DASH: The Four Pillars of Physical Wellbeing
Physical wellbeing often gets overcomplicated. There are so many different approaches and nuances that work for some but not others, but the good news is that to get the majority of the benefits to the way you feel here and now, you only need to take care of the basics.
There are 4 pillars of physical wellbeing: Diet, Activity, Sleep and Hydration (DASH). The aim is to make a few small improvements in each of these areas and notice the difference it makes to how you feel over the next few hours.
Despite the myriad food fads and philosophies, there is one point of agreement among the majority: too much sugar is bad for you. Not just bad for your long term health, but for how you feel and perform mentally in the minutes and hours following its consumption.
The recommended upper limit of free sugar (added sugar or naturally occurring sugars that have been processed, such as fruit juice) is 25g for women and 35g for men.
There are major long term health implications for consistently high levels of sugar consumption. But it has an almost immediate impact on how you feel and how you perform.
As soon as blood sugar level rise above what the brain regards as a safe level, it triggers the release of insulin to drive it back down again. Unfortunately it doesn’t just stop at the balanced level and instead continues to plummet, causing what some describe as a ‘sugar low’.
This affects different people in different ways, but typical responses include poor concentration, irritability, low mood, cravings and lethargy. Not exactly the backdrop to high performance, is it.
Ironically we tend to reach for high sugar snacks because we’re feeling low in energy, especially mid-morning or mid-afternoon. But this just feeds the sugar cycle, when what the body is really craving is nutrients and movement.
If you make one change to your diet in an effort to boost mental wellbeing and performance, start tracking your sugar intake and the resulting impact it has on how you feel.
Our bodies are designed to move, and a sedentary life is being linked to not only physical maladies but mental ill-health also. We’re not just talking exercise here: people who sit down all day and then exercise for an hour are often referred to as ‘active couch potatoes’. We need exercise, but we also need frequent movement throughout the day to keep our brains and body healthy.
Think about the last time you sat down for a prolonged period of time. Concentration might have been ok at first, but after a while focus starts to fade, creativity crashes and you can’t quite remember what you just read on the page in front of you.
Whilst exercise is often highly regarded for its long term benefits to health and fitness, daily movement is much more here and now. Taking a 5 minute break to walk around outside, do some squats or even just to stand up and stretch could win you back 10 times that amount of time in gained productivity.
Perhaps you have experienced the struggle to come up with an idea or figure out an answer whilst sat at your desk, only to have the answer neatly present itself to you out of nowhere whilst walking along and not thinking about it?
It’s not just your body but also your brain that requires physical movement for optimal function.
If you want to feel and perform at your best, make a commitment to stand up and move at least once every hour.
It’s possible to survive on minimal amounts of sleep, but it’s very difficult to thrive in these conditions. Poor sleep quality and quantity have implications for both mental and physical wellbeing. It can reduce the rate of recovery after exercise and hamper cell repair and function, as well as impairing your cognitive function.
Studies have shown that insufficient sleep can lead to a reduction in reaction times and perception equivalent to being over the UK legal drink drive limit.
Often we combat the feeling of tiredness by consuming caffeinated drinks. Whilst this masks the problem and gives us enough of a buzz to continue to function, caffeine stimulates the production of the stress hormone cortisol which isn’t always a good thing if you’re already feeling stressed or anxious.
Caffeine can also get in the way of the trigger in the evening to power down and get to bed. We can find ourselves ‘tired but wired’. Physically, mentally and emotionally wiped out but unable to sleep because our brains are still whirring at a million miles an hour. We stay up late watching Netflix because we don’t feel ready for bed, then wake to the alarm and kick start another groggy day with another bucket of coffee… and so the cycle continues, and our mental and physical wellbeing suffers.
Start to join these dots for yourself and experiment with a calmer, less caffeinated power down routine. Switch off screens 30-60 minutes before bed and write down any thoughts that come into your mind of things you need to deal with instead of ruminating on them.
Notice how you feel by paying attention to creating a quality end to the day and the difference it makes to how you feel the next day. It’s worth noting that if you make any dramatic reductions to your caffeine consumption things may get worse before they get better. But once you’re out the other side of the fog you’ll begin to notice the positive benefits!
Both the brain and body need adequate hydration in order to function properly. How much is ‘adequate’ will vary from person to person, but the baseline recommendation is 8 glasses a day. Drinking regular glasses of water can feel like a chore if you’re not used to it and see it as just something that you ‘should do’.
But hydration can make a rapid difference to your energy levels, concentration, reaction times and short term memory recall. Building habits such as drinking a glass of water first thing in the morning, keeping a bottle with you while you work or travel in the car, or having a glass with every meal can start to make a big difference to your physiology.
With all of these elements of physical wellbeing, it comes down to habits, and how you see yourself. Becoming the kind of person who checks labels to see how much sugar per portion. The kind of person who sets an alarm to stand up and move every hour. The kind of person who switches off their phone an hour before bed. The kind of person who drinks a glass of water first thing in the morning.
Becoming the kind of person who notices the difference each of these things make to how they feel and perform right here, right now.
There are many long term effects of healthy habits, but the first thing we need to do is to be consistent with them. If we’re not going to be at the mercy of our fluctuating levels of stress and motivation to continue progressing towards our physical wellbeing goals, we need to start connecting the behaviour to how we want to feel and perform.
Want more calm, clarity and creativity? Then start your DASH to better mental and physical wellbeing.
George Anderson is a wellbeing, mindset and performance expert. A speaker, coach and writer, he works with individuals to help them take more action towards thriving in their physical and mental wellbeing. He has shared his messages with organisations such as Oxford University, Dell, Experian, British Land, Wickes, Travis Perkins and the NHS.
Over the last 20 years George has run successful personal training and boot camp businesses, and produced a number of online wellbeing programs and books for running, weight loss, confidence and wellbeing.