A Simple Way to Take Care of Yourself

by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition

Whip out a pen and paper and quickly write down the top 5 to 10 stresses that wear you down and always seem to be percolating in the back of your mind. When you’re done, look at each one to see if it has a time component. How about that commute? Are you slugging it out in traffic for hours every day? Or what about prodding your kids to get their homework done by dinnertime? Don’t forget the gift you have to buy for the party this weekend.

It turns out that time is the major culprit that ignites our collective stress and anxiety responses. Some researchers have even gone so far as to call stress “a disease of time deficiency.” New science now sheds light on how this time/stress connection affects our ability to take care of ourselves.

It turns out that when you increase the time you spend on one healthy habit (exercising more, preparing healthier foods), you decrease the time you spend on another healthy habit, according to researchers who studied the daily diaries of 112,000 American adults. This fact was the same for both genders, married or single. They discovered that there’s a “substitution effect” that happens when you spend more time on one healthy habit in lieu of another. And then you struggle with which habit to prioritize.

The end result? Rather than having two healthy habits that complement each other, you end up substituting one for the other. And you stress over the choice of which one deserves more time.

This is an issue that most public health organizations don’t take into consideration when they propose healthy habit guidelines. Take the Department of Health and Human Services’ new physical activity guidelines for America. The agency asks that we all:

  1. Do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise a week, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity.
  2. For additional and more extensive health benefits, we should increase our aerobic physical activity to 300 minutes a week of moderate-intensity or 150 minutes a week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity, or an equivalent combination of moderate- and vigorous-intensity activity.
  3. We should also do muscle-strengthening activities that are moderate or high intensity and involve all major muscle groups on two or more days a week, as these activities provide additional health benefits.

Once these guidelines were announced on the national networks, most adults broke out into time-starved hives, moaning, “How on earth am I going to crowbar all of this into my day?”

Well, let me simplify all of this for you. There are some very simple ways that you can take care of yourself, reduce stress, stay healthy, and enjoy life. Here are my bottom-line suggestions for folks seeking a higher level of health and well-being:

1) Honor your time budget. Like any budget, there are constraints. Before you plan a vacation, you check your bank account balance. So, peer into your daily time wallet, and then plan and look ahead at each day and realistically acknowledge how much time you can dedicate to both food preparation and physical activity. Don’t feel bad about not having enough time. Just accept the time you have and plan for the things you need.

2) Plan for nutritional success. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to plan your meals and prepare food ahead of time. This could mean making soup for the week, grilling chicken breasts that last for several meals, chopping up salad ahead, or slicing fruit that’s ready to go for several snacks and meals. We maintain optimal control over our nutrition when we cook and prepare food for ourselves. Try to avoid convenient grab-and-go fare, as it’s often processed and loaded with salt and preservatives.

3) Delegate instead of abdicate. Don’t feel hopeless about maintaining healthy habits when you’re time crunched. Instead, reach out and ask for help. Women in particular are terrible with this, running into walls of guilt at the thought of seeking assistance. Moms and dads should call upon each other, as well as kids and other family members who live near them, to help with food buying and preparation. Take turns helping each other find time for exercise.

4) Assume the vertical. Most people don’t have the luxury of running off to the gym when they feel like it. It takes time to get there, to work up a sweat, clean up, and then get on with the day. This takes a PhD in time management for most. Here’s an easier way to go: If you don’t have access to a gym or have plans for formal exercise on a particular day, then find every excuse you can to get vertical. Try to stand for 10 minutes out of every hour. Better yet, walk around. A minute here and there adds up quickly. Snap a pedometer onto your waistband and see how close to the daily recommended 10,000 steps you can get. Grab a headset for a walk-‘n’-talk instead of sitting for your next conference call. Move your printer far away, along with your wastebasket. Use the restroom three flights above you. Get up and stretch. Do some chair exercises to music. Zumba’s got a great DVD to show you how. Just move more!

5) Complement, don’t substitute. You know that both healthy nutrition and regular physical activity are essential for optimal well-being. If you improve your planning around buying and preparing food and infuse your personal and work time with more get-up-and-go throughout the day, you can include both elements. Be real, and fully acknowledge that each day is a challenge to make it work, but the return on investment is priceless—your health.

6) Don’t lose your mind. With all of this talk about eating and exercise, don’t forget to make time to take a breath in the midst of your daily whirlwind of activities. Honor your mind, as well as your body. Take a minute here or there to just shut off, and be mindful of your internal self, resting the mind-body. In essence, chill out!

Finally, here’s a memo to policy makers and experts crafting healthy-living guidelines: Please heed research studies like this one and take into consideration the time constraints most Americans feel on a daily basis. My recommendation would be to approach guidelines more holistically. See a full 24-hour block of time and come up with creative, accessible ways to help people integrate basic mental, nutritional, and activity goals every day. It’s time to get real.


Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. A triathlete and mountaineer, she is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” living what she’s learned as an expert in health, fitness, and nutrition. Dr. Peeke is featured as one of America’s leading women physicians in the National Institutes of Health Changing Face of Medicine exhibit at the National Library of Medicine. Her current research at the University of Maryland centers on the connection between meditation and overeating. She is the author of many best-selling books, including Fight Fat after Forty. Her new book is the New York Times best-seller The Hunger Fix.


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