Eat. Move. Sleep.
No, that's not a Julia Roberts movie. It's a three-part formula for balance and a healthy life, promoted by Tom Rath, a researcher and adviser to Gallup.
Mr. Rath, based in Washington, has received attention for his incisive studies on employee engagement and making use of personal strengths, but less known has been the fact he has a rare genetic disorder called Von Hippel-Lindau, diagnosed when he was 16, that makes him susceptible to rapid cancerous growth throughout the body. Currently, for example, he is battling cancer in four areas simultaneously. That has led him to seek a balanced, healthy life for himself, and he shares his formula with others in his new book, Eat Move Sleep.
"Those three things are so easy to sacrifice in the work world today. It's tempting to work more than 60 hours a week and sacrifice sleep, not move, and eat bad foods as they are convenient. But this comes with a cost," he says in an interview.
He integrates the three elements in his book, seamlessly moving from one to the other, and feels we must do the same in our lives. Just doing one is not enough. But it's worth focusing on movement at length, because that is where he offers insights that aren't commonly known.
Most of us embrace the importance of exercise. We strive to put some into our day, perhaps a run, some time at the gym, or in my case a tai chi class. But Mr. Rath argues that's not enough if we spend the rest of the day on our fanny. "Exercise is not enough. Working out three times a week is not enough. Being active throughout the day is what keeps you healthy," he writes.
On average, he notes, we now spend more time sitting down – 9.3 hours daily – than sleeping. That's not good for our body, decreasing energy, and raising cholesterol and blood pressure as well as our weight. After two hours of sitting, he says your good cholesterol drops by 20 per cent, for example. So he recommends getting up every 20 minutes or so and taking two minutes to walk, stand, stretch or otherwise move about. Even if you can't manage two minutes, some movement makes sense. You can help yourself, he says, by drinking more fluids, so you need to head to the washroom more frequently. Or set a timer.
"Don't worry about breaks every 20 minutes ruining your focus on a task. Contrary to what I might have guessed, taking regular breaks from mental tasks actually improves your creativity and productivity. Skipping breaks, on the other hand, leads to stress and fatigue," he writes.
He wrote his book while walking on a treadmill, finding that if he kept the pace to 1.5 miles per hour, he could type, look at his screen and use his touchpad while in motion. During his interview with me, since the treadmill would be noisy, he was pedalling on a FitDesk, a stationary cycle with small desk.
He counts the steps he takes daily with a pedometer, determined to hit 10,000, which the latest research he has seen indicates is a good target for daily activity. The average person in Australia takes about 10,000 steps a day, while in North America we're in the 5,000 to 6,000 range. If you don't have a treadmill, look for other ways to walk. Instead of considering it a victory to find a parking spot close to your office, park further away and revel in those extra, healthy steps. "Our whole society is focused on how to get from A to B in the easiest way. You need to engineer your life to take more steps," he says in the interview.
But remember, also, to think about eating and sleeping. He advises that research shows the quality of what we eat is more important than the quantity of what we eat – the types of food you consume influence your health more than caloric intake. Every bite or sip you take, he stresses, can be a net gain or net loss, doing good or harm. The salmon I am increasingly enjoying in my diet, he tells me, is a net gain. But the BBQ sauce on it is a net loss. Salads are fine, but watch those dressings.
He urges you to look at the rate of protein to carbohydrates in what you eat. Many of the products we grab from the pantry have 10 grams of carbohydrates to each gram of protein. Instead, we should be aiming for a one-to-one ratio.
As for sleep, you guessed it. Most of us need more than we're getting. He says research shows that 2.5 per cent of the population can get along on less than 7 hours sleep a night and 2.5 per cent need more than nine hours. The rest of us require seven to nine hours a night to be healthy and productive. And catch-up doesn't count. Indeed, sleeping in some days just disrupts your circadian rhythm, and is unhealthy. So aim for about 8 hours a night. Keep the room dark, about one to two degrees cooler than during the day, and perhaps keep a fan or other white noise maker humming to block out disruptive sounds, be it the neighbour's dog barking or vehicles outside.
Eat. Move. Sleep. The message is simple; implementation a challenge – but an important challenge we must master.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter