an emotional stand went into this in depth. A big part of this is doing your own work. That is, looking at your own family of origin to understand which relationships cause you anxiety. Reworking those relationships will help you to be a non-anxious presence in other anxiety-producing situations.

But, doing your own work is a lifelong task. What can you do now? Here are four proven approaches you can try.

One: Pray

Even if you are in the midst of an anxious situation, such as getting yelled at or being put on the spot, you can pray. There is nothing wrong with pausing. This is what thoughtful people do naturally. While you’re pausing, pray.

It could be as simple as, “Lord, help me.”

Or, “Lord, help me to see this situation as you do.”

Or, “Lord, give me the words to say in this moment.”

I’m sure you can think of other helpful variations. Find what works for you.Prayer will calm you and will, indeed, help you know what to say. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see the other person as a child of God. This is always a good thing.

Prayer will calm you. It will help you know what to say and do, either in the moment or as you move forward. More importantly, it can help you to see things as God sees them. It will put things in perspective and it will help you to see others as children of God. This is always a good thing.

Two: Breathe Deeply

While you are praying, start breathing deeply.

This seems basic, but it works. This Forbes article shows how deep breathing is good for the brain. It credits the western understanding of the practice to Dr. Herbert Benson’s 1970’s book, The Relaxation Response. Many have known the benefits of what Benson calls controlled breathing, but it I didn’t discover until 40 years after his book. I should have known better, since my own Japanese roots are steeped in the eastern practice of deep breathing.

The Forbes article describes controlled breathing this way:

“The basic mechanics of controlled breathing differ a bit depending on who is describing them, but they usually include three parts: (1) inhaling deeply through the nose for a count of five or so, making sure that the abdomen expands, (2) holding the breath for a moment, and (3) exhaling completely through the mouth for a count longer than the inhalation.”

Deep breathing releases a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine that increases focus and calmness, as well as decreases anxiety.

So, whether you are thinking about a difficult situation or you are faced with an anxiety-producing situation, the first thing you should do is breathe deeply. If you practice this during meditation, you’ll get good enough to do it even when someone is yelling at you.

Three: Reframe the Situation

There is no biochemical difference in your brain between anxiety and excitement. Both are considered emotional states of arousal and both are driven by the release of a hormone called norepinephrine. The only difference is one is negative and one is positive.

So, while you are breathing deeply, try a technique called Anxious Reappraisal, as cited in this article from The Atlantic. Instead of trying to calm down, tell yourself you are excited.

When you are frantically scrambling to host 25 guests at your house say, “I’m excited to have all these people over because they mean a lot to me.”

Or when you’re getting ready to go into a meeting that you know will get tense say, “I’m excited to hear what others have to tell me, even if it’s negative, so I can use it to get better at what I do.”

This seems stupid, but it works. Study after study has shown that reframing the situation from anxiety to excitement improves performance in the anxiety-producing situation.

Alison Wood Brooks, a Harvard Business School professor, is the author of several of these studies. According to The Atlantic article, “The way this works, Brooks said, is by putting people in an ‘opportunity mindset,’ with a focus on all the good things that can happen if you do well, as opposed to a  “threat mindset,” which dwells on all the consequences of performing poorly.

If, as Seth Godin says, anxiety is experiencing failure in advance, then excitement is experiencing success in advance. It’s your choice.

Four: Focus on the Present

In Matthew 6, when Jesus says “Do not worry,” the Greek word for worry is best translated anxiety. Its literal meaning is to be divided and the figurative meaning is to go to pieces or be pulled apart.

My take on this is, when you are anxious, your mind is being pulled apart. It’s trying to stay in the present, but it’s being pulled into a future that you fear. You are experiencing failure in advance.

While you’re breathing deeply and after you have told yourself you are excited. Focus on the present. Instead of stressing about something that you can do nothing about, practice mindfulness. You can focus on all the details of your current surroundings. Or you can focus on your breathing, combining two anxiety reducing practices into one. It’s hard for your mind to pulled into experiencing failure in advance when it’s firmly planted in present.

Anxiety is hard to avoid, but you can handle it more effectively. It just takes practice. Give it a try.

Questions for Reflection:

What makes you anxious?

How do you respond?

How can you use these practices to handle anxiety better?

How to Take an Emotional Stand-Part 2

Photo by andresumida CCA 2.0


In Part 1
, I shared what I have learned about taking an emotional stand. I defined taking an emotional stand as being able to say what I feel and what I believe in a non-anxious way. That post was mostly about technique: using “I” statements, not blaming, giving others the freedom to disagree and keeping anxiety in check.

This post goes deeper.

According to family systems theory, if you find it difficult to take an emotional stand, it has its roots in your family of origin. Ask yourself, is there a relationship that makes you anxious? If so, it’s very likely that if you learn to take an emotional stand in that relationship, you will be able to do it in other situations.

Here’s my story.

I encountered family systems theory in seminary when I was 30. As I reflected on my family of origin, I realized that growing up I had difficulty taking an emotional stand with my mother. My mother is an amazing woman. She wasn’t mean or demanding. She was, and is, a strong, determined woman. If she asked or told me to do something, I would just go along, even if I disagreed or didn’t want to. Kids are supposed to listen to their parents. But not every kid just goes along without saying a word.

Recall that in the last post I shared that I had trouble expressing my feelings elsewhere, as well. I avoided conflict. I stuffed my feelings. I was unable to take an emotional stand. As I looked back on my childhood, I realized that this was not just related to my inability to take an emotional stand with my mother. It was because of it.

Here is what is important. It was MY problem. Not my mother’s. It wasn’t her fault that I couldn’t take an emotional stand with her. The problem was in me.

That changed in 1991. I sensed my call to ministry in 1989 and by 1990 I had made the decision to enter the pastorate. I delayed telling my mother until it looked pretty certain that I would receive an appointment to pastor a small church while I went to seminary. I could no longer delay the inevitable.

I called my mother to tell her that I felt called to the pastoral ministry and that I would likely begin serving a church, as well as attending seminary, that year. She didn’t yell. She didn’t scream. But she WAS concerned. And I could tell that she didn’t want me to do it.

We had several conversations over the course of the following month. She asked me about my beliefs, whether it was the right financial decision and whether it was the right decision for our family. It felt like a full-court press.

If this was any other topic, I would have folded on the first conversation. Instead, I remained calm and was able to remain firm in my conviction. I believe this came from outside of me. It came from God because I was being called to ministry. It’s only because of this, that I was able to remain firm in my emotional stand.

At the end of that month of conversations, she wrote me a letter. She said that if I really believed this was the right decision, she and my dad would support me fully. She eventually made me a quilted wall hanging with the nativity. That meant the world to me.

You see, my mom is not a Christian. But she kept her word. She has been supportive in everything that I have done in ministry. She told me a few years ago that she feels closer to God because of me. I’m so grateful for my mother.

Over the years I have gotten better at taking emotional stands. I believe this is because I learned to take an emotional stand with my mom. It’s also taken a lot of work over the years understanding myself and my relationships better. But it started with the emotional stand I took in 1991.

Questions for Reflection:

In what relationship in your family of origin is it most difficult to take an emotional stand?

What would it take for you to rework it?

What’s stopping you?