I like to think of wellness from the brain’s point of view, specifically how what we think, what we eat, and how we move impact our brain’s structure, chemistry and function.
I’m a bit of a brain nerd. I completed my Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Lethbridge’s renowned Department of Neuroscience, and have since been fascinated by our body’s control centre and its importance in health and happiness. This fascination led me to develop a three-pronged approach called the Trifecta of Wellness – stress management, exercise and nutrition – that produces optimal brain chemistry.
If optimal brain chemistry sounds a bit complicated, think of it in terms of feelings. Every thought and every action has a physical effect on the brain, whether positive or negative. In the simplest of terms, positive effects feel good, negative effects feel bad.
Developing optimal brain chemistry through stress management, exercise and nutrition will produce good feelings. And isn’t that the bottom line of how everyone wants to feel?
Side effects of feeling good can include weight loss, improved health, increased productivity and greater positivity.
Here are a few stress management, exercise and nutrition tips, guaranteed to produce optimal brain chemistry and boost your health and happiness.
1. Stress Management: Develop mindfulness
Developing mindfulness is the foundation of my wellness coaching program – an eight-week, one-on-one intensive – because it’s produced the most dramatic, incredible and seemingly magical results in my own life, and now in my clients’ lives, to my great delight.
In my twenties (I’m now 34), I was a full-time personal trainer, group fitness instructor and older adult specialist working in college and university athletics, retirement homes, fitness centres, and boutique wellness facilities.
Although I spent my entire workweek teaching clients about physical activity, something was holding them back from achieving peak health and many of them were unable to develop and maintain a regular exercise regime – something I, too, struggled with when I began my writing career.
Everyone knows it’s important to exercise, that wasn’t the problem. Something was missing. This conundrum left me feeling very frustrated and a little hopeless to be honest, and led to my sabbatical from the fitness industry.
I immersed myself in books, articles and videos on human potential and slowly began to put the pieces together to fill in the gaping hole in the puzzle: mindfulness was the key to whole health.
Mindfulness – consciousness, awareness, whatever you want to call it – allows you to observe your thoughts and actions from an objective perspective, and to analyze whether or not reaching for a junky, processed snack or making silly excuses about being too time-pressed for physical activity is the kind of thing you’ll stand for.
One of the greatest tools I’ve discovered for developing mindfulness is keeping a mood, food and fitness journal. Writing down your daily thoughts, actions, physical activity, diet, and mindset is an incredible way to really see your big picture.
The mood, food and fitness journal is like your own personal science experiment where you collect stats and prove significant correlations.
Stats showed that 100-percent of the time, exercise made me feel better – more positive, energetic, productive and focused. I discovered what foods made me feel lethargic, bloated and low, as well as which foods made me feel satisfied, svelte and fueled. Most importantly, I discovered that developing a positive mindset and an attitude of gratitude helped me approach most days with joy and allowed me to weather any storms that blew through.
Developing a clear understanding of the stats specific to me made it so much easier to commit to regular physical activity and a nutrient-dense diet (with wiggle room for treats).
I hope you’ll start your own experiment and begin a mood, food and fitness journal!
2. Exercise: Start an anti-sedentary revolution
Research is growing on the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, spawning a new field of exploration called sedentary physiology, which describes the bottom half of the movement continuum, or “those behaviours for which energy expenditure is low” – like sitting on the bus, in your car, at your desk, on your couch, or in your bed – say Tremblay et al in “Physiological and health implications of a sedentary lifestyle,” published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism.
The authors make a point which is both startling and motivating: “individuals can achieve high levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity and still exhibit high levels of sedentary behaviour – one behaviour does not necessarily displace the other.”
That’s right, your hardcore hour at the gym can’t counteract the 20 or more hours you may spend motionless throughout the day.
It’s time to rethink your daily schedule and start an anti-sedentary revolution!
At a recent fitness conference, prominent NHL strength and conditioning coach Peter Twist encouraged us to make daily tasks more laborious; in other words, to use our bodies as much as possible throughout the day, even if it takes more time. In Drop Dead Healthy, author AJ Jacobs describes this approach as “guerilla exercise” or “contextual exercise”.
Since becoming aware of the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, I’ve applied this philosophy to my daily life – walking to the store and carrying groceries home rather than driving, structuring my workday into 45- to 60-minute stints at the computer broken up by errands or tasks that require movement (I’m lucky to work from home so this includes dishes, laundry, and vacuuming), and taking any opportunity to move my body, in as many different ways as possible, like stretching, dancing, pacing while on the phone, and taking my dog on long walks.
How can you break up your day so that you never go more than an hour without moving your body? How can you make your day more physically laborious?
3. Nutrition: Choose feel-good foods
Developing mindfulness around food, acquired from my mood, food and fitness journal, allowed me to break a longtime habit of mindlessly consuming junky, processed foods, especially refined carbs.
Despite knowing, undoubtedly, that cinnamon buns, chocolate bars, cakes, cookies and other calorie-rich, nutrient-poor foods were the wrong choice for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, I reached for them on a very regular basis. My job was demanding, exhausting, and I deserved a treat, right? It felt so good as I stuffed them in my face. But prior to journaling about how I felt afterward, I never truly, deeply connected the dots: eating crappy food makes you feel crappy.
Here I was a fitness professional but I couldn’t control my midday treats, fast food runs and late night snacking. My penchant for intense exercise and my good fortune in terms of metabolism helped me hide my dirty little secret from my outer appearance, but my inner appearance was pretty miserable.
It was a horrible feeling not to practice what I preached, despite knowing it was the healthy choice.
Documenting and re-reading how specific foods made me feel after I’d eaten them was the most powerful form of clarity I’d ever experienced regarding food. Now when I feel the 3pm stomach grumbles there’s no question about what I’m going to reach for. I know a healthy snack will leave me feeling satisfied, energized and ready to efficiently tackle the rest of my workday.
This isn’t to say that I’m anywhere near perfect, far from it. I allow myself a few cheat days every week, so I never feel deprived, and focus on rewarding my wonderful, hard-working, one-and-only body with delicious, nutrient dense foods that jive with my digestive system and ethics.
I would love to hear how your eating habits are changed by documenting how certain foods made you feel!
Catherine Roscoe Barr, BSc Neuroscience, is a wellness coach certified as a personal trainer, fitness instructor and older adult specialist, and a fitness, food and travel writer published in the Vancouver Sun, The Province, BC Business, BC Living, Real Weddings, Westworld, and WestJet’s up! magazine. Before settling on the West Coast she lived in Sydney, Toronto, Oregon, Montana, and practically everywhere in Alberta. She can be found jogging with her adorable dog, dining with her fabulous husband or voraciously reading anywhere comfy.