The pulse of the modern world and the conveniences that come with it—temperature control that either cools us down on a blazing hot day or warms us up on a biting cold morning, electricity that illuminates our homes when the sun goes down, cars that take us from point A to point B in minutes—have certainly improved our lives in innumerable ways.
But these great innovations that make life easier actually make it harder for our bodies to function optimally. The human body has not only been designed to endure challenge, but to thrive on it. Our physiology requires moderate levels of biological and environmental discomfort to function at its best, and it is up to us to see to it that our bodies find the challenge they crave.
It’s not news that today we are more physically inactive than at any point in human history, and that our sedentary lifestyles are negatively impacting our health, making us more prone to developing obesity and other metabolic diseases. The same modern conveniences that have made life more enjoyable have also made it all too easy to sit still for prolonged periods of time. While it may seem like “conserving” energy would prevent us from feeling drained, in reality, the opposite is true: You need to use energy to make energy.
Sweat: It Takes Energy to Make Energy
Our bodies are designed for movement. While the hunter-gatherer lifestyle makes them considerably more active than the average American office worker, even when the Hadzas are “at rest,” they are not fully sedentary. For example, something as simple as sitting down and standing up is vastly more dynamic for them: They squat or, rather, sit on their haunches. As you are reading this paragraph, try getting out of your comfy seat and squatting on your haunches—you will feel the muscles in the backs of your legs and your glutes light up. Getting up and down fully to the ground many times over as part of daily life requires constant engagement of large muscles and uses the full range of motion of the joints. This steady movement uses energy, keeps our metabolic fires burning, and promotes mitochondrial efficiency
Research shows that any type of sustained movement that keeps your body active and muscles engaged can be considered a cardiovascular activity. In fact, there is strong research showing that even low-level movement, such as fidgeting—tapping of the pen or tapping of feet—appears to help keep systems using energy more efficiently and can burn up to 300 to 350 more calories a day.
This is metabolic flexibility in a nutshell, and regular movement helps keep your mitochondrial fires burning. The great news is that it’s never too late to get moving: Research shows that movement and exercise can restore diminished mitochondrial function. Plus, there’s evidence that the benefits we reap from exercise in mitochondrial function and regeneration endure with time as we age. Exercise also helps keep the body sensitive to insulin, and therefore has been proved to be protective against insulin resistance and diabetes.
It’s clear that moving your body is a nonnegotiable—the benefits are just too significant to pass up. The question is: How can we create an exercise program that works for you? If you’re reading this book, chances are you don’t have a ton of extra time for a new exercise routine—you’re already overscheduled and exhausted. So let’s work on meeting you where you are now, and consider how you can get the most gain with the least investment of pain (and time).
Contrary to what you may think, you don’t need to exercise for forty-five minutes or more to reap the benefits of movement. In fact, studies show that three ten-minute sessions of exercise scattered throughout the day offers at least the same, and perhaps even more, benefit as thirty minutes of continuous exercise
The overall goal is to move continuously throughout the day, with “bursts” of vigorous movement included here and there that condition your metabolism to become more flexible.
- Jog in place. Just do a nice, easy trot for 1 minute. If this is too much for you, try it seated and move your legs and arms as though you’re running.
- To do a crunch, lie on your back with your knees bent, and with either arms behind your head or arms pointed toward your feet, lift your head and shoulders up off the floor, then slowly lift your torso up, vertebra by vertebra. Go as far as you can go and do as many as you can within 1 minute without going too quickly; you want to keep your form the whole time, making sure your abs are doing the work, not your arms or neck.
- Planks are a great all-around body strengthener, and they can be done practically anywhere. To do a plank, get into push-up position on the floor with arms and legs out straight, resting on your toes (or bended knees if you need the support). With your back straight, head and neck in a neutral position, and your hands directly below your shoulders, squeeze your glutes, abs, and quads for 1 minute. If you are new to the exercise, you may find it a bit challenging—take a break whenever you need to. A slightly modified version is to rest on your elbows with your forearms out front. Whichever position you choose, you should feel your core engaged. If planks aren’t your thing, do a regular old or modified (knees on the floor) push-up.
- This is another great move you can do anywhere. Stand with your feet parallel and a little wider than hip-width apart. Raise your arms to shoulder level, and as you squeeze in your abdominal muscles, slowly bend your knees while keeping your chest forward and your head lifted. Bend as deeply as your mobility will allow, then return to a standing position by engaging your gluteal muscles. Do as many repetitions as you can in 1 minute, focusing on keeping your form. Hold on to a counter or the back of a chair with one hand if you need balance.
Sunlight: Nature’s Free Vitamin
Think of sunlight as one of the most inexpensive and effective supplements out there. Exposure to sunlight helps your body produce vitamin D, which is intimately connected with energy levels because it supports the intestinal wall integrity and immune function. Full-spectrum natural light plays a critical role in our energy stores by giving our skin’s melanin the power it needs to help make ATP. And with the help of the sun’s infrared light, we can lower blood pressure while increasing overall blood flow.
As you likely have experienced, getting plenty of bright daylight also improves your mood and helps you sleep better at night. So get out there—the more you get those rays (yes, you get them even if it’s overcast), the better your inner energy systems function.
Regular sun exposure is key not only to reaping the energy-boosting benefits of sunlight, but some suggest it may also (paradoxically?) be critical to protecting yourself from sun damage. In fact, Matt Maruca, a researcher in the field of photobiology and founder of blue-blocking eyewear brand Ra Optics, has spoken about emerging science on building up a “sun callus.” Just like a callus you can get by learning to play guitar or walking barefoot—a protective buildup created by doing one thing over and over—Maruca cites how regular, moderate exposure to sunlight all year round has a protective benefit.
When we don’t get adequate exposure to sunlight throughout the seasons, we step outside totally unprepared in the summertime and fry our cells, which can create carcinogenic damage and stress. Regular exposure to sunlight helps us build up a healthy callus, limiting the potential for skin damage while we safely benefit from the sun’s multivitamin effects.
Shutdown Mode: Turn off the Blue Light
Before electricity, our ancestors ate according to daily and seasonal changes in sunlight exposure, not dissimilar to how the long days of blue light in the summer prompt bears to fill their bellies with berries and salmon, which will turn into fat that nourishes them through their long, sleepy winter. Like those bears, we are encouraged by warm, long days to increase our food consumption (including the only sweet food that was once available to us, fruit) so that we have extra fuel to burn during the leaner months. And while humans don’t hibernate, traditionally the colder, shorter days and longer nights of winter meant fewer food options, less time for activities like hunting or gathering, and more time for rest and sedentary activity.
We existed this way for millennia. But the discovery of electricity and subsequent invention of artificial lighting profoundly disrupted these natural rhythms. Soon a variety of light-emitting devices—including televisions, computers, and eventually smartphones—came into existence. All of these gadgets are illuminated by artificial blue light, which in recent years has come to be referred to as “junk light.” Blue light disrupts our circadian clock, and today it is hard to get away from.
In order to regain our energy—and our overall well-being—it is essential for us to reestablish our circadian rhythm and get back in sync with the natural ebb and flow of daylight. This means we must reduce our exposure to blue light as much as possible, and aim to expose our eyes to its natural counterbalance, red light, at sunrise and sunset. (Remember, the red and infrared wavelengths of the spectrum help your mitochondria do their work.) To mimic this, you can buy a red light device such as Joovv.
And I hope it goes without saying that when you actually get into bed for some shut-eye, you must shut off your electronic devices—do not take them to bed with you! Some may emit blue light even when dormant, and they may also emit EMFs that disrupt sleep patterns, so plug them in to recharge on the other side of the room (better yet, outside of the room so you’re not tempted to check Twitter during the middle of the night).
Sleep: Recharging Our Cells
We are a nation of people walking around as sleep-deprived zombies, and we’ve become sadly accustomed to it. For many people, the shoe doesn’t drop until true sleep deprivation starts to hit—by then, the damage has been accumulating for some time. As Arianna Huffington shared in her book The Sleep Revolution, she learned about the importance of sleep the hard way while trying to power through her days as the ultimate “super woman.” After her chronic sleep-deprivation was to blame for a scary accident, she woke up.
The importance of good-quality and sufficient sleep cannot be underestimated; it is as critical to our well-being as nutrition, yet it is often—to use a wheel analogy—the one spoke that is broken. It is only recently that the scientific community has begun to fully appreciate the myriad ways sleep impacts our health, and my hope is that in sharing these benefits with the public, people start to prioritize their nightly shut-eye.
As you know, one obstacle to restful sleep is blue light, which affects your circadian clock and disrupts sleep patterns. In order to get the sleep your body needs, it’s important to reestablish your circadian rhythm and get back in sync with the natural ebb and flow of daylight. But light isn’t the only factor that gets in the way of a good night’s sleep. In fact, the number one suggestion is to not eat within three hours of bedtime.
During sleep, your body engages in repair mode, and your brain in particular “cleanses” itself, a function that is essential to healthy cognitive and neurological function. But the process of digestion diverts blood flow down to the gut instead of giving your brain the resources it needs for its freshening-up period. So, please, finish eating three hours before bedtime at least once a week, but ideally every day. You will be shocked how much better and deeper you will sleep.
Stress Management: Chill Out to Power Up
Historically, stress invaded our lives only in short bursts, and we had ample time for rest and recovery. Of course, the way stress affects our lives today is a different story altogether—stress is often chronic and unrelenting, and worse, we’ve normalized this state (much like being tired all the time) as the cost of modern life.
We know that the constant barrage of stress hormones in our body increases systemic inflammation, wreaks havoc on the gut, and is a major cause of brain inflammation (and resulting cognitive impairment) as well. Living with high levels of stress is simply not an option if we’re going to reclaim our energy (and sanity). I realize this is easier said than done, but I want you to understand that stress is a very real physiological phenomenon with dangerous side effects.
So, let’s talk about how you can manage your responses to today’s seemingly endless stream of challenges.
Start with two nonnegotiables: daily exercise, which we know to be a powerful stress reducer, and fixing sleep deprivation. Once those habits are engrained, start bringing awareness to your stress response as it happens during the day. You have a lot more power over this than you realize! Your conscious thoughts can either activate your stress hormone network and, by association, your gut, or calm it all down. The easiest and cheapest way to calm your body’s stress response is through controlled breathing. When you learn to “harness your breath” through conscious breathing, you tap into the power of your vagus nerve to calm your nervous system and communicate to your gut, and to your gut buddies, that “all is well.” Breathing techniques are a free, easy, and remarkably effective way to manage stress.