Recently I have refocused on the importance of health in life. We all want health and wealth but health comes first because without it we have nothing.
A major point that I now get is the critical importance of balance. Balance between having the right mentality, and the right lifestyle which naturally includes exercise. A positive mentality can make all the difference. However it needs to be translated into action. Practically this action to gain better health revolves to a significant degree around diet sleep and exercise. It goes without saying that while diet is pivotal, other factors including exercise and sleep also count because there is an interplay between diet, exercise, and rest/sleep on top of having the right attitude.
If any of these things is off balance it will drag performance down. There is no point in having a healthy balanced diet with good food if one is inactive, because that path can lead to being overweight. It also leads to conditions like fatty livers and blood pressure. None of which is desirable obviously. On the other hand, exercise without good diet is ineffective, as nearly any gym goer who finds themselves subscribing to frequent ‘cheat days’ can testify. Avoiding fried food, focusing heavily on fresh vegetables and eating in smaller portions can all help to improve weight, energy levels and cardiovascular health. Linking these together is rest and sleep. Irrespective of whether your aim is to build muscle or simply tone up, the body morphology (structure) is fundamentally changed by rest. Not getting enough sleep is another way of frittering away the gains of hard work in the gym, sports fields or wherever it is you choose to work out. An average adult tends to need 8 hours of sleep, perhaps slightly less.
I address each of these in turn here. Sleep is much more complex and vital than people realise it to be. There is a reason why sleep is known as a cycle, because it is a cycle of relatively light and deep sleeps alternating every few hours for everyone. Sleep is classified in two stages: REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non- rapid eye movement). Our sleep alternates between these two every 90 minutes on average. REM is 25% of the night and when dreams occur, when the eyes are darting rapidly (hence the name). The brain is active at this point. The whole body is being energised. NREM on the other hand is 75% of our sleep at night. It is when tissue repair occurs, so this is when muscles are built and body tone increases. When we wake up at the end of a deep sleep cycle, we feel refreshed. People that don’t get enough sleep often feel the need to eat more, which leads to weight gain. A well-developed regular sleep cycle can control hunger, therefore keeping weight down.
The role of diet has been scrutinised almost endlessly. While there is still debate on the exact composition of a great diet, there is little doubt that a diet with a share of protein from white meat* (chicken, turkey and duck), supplemented by a little bit of whole grain carbohydrates and lots of fruit and veg is good for everyone. Oats and rice are great sources of starch as well as protein; healthy wholegrains with additional minerals. People who avoid meat can still consume eggs and fish, while vegans can avail of lentils, beans, tofu, mushrooms, avocado and quinoa to name a few. The role of protein in recovery and muscle building for toning is not doubted. Higher protein, low carb diets have often made a difference in altering body morphology, making people leaner and healthier. Eliminating or sharply reducing alcohol, in tandem with cutting fast food and fried foods will drastically alter body structure over time.
Critical to achieving body change is the role of hormones, particularly testosterone – responsible for muscle maintenance. Which is where the differences between men and women can come into play. Men, who look to build muscle are relying on boosting their testosterone to do so. As men have bigger frames and much more testosterone than women, they will tend to gain more muscle more quickly. Women however can also get leaner by slightly increasing their testosterone levels. Oestrogen and progesterone, the dominant female hormones make it harder to lose weight. Hence losing weight requires some level of weight training with dumbbells and barbells for both men and women, in addition to cardio.
The act of breaking muscles and repairing them to get bigger is how both sexes achieve changes in body structure. For men, excess weight often tends to build up around the belly and abdomen, while for women it tends to be in the thighs and glutes as well as belly. However both men and women will benefit from taxing their bodies, particularly different muscles simultaneously through weight work, especially compound weight exercises. Think of the difference between the effort to move one finger and four fingers on a hand. The latter is harder. The same principle applies to your body. In simple terms that simply means that several muscles being engaged simultaneously means more tone and growth. Squats, dead-lifts and rows are great examples. The stress of having muscles broken down and repaired increases testosterone levels in both men and women, which can lead to greater fat loss and muscle gains.
Each person is different, beyond the generic features that are shaped by hormones. Psychology, stress levels, work environment, home environment and basic motivation all play important roles in shaping us physically and as people. Nonetheless understanding the interplay between diet, exercise and sleep is an important first step to a healthier world! Good luck on your journey to a better healthier body and mind.
*Red meat like beef and pork is protein rich also but also contains more fat and in some cases can have carcinogenic properties, increasing cancer risk.
Some useful links for further reading can be found below: