Baby Steps For Optimal Health

Christina Carreau BA, ND

 This article is about setting yourself up for success when it comes to your own health. I think that too many of us think about health as an ‘all or nothing’ commitment. We need to appreciate the fact that small changes over the course of days, weeks, months and years will amount to very big changes over the span of our lives. So take some baby steps to help you on the path to a healthier you.

1) Set health goals for yourself and write them down. Setting daily, weekly monthly and yearly goals for yourself is the first step for optimizing health. This will help you to stay focused on the task at hand and will set you up for success. These goals can be basic, i.e. eat 3 more servings of vegetables this week, or cut out alcohol this week, or drink lemon water every morning before breakfast, or do 5 minutes of core strengthening daily, or practice laughing more regularly. Your goals should be a reflection of what you are trying to achieve. Are you looking for more energy? Better sleep? Weight loss? Increased happiness? This is not a race, so you don’t need to overwhelm yourself with expectations. You know yourself, so sit down and think about what needs to change and work towards making it happen.

2) Eat More Protein! Protein increases metabolic rate (the amount of calories that we burn at rest) and can therefore help with weight loss. I think that this change alone can significantly impact your overall health in terms of weight, mood, energy levels and hormone balance. Too many of us are still relying on carbohydrates (bagels, muffins, sandwiches, pasta, rice, potatoes, etc) for energy. I am not suggesting that protein needs to replace carbohydrates completely, but that it should displace a large number of the calories consumed in the form of carbs both simple and complex. The best sources of protein are meat, poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, tempeh and full-fat dairy products (if you can tolerate them). The general rule of thumb for protein intake is 1.5-2g/kg of bodyweight per day. Challenge yourself to increase protein intake. (This does not apply to anyone with kidney dysfunction or Parkinson’s disease).

3) Eat Less Carbohydrates. I touched on this when discussing protein, but it needs to be addressed on its own because not all carbohydrates are created equal. I want to highlight the fact that I am not suggesting complete elimination of carbohydrates, but we need to understand that carbohydrates break down into sugar and get stored as fat when consumed in excess. So if you want to lose weight you really need to limit your intake of carbohydrates or this will act as an obstacle to fat loss. Some loose guidelines for optimizing health are 50g or less if you are obese or have blood sugar dysregulation or insulin resistance; 100g or less if you are trying to lose weight and only exercise moderately; and 150 g or more if you are lean, healthy and physically active. So if you are serious about losing weight don’t count calories, count carbohydrates. Don’t be overwhelmed. Just look at your diet and think of one thing that you can do – one change that you can make that will help you reach your goals (i.e. eat chicken for breakfast twice this week, or have open faced sandwiches in place of two slices of bread, or have leafy green salads with protein every second day, or count your daily intake of carbohydrates and try and reduce this by 10g each week until you are in a more optimal range). Baby steps.

4) Exercise. This does not have to be an overly time consuming or expensive endeavour. And this is not just about fitting into an old pair of jeans. This is about long-term health and wellness. Exercise is about your heart, brain, lungs, immune system, kidneys, skin, mood, digestive system, and stress levels. This is a very effective tool to support your health both today and in a decade from now. If you already exercise – great! Keep it up. Challenge yourself to try new kinds of exercise – weights and resistance training, high intensity interval training, different forms of cardio, different classes. If you are short on time, opt for high intensity workouts either at home, outside or at the gym. Short on money? Buy a trainer for your bike and set yourself up in front of your TV every second night for some cardio or invest in some weights and a skipping rope. If you are not yet in a routine of exercising then set some goals and get started. Take the stairs instead of elevators and escalators; walk to the subway instead of grabbing the bus, stop at a gym on the way home or during your lunch break, go to an early morning yoga class before work, sign up for a boot camp or get a gym membership. Again, don’t be overwhelmed just set a few exercise goals for yourself and work towards them.

5) Breathe. The daily race against the clock is one of the challenges that most of us are faced with on a regular basis. This creates a lot of stress both mentally and physiologically. If all of us were rushing about in a zen state then that would be fine, but the fact of the matter is that this rush activates our sympathetic nervous system, better known as our “fight or flight” response. This response increases cortisol levels along with heart and respiratory rates, leads to more shallow breathing which increases toxic burden, promotes excessive thinking and worrying which can often lead to mood and sleep disturbances, dysregulates blood sugar levels often contributing to weight gain and in summary just wreaks havoc on many aspects of our health. So make an effort to slow things down. Try and catch yourself in those moments when you are stressed out and take the time to promote relaxation by focusing on your breathing. Even if that means that you only take 5 minutes twice/day while you are at the office, at home or at school to calm your nervous system down, you will be doing yourself a big favor. This gentle reminder to your nervous system helps you to remember what relaxation feels like and if we never make the time to come back to this place of calm…. your nervous system just forgets how to relax and that high alert/heightened state becomes all that you know. Life shouldn’t be about surviving…it should be about living, so carve out some time EVERY day to put yourself and your health first.

Let this article be a reminder to set goals and work towards a healthier you, one baby step at a time.
In the words of Jim Rohn – ‘Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.’