How to meet your wellness goals this season

Fiona McMahon PT,DPT

It’s that time of year again. Resolution time. For almost as long as I can remember when I thought of New Year’s resolutions, I thought of spandex, crowded gyms, and meticulously prepped meals. I used to think that resolutions revolved around looking a certain way, but I didn’t think of health. In the last few years, especially those following the pandemic, I have observed a marked shift away from aesthetic goals when New Year’s rolls around. I am now seeing a strong push toward wellness. As a physical therapist, this push delights me to no end. Focusing on wellness holistically has so many benefits beyond just how you look (also if how you look is your main goal, that’s okay too), but benefits you at the root of your being.

Focusing on wellness is such a profound shift because it should ultimately feel really good. Whether you’re focusing on your mind, your strength, or your sleep, you should see the benefits seep into other areas of your life and become a self-enforcing feedback loop that will be much easier to sustain than deprivation in pursuit of a physical aesthetic. If you are ready to think about some simple changes that can truly improve your life, read on.

We will approach wellness in 3 different domains: Sleep, relaxation, and movement. All of these elements can go miles towards improving your life from your physical well-being, mental well-being, and beyond. Let’s start with what I believe is the foundation of a solid wellness routine, sleep.

Sleep, the Kingpin of Wellness

Sleep is essential for survival. If we fail to sleep, we will die. However; most of us know from sleepless college study sessions, the first months with a brand new baby, that it is possible, while not entirely optimal to function on extremely low amounts of sleep. We may have become so adept at surviving on little sleep, that we do not notice that we are indeed sleep-deprived. We also may carry our sleep deprivation as a badge of honor in the hustle-and-grind mentality of life nowadays. But as you will discover in this blog, optimizing your sleep will allow you to get more out of your waking hours.

Short sleep duration is defined as less than 6.5 hours. Yikes. I’m fairly certain that most of us reading this blog have short sleep durations more often than not. Though we may feel refreshed, over time lack of sleep can have negative impacts on our health, mood, cognition, and even decision-making. Shortening sleep can actually have an adverse effect on productivity, leading to diminishing returns for every hour of sleep sacrificed in order to achieve a specific goal.

Sleep is key to our well-being. For those of us who have athletic pursuits, it is considered a primary recovery tool to allow the body to rebuild from the previous day’s workout, to allow us to become stronger and progress in our fitness. During deep wave sleep, it is theorized that our body does most of its cell growth and repair. This is where you get those gains from the gym! You also replenish your glycogen stores during sleep. Glycogen is a key energy molecule that is stored in your muscles. Glycogen allows us the energy to execute our workouts efficiently and effectively.

Circumstances may not allow us to sleep as we did when we were teenagers, but there are some things we can do actively to improve our sleep:

  • Skip the alcohol, seriously, Drinking before bed can wreck our ability to enter REM sleep or to sleep deeply. If you have a sleep tracker like an Apple watch, Oura ring, or Fitbit, note how drastically your sleep is affected by late-night libations.
  • Keep your room cool, quiet, and dark. Eye masks are a great tool as well as earplugs, and white noise apps available on your phone.
  • Limit screen time 15-20 minutes before bed.

Exercise

According to the CDC, 23.2% of American adults get the recommended amount of weekly aerobic exercise, which is 150 minutes. This stat often will be used as a rhetorical device to bemoan Americans’ lack of care for themselves and how their lack of exercise will place an increasing burden on the healthcare system. I am not going to do that here. We all know exercise is good for us by now, and having the time and space to exercise in a manner that you actually enjoy is truly a gift. For many of us, the demands of our jobs and families come before our own needs, and it is important to acknowledge that it is difficult to fit exercise in. That said, if a new fitness routine is your goal, check out the tips below.

Ditch the all or attitude

Changing our perspective about exercise from something we must do, to something that we chose to do as part of our leisure time is a good way to make the goal of exercising less daunting. Your personal exercise routine doesn’t have to look like a sports drink commercial and you certainly don’t need (and shouldn’t be) working out at your top effort every time. This goes for even my most experienced athletes. Working out so hard that exercise is actually miserable, is a surefire way to not want to work out.

Where to start? I personally love a walking program. During the height of the pandemic, TikTok, in a feat of truly epic rebranding, dubbed the neighborhood walk, “the hot girl walk”. Whether you want to go with that name, or the” hot guy walk, hot person walk, mediocre human walk, or just the walk”, it is a great space to start.

Walking is so adaptable. You can skip out on lunch for a little walk (midday sun exposure can also do wonders for sleep), or get a quick morning or afternoon walk. Remember the CDC guidelines are 150 minutes per week. That means 10 minutes here and there are enough to reach that goal. I find keeping a few podcasts as “walking podcasts” to be really helpful. It’s another little thing that’ll motivate you to lace up those sensible walking shoes and get after it.

What if you want something a little flashier than a walk? That’s great. Keep in mind the principle of all or nothing still won’t apply even to the most experienced athletes. We still need easy days to repair our muscles and improve our base-level fitness. Simply put, every workout can not be a sprint, and rest days should be considered as necessary as your workout days.

Adopting a balanced approach, can help you stick with your routine, prevent burnout, progress in your fitness, and reduce your risk for injury.

Allow me to reintroduce polarized training. The concept of polarized training has been around for about 20 years and is a mainstay of many distance athletes’ approaches to training. Simply put, polarized training means you spend 80% of your training time at an easy effort and the remaining 20% at a hard effort. There is debate in the field on whether this is truly the best model to be your absolute fastest beasty self, and the higher the caliber of competition an athlete is training for, the more debate you will encounter. Regardless, polarized training is great for most athletes and is often used at the highest echelons of endurance sports.

I would argue for the vast majority of athletes from the couch to 5k set, to the ultramarathon enthusiast, this model can be great for both improving performance and managing how daunting a training program may be.

When approaching polarized training, the very first thing you want to do is get good at classifying your workout. We can subdivide cardiovascular workouts into 3 distinct types. Type 1 would be an all-day or conversational pace. Your heart rate is up, but you could definitely carry on a conversation if need be. Type one training could be done for hours if need be. The second type would be lactate threshold training. This type of training is where things get to be a little gnarly, but can also be super rewarding post-workout. Lactate threshold training is a pace where lactate (a waste product of metabolism) starts to build up in the blood. Your legs will start to get heavy, you will need to breathe through your mouth and nose, and talking becomes difficult. You can really only get out a couple of words in lactate threshold training. The third is an all-out effort. It’s fairly self-explanatory. At an all-out effort, you are working as hard as possible. When approaching your training program using a polarized training model, program 80% of your runs/ workouts at an all-day or conversational pace. The remaining 20% of your workouts should be composed of lactate threshold runs or sprint intervals. The philosophy is that a large amount of low-intensity training will supply you with a solid aerobic base and stimulate mitochondrial density, (which is imperative to endurance athletics), while supplying intense enough stimulus to progress, with a reduced risk of overtraining.

What if the thought of running or cardio makes you want to puke? It’s totally okay, cardio is not for everyone. Maybe resistance training is calling your name.

Resistance training is AWESOME. It’s something we should all strive to incorporate into our fitness routine. A well-thought-out lifting routine can do so much for your health. Regular lifting can help improve the density of our bones, increase lean muscle mass, and improve our metabolism, not to mention you may feel like a complete B.A. after a session.

If you have never lifted a weight in your life, I would highly suggest you visit a personal trainer or physical therapist to walk you through the proper form for exercises as well as help you design a program to meet your goals specifically. This will decrease the risk of injury as well as make sure you get the absolute most possible from your training.

Before you start your workout, it’s important to get a little warm-up. Walking on the treadmill for 10 minutes should suffice. In the beginning phases of your workout program, focus on nailing the movements before progressing your weight. Humility is a great training asset in the gym. Once you get confident, start out with a weight that you can do 8-10 repetitions with without losing your form. This is an excellent place to start.

General Tips for Starting an exercise program:

  • Start slow – Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither should your exercise routine. In the first few weeks of your training, go easy and reflect on what types of exercises make you feel best.
  • TAKE your rest days – Program rest days in the same way you would program any other workout. Rest days are imperative for your body to incorporate your work from your training days and to allow you to progress in your fitness.
  • Feed and hydrate yourself.
  • Stretch following your workouts.
  • Don’t should yourself – stick to the exercises you like to do, when you like to do it.
  • Remember you can always get back on track during your next workout. Don’t give up if you struggle at first.

Lower Stress

Clinical anxiety, depression, and other psychiatric symptoms should be discussed with a Doctor or your mental health professional. That said, if you are aiming to get a little bit better at managing day-to-day stress, there are some great ways to approach lessening your stress in 2023.

Mindfulness is a super hot topic, but it’s not new at all. In its current secular form, mindfulness has been around since the 1970s. But its roots go back millennia. Mindfulness is simply paying attention to the present moment. What can make mindfulness so powerful, is that by staying present in the current moment, we can avoid ruminating about the past as well as worrying about the future. Over time, with a solid mindfulness practice, we can get better and better at staying in the present. To start with mindfulness, simply sit down, close your eyes and focus on your breath, as well as other sensations in the body. Even just a few minutes of mindfulness is helpful. If you prefer more structure, you can use mindfulness apps like Calm, Headspace, and Peloton mediation or use a workbook such as The Mindful Way work book, which will guide you through an 8-week mindfulness program.

Another great modality is journaling. Journaling is truly the rage right now, and there are many journals out there complete with writing prompts, as well as fancy pens and stickers to help you customize your journaling experience. That said, any old notebook will do.

Journaling allows us to get the jumble of thoughts and feelings out of our minds and onto paper. A consistent journaling program has been shown to improve our mood and immune system and can help us to sleep better.

You can approach journaling in so many ways. Brene Brown talks about the SFD or the stormy first draft in her books Rising Strong and Dare to Lead. Did you experience a stressful encounter during the day? Are you hanging on to the bad feelings that you feel around the encounter? Get it out on paper. What the SFD allows us to do is to examine the story we are telling ourselves about an event and question whether or not the story we are telling ourselves is realistic. An example of an SFD is, perhaps your boss was terse with you in an email. An SFD or the story you might tell yourself is that your boss is mad at you because you did poorly on a project and your termination is looming. Writing the SFD out on paper can expose when the story you are telling yourself may be blown out of proportion. Is your boss mad at you, or did you read the e-mail and infer a tone? Could your boss’s terseness be completely unrelated? Probably. Is terseness a harbinger of impending termination? Sometimes but not usually. Getting the anxiety spiral out of your head and onto paper can lift the tremendous burden we sometimes place on ourselves.

Maybe you are all about gratitude. Having the quick and simple practice of writing 3-5 things that you are thankful for in a day can go a long way toward improving your mood. It can also help you stay present in your day, if you know you have the “assignment” of writing down your blessings at the end of the day.

Any one of these practices can go along way towards coping with life being, well… lifey. Just as with exercise. There is no one way. As you get started, you may find one approach to fit you better than others. In the beginning, explore and find what is truly right for you.

Wellness Wrap Up

I hope that by reading this blog, you came away with the concept that wellness can look differently for different people. Whether that’s getting 40 extra minutes of sleep or crushing it at the gym. The ultimate goal of wellness is that it should support you in living your fullest and most contented life possible, and only you know what that means for you. I hope you found this blog helpful and I am wishing you the absolute best in the New Year.

Sources

Baron K, Duffecy J, Reutrakul S, et al. Behavioral interventions to extend sleep duration: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Medicine Rev. 2021

Bonnar D. Sleep Interventions designed to improve athletic performance and recovery: a systematic review
CDC.gov

Charest J, Grander M. Sleep and athletic performance impacts on physical performance, mental health, injury risk and recovery and mental health. Sleep Med. Clin (2020) 41-57

Hutchinson A, “The case for and against polarized training”. Outside Magazine. February 2022

Phelan H. What’s All this about Journaling. The New York Times. October 25.2018

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