Sleep? Sleep when you’re dead! Most of you reading this blog should now know otherwise, and understand the importance of quality sleep. Those with the “sleep when you’re dead” or “I’ll catch up on sleep another time” mindsets generally assume that nothing happens to our bodies during sleep. However, our bodies are incredibly active during sleep as they undergo an array and growth and restorative processes necessary to keep the mind and body healthy.
Sleep is essential for learning. A full night’s sleep keeps your memory sharp and improves your problem-solving the next day. It also keeps you attentive and creative, fosters prompt decision making and improves your overall mood and energy. Much of this research has associated these changes in mental health to altered activity in parts of the brain.
During waking hours all body systems are exposed to all kinds of stressors. The environment, exercise, sensory stimulation, and unfortunately for some, trauma. Sleep is when the body replenishes expended mineral and energy stores, rebuilds damaged tissue (including nerve tissue which probably undergoes the most daily restoration), and grows.
Sleep deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, some of which is the result of overeating and obesity caused by an imbalance in the hormones that manage hunger and satiety.
A good night’s sleep will improve athletic performance, including speed, accuracy and overall energy. And sleep is especially important for kids and teens, and those who exercise because it induces the release of human growth hormone, an important hormone in cellular regeneration.
Getting sick a lot of late? Your immune system is most active during sleep – partly why when you are sick all you want to do is sleep! A consistent dose of daily sleep reduces your risk of getting the common cold and other illnesses and makes you more resilient to those daily stressors.
Sleep deficiency also affects your endocrine system, thereby affecting the production and sensitivity to important hormones such and insulin and cortisol.
So just like exercise and nutrition, there’s a big picture perspective to sleep. It’s essential to long-term health.
How much is enough?
How much sleep we need varies between individuals, but most of our differences in sleep requirements vary with age. Babies need the most while adults (regardless of age) need the least. Adults need seven to eight hours a day, but there are some “elite sleepers” who perform optimally on six hours a night! Just as elite athletes are, these people are freaks of nature!
Getting a good night’s sleep
Just as how much sleep we all need varies, so does what leads us to sleep. Our circadian rhythm is the body’s sleep system. It sets in motion the temperature and hormonal changes required for sleep and waking. If you’ve ever experienced jet lag, you’ll know what it’s like to have that system thrown out.
To help lead you to a good sleep, start winding down 30-60 minutes before you plan on hitting the hay. Dim or switch of all blue lights such as ceiling lights, TVs and handheld devices. Have blackout curtains in your bedroom and for the light sleeper, wear ear plugs, as long as you can still hear your alarm in the morning!
Let’s take a quick break from the Health Month topics to talk about fitness testing. We use fitness testing to evaluate the safety, efficacy and effectiveness of our program, and for you to measure changes in your fitness. The only way we can tell whether or not you are improving is by you recording PBs on the whiteboard, especially during test weeks. An even better method is you tracking your progress on Beyond the Whiteboard. As much as we would like to see everyone PB on every day of testing, it’s not realistic. But that doesn’t mean that you aren’t getting fitter.
For you to beat your previous best on any test, everything needs to fall in place on that day. Your nutrition must be on point, your sleep needs to have been sufficient, you need to be in the correct frame of mind for that test, and sometimes you need to be amongst a particular group of people. These, and probably a bunch of other stars, need to line up for you to achieve a PB on a particular day.
If you don’t PB or even perform a bit under your previous best, does it mean you’re less fit. No, unless you haven’t been doing any exercise for a good few weeks prior to doing the test! And you’re certainly not less fit if you’ve improved in one or more other areas, which based on our results from the five years we have under our belts, is typically what we see. Progress in one or more areas while other areas plateau can still mean a greater overall fitness.
Remember, fitness is defined as increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains. If you have a look at the chart above, work capacity is calculated as the area beneath the power curve. If some data points stay the same while others move up, it still increases the area beneath the curve – an increase in fitness.
It’s also pertinent to remember that we’re trying to achieve a broad and inclusive fitness. It’s no good if your gymnastics is getting nowhere while your weightlifting charges on, or if you’re only improving in long time domain workouts and not the shorter ones. That means that sometimes, you need to sacrifice further gains in your strengths in order to better level out your fitness.
So if you didn’t improve everywhere during testing or some gains were minimal, remember that they were still gains and you are human!
All of that said, you might feel like all your recovery practices and nutrition are dialled in and you’re looking after your health and performance, but you just feel stuck, you might need some individually tailored work to reach those goals. Touch base with one of the coaches to tee up a private coaching session and get set up on a homework program. Some properly directed extra work is often just what you need.
Understanding cholesterol is essential, especially with all the misinformation out there. Cholesterol is a waxy steroid of fat found in all cell membranes and in our blood plasma. Among its many jobs, cholesterol is responsible for insulating neurons (nerve cells), building and maintaining cellular membranes (the security walls of cells), metabolising vitamins, producing bile, and initiating the synthesis of many hormones. Cholesterol is vital for life. No cholesterol = death.
Given all the important work that cholesterol is responsible for, its production in the live is self-regulated. That means that the liver will always ensure that there is enough. What’s especially important is that our livers regulate cholesterol production in response to our nutrition. When we eat less, it makes more, and vice-versa.
Contrary to ‘conventional wisdom,’ there is only one “type” of cholesterol, and it’s called just that, cholesterol. However, we don’t just have cholesterol floating about. Cholesterol can only be transported in the blood by lipoproteins. Lipoproteins deliver cholesterol to sites in the body.
When referring to cholesterol nowadays, we mistakenly refer to cholesterol as HDL and LDL. High density lipoproteins (HDL) and low density lipoproteins (LDL) do not give us a measure of cholesterol. They are simply vehicles transporting cholesterol.
HDL has the renowned job of getting rid of excess cholesterol. It transfers cholesterol from the body’s tissues back to the liver, and the liver excretes it through bile. LDL, in contrast, transports cholesterol from the liver production line to wherever it’s needed in the body. Remember, cholesterol has a lengthy to-do list!
Naturally, HDL became known as “good” cholesterol and LDL as “bad” cholesterol. LDL became really bad in the fifties when research found an association between early death by heart disease and fat deposits along artery walls. Cholesterol was found in the fat deposits. Therefore, researchers concluded that it was the culprit. However, one of cholesterol’s roles is to act as a plaster. In an inflammatory situation, cholesterol (transported by LDL) forms a temporary cover over lesions in the arterial wall. When the inflammation is resolved, cholesterol is removed (by HDL). Unfortunately in most heart disease cases, the inflammation doesn’t subside.
What causes inflammation? A diet high in simple and processed carbs, including grains and starches, does. However, given that meat, eggs and dairy are the primary sources of dietary cholesterol, the message sent home was to eat less of those and more carbs. All you need to do is look at the general state of health to see where that advice has left us – fat and riddled with cardiovascular and metabolic disease.
What compounds the good vs. bad cholesterol frenzy further is that it’s not the cholesterol part of LDL that is bad, but the lipoprotein itself. Some smaller forms of LDL are the ones involved in the process of inflammation in arterial walls. And again, these types of LDL do not increase with the amount of saturated fats you eat, but instead with elevated levels of inflammation caused by simple carbs and hydrogenated fats. Note: You can be lean yet have high levels of inflammation.
So, a high level of blood cholesterol, low HDL or high LDL does not necessarily indicate a risk of heart disease. While those measurements can tell you that something is not right, the problem is unlikely to be cholesterol itself. Cholesterol might just be the symptom, the decoy, of the larger concern.
Maintaining a healthy heart is achieved by minimising inflammation. That means eating loads of vegies, fruits, good quality meats, and healthy fats and proteins. Top that off with a good dose of omega-3 fatty acids, especially from fish oils.
If a blood test has been recommended, then speak to your doctor about what the numbers mean in the big picture of your health.
In the first article for Health Month I noted that although it’s challenging to measure, mental health is of immense value to us. We know that many mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and related symptomatology are mitigated by diet and exercise. The stronger one’s markers of mental health are, the better their overall health rates on the sickness-wellness-fitness continuum. However, there are no single markers for mental health that allow us to measure it like other health markers such as blood pressure and body composition. So how do we evaluate, and therefore measure changes in mental health?
Mental health can be assessed by psychiatrists and psychologists, but they often provide subjective reports. To obtain more objective (measurable) data, self-report questionnaires are used. These provide ratings of stress, anxiety and depression, and they score your perceptions of your mental and physical wellbeing. That means such questionnaires provide insight into how you feel about your mental wellbeing, not about how a doctor sees it. And there is a great body of research evaluating changes in the results of such self-report questionnaires in people participating in structured and guided exercise programs as part of their therapy and rehabilitation.
In NZ and Australia, healthcare is tax funded with very few people using health insurance (medical aid). So when people were deemed unfit to work as a result of poor health they would go on to an income disability benefit until healthy again. The exercise rehab clinic our department ran formed part of the multidisciplinary team that got these people healthy enough to return to work again. Something I certainly wasn’t initially prepared for was the amount of clients we worked with who were on income disability due to mental health. They made up 60-70% of our clientele.
The testing and programs we implemented for them were all evidenced based – directed by (the huge amount of) research. And the results were profound. Along with their other treatment modalities such as occupational therapy and psychotherapy, exercise contributed significantly to improvements in perceptions of both mental and physical wellbeing. Moreover, improvements in those perceptions occurred concomitant to improvements in markers of fitness.
There’s a strong relation between not just engaging in an exercise program, but in tracking and observing the results of an exercise program, and improvements in mental health.
To simplify that further, if you exercise and measure the results of that exercise program, you are improving your mental health. Sounds familiar, yeah?
So just by turning up to your sessions every week you’re already taking care of yourself a great deal. But always remember that while all your health and fitness markers might be good, your mental health is important too. So stay aware.
If you’d like to complete a self-report questionnaire to help evaluate changes in your mental wellbeing, get in touch with me. Likewise, if you’re know of people who might need an exercise intervention for their health, send them in. We have the resources at CFJ!