Sleep, Diet, Exercise: What’s Most Important?

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Face it: When it comes to sleep, diet and exercise, we don’t always take care of ourselves as well as we should. It’s hard, because life gets in the way—doubly so if we have a busy work life. But whether it’s convenient or not, maintaining our health should come before our daily to-do’s. Why? Because if we are healthy, we can experience improved workplace performance and well-being. 

For the most health benefits, get at least 7 hours of sleep a night, find 20 to 30 minutes a day to exercise, and stick to foods that love your body back.

Let’s cover the basics—sleep, diet, exercise—and why you can’t ignore them:

Diet

It’s lunchtime. You’ve been working since 6 a.m. When those hunger pangs strike, the most appealing option seems to be greasy, ultra-convenient fast food. The last thing you want is a paltry little meal like a salad. But what are those excessive calories found in burgers and fries actually doing to your postlunch productivity?

According to one study published in the journal Nutrients, while participants who consumed unhealthy foods saw no effect—good or bad—on work engagement, those who consumed healthy foods saw a boost in their work engagement. Another study, this one published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, found that unhealthy eating in evenings led to both emotional and physical strain for participants the following morning, which “served as key mediators resulting in decreased quality of performance (i.e., less helping and more withdrawal behaviors) in the afternoon.” However, participants who were emotionally stable were more likely to report feeling fewer negative emotions or physical symptoms after engaging in unhealthy eating.

A study published in BMC Public Health found that our colleagues can help us improve our eating choices—according to the study, “the more employees perceived their colleagues to encourage them to behave in healthy ways, the higher the employee’s fruit and vegetable intake and the more the employee was physically active.” However, while fruit and vegetable consumption was motivated by the perceived behaviors of co-workers, there was a negative correlation between co-workers’ physical activity and that of the participants.

We tend to think simplistically about food. Many of us have likely heard food referred to as “fuel,” or perhaps we even think of it as such ourselves. Food, however, is less predictable than fuel. What you eat may affect your productivity in different ways, so eat smart.

Sleep

When your work life is demanding, you may keep weird hours. You might get to the office early, before the sun is up, and leave late after dark. At home, you may take out your laptop to “finish up a few things,” and only crawl into bed three hours later. And then you may wake up before the sun does to do it all again.

Maybe it just comes with the job. But even if you play the role of night owl and early bird, there are steps you can take to ensure you’re getting adequate rest. But first, why is rest so important?

Getting about seven hours of sleep a night can make a profound difference on your brain and heart health. Lack of sleep makes you less mentally aware and more fatigued and places you at a higher risk for accidents. Sleep deprivation has been linked to potential increases in blood pressure levels and decreases in brain function and well-being. It’s safe to say your performance will suffer if you aren’t catching enough Zs.

So, how does one combat chronic sleeplessness? Creating (and sticking to) a regular schedule certainly helps. If you work primarily from home, create definitive work hours, making sure you give yourself enough time to unwind after finishing work. And when your alarm clock goes off, get up no matter what. Resist the temptation to oversleep and potentially screw up your sleep cycle.

Exercise

Stress can get the best of us at times, and what could be better for you than melting your problems away with every rep, stride or lift at the gym? Not much. Working out is a great outlet for relieving stress and depression while getting fit at the same time. 

Of course, we could talk about exercising more until we’re blue in the face. The important thing is that we actually get out and do it. Don’t promise yourself you’ll do it at lunch or when you get home. Instead, treat your workout as an essential aspect of your success. It’s not just something you should do; it’s something you must do.

Bottom line of sleep, diet and exercise

Taking care of your sleep, diet and exercise is critical to your success because it allows you to get more done and, more importantly, be happy doing it.

Figure out ways to balance all three components of the health trifecta. If that means reorganizing your life to schedule physical activity and make healthy food ordering automatic, great. If needed, reschedule other parts of your life where necessary, too. For example, if it means missing a TV show to squeeze in a workout, do it. Spend time with your family by planning exercise with your children, or simply walking and talking with them. If you have to end your relationship with late-night talk shows to hit the pillow a little earlier, so be it. Try recording shows and watching them during your weekend workout.

Your health is your most precious resource. It is not gained by making any sacrifices.

This article was published in October 2015 and has been updated. Photo by Jacob Lund//Shutterstock

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