Summary: Eating healthy, exercising, and managing stress are the three most important things you can do for your health. However, when they are seen as separate tasks you have to juggle, you may have to decide which is more important. The reality is that neither of them works without the other. They are designed to work together. Let’s get back to the foundational physiology behind each of The Big Three for your health and see how knowing how they work together simplifies making them a habit.
From the moment your cells started dividing, they were hardwired to do three things: take in nourishment to fuel cells, move to use that energy to survive and thrive, and rest to restore energy. This is why the Big Three actions for your health that have the biggest impact on preventing and treating diseases are exercising, healthy eating and stress management. This three-part energy management system has allowed you to survive and thrive from day one!
The challenge is the media has disconnected the way we think of these from the physiology of how they work together. Exercising, preparing healthy meals, and meditating take time, increasing stress. Stress causes cravings to eat unhealthy foods and limits time and energy for exercise. Exercise is seen as a way to burn off the extra calories from stress eating. When they are seen as separate tasks, one tends to undo the other.
Let’s look at the foundational physiology of these three health-promoting activities to see how they not only help each other, they need each other to do their jobs.
Stress reduction needs exercise
When in a stress state, your body and brain shift the use of energy from thriving to surviving. In the Thrive State, your physiology puts energy into healing, growing, and learning. In the Survive state, your physiology shifts energy to fight, flee, or freeze against a real or potential threat to your survival.
Stress is the physiologic state of being ready to move so any stress reduction technique is incomplete without exercise. Not just any movement or physical activity will do, though.
Physical activity is when you move to take care of someone or something else. Your attention is on the person or thing you are taking care of. You may not be able to stop what you’re doing when your body is in pain or tired. You need to get the job done so you push through which keeps your physiology in the survive state, straining, more than strengthening, your body.
Exercise, when done for health, not athletics, is when you move for the specific purpose of taking care of yourself. In this scenario, pain and fatigue are signs something needs to change. Pushing through won’t get you the health you need. That brings us to why exercise needs stress reduction.
Exercise needs stress reduction
When looking at things like heart rate, blood pressure, sweat, and breathing, exercise and the stress state look the same. But the reason these changes happen in your body during exercise is different from the reasons they happen in a stress state.
For example, your blood pressure goes up during stress because the walls of your arteries tense while your heart beats faster. This happens to protect you when fighting or fleeing a treat. This is why chronic stress can lead to heart disease. Over time, the rigid artery walls cause damage to the smooth inner lining of the vessel walls. And because stress increases blood fats and sugars, there is more to stick to these worn-down cell walls, leading to plaque buildup and eventually blockage.
But during exercise, vessel walls actually relax. Your blood pressure goes up because your heart is pumping harder as well as faster. Thanks to the relaxed vessels, the walls of arteries are not worn down by the increase in pressure. Also, during exercise, blood sugars and fats are used by the cells for energy rather than settling in the vessels where they can stick to artery walls.
In most of our stress states, we are not moving, but our body and brain are ready to move to protect against a threat. In a stress state, heart rate and blood pressure increase in anticipation of moving. During exercise, they go up because you are moving. That makes the difference between straining your body and strengthening your body.
But exercise that is done with a mindset that you have to fix a problem area in your body or compete against yourself or someone else will keep you in a stress state. Exercise with stress reduction skills like mindfulness and self-compassion ensures you are exercising in the thrive state.
The way to tell the difference? If your mindset is trying to get somewhere else, your physiology will be in a stress state. If your mindset is trusting what is happening here and now as your guide, your physiology will be in the thrive state.
Healthy eating needs exercise
Exercise is part of the Big Three is because it’s the only way to get and keep the cellular equipment to turn food into energy. Your body takes the carbohydrates and fats you eat and breaks them down into components used by your mitochondria to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the energy-carrying molecule that delivers energy to places within a cell to be used for healing, moving and growing.
Exercise tells your mitochondria to increase the equipment to transform the food you eat into energy. A big part of deconditioning, or the loss of function from times of less activity, is the decrease of this energy-producing equipment. Like putting gas in a car without an engine, eating healthy can’t work its magic if exercise is not doing its part to keep your ‘equipment’ up and running.
Healthy eating and stress reduction
The state of your physiology determines how the energy from food will be used.
When your physiology is in the survive state when you are eating, the energy goes into fight, flight, or freeze against the real or potential threat you are thinking about.
When you eat in the thrive state, the energy goes into healing, growth, and learning or, in other words, being healthy.
This means shifting your physiology to the thrive state before eating can make anything you eat healthier.
Rethink healthy eating as not just what you eat, but also the state you are in when you eat. Shifting to the thrive state increases the ability of your food to be used for energy to heal, grow and learn.
How to use your complete energy management system.
Your energy management system of exercising, eating, and managing stress has been there from day one and will continue to be there. Keep them working together by
● Adopting a healthy mindset about exercise as a resource for reducing stress in small moments of your day by moving the way you are designed, with mindfulness and kindness.
● Knowing the signals you are in the survive state, especially the low-level survive state that is likely to go unnoticed. Use exercises like mindful stretching to shift to a thrive state before eating. This ensures the healthy food you are eating will be used for thriving, not just surviving.
● Noticing when you are using food to manage stress and knowing that what your body needs is mindful, kind, science-based movement to give your whole person what it is prepared for in the stress state so it can shift back to the thrive state.
● Rather than thinking of exercise as a way to burn calories or get enough steps, do cardiovascular exercise and strength exercises to restore and maintain the equipment to turn the food you eat into energy to keep moving strong and well.
Bottom line of how to find time to eat healthy, exercise and manage stress
Eating healthy, exercising and stress management skills complement and complete each other. One is not more important than the other. They are not competing against each other for your time and attention.
● Stress reduction needs science-based, mindful, kind exercise because it gives your body and brain exactly what it needs when in the survive state.
● Eating healthy needs science-based, mindful, kind exercise to keep the equipment to turn food into energy for thriving.
● Exercise needs stress management like mindful self-compassion to ensure you are not exercising in a stress state.
● Exercise needs healthy eating to provide the top-quality fuel for cells to move and improve.
Trying to Lose Weight? Rethink Weight Loss too!
If you have been trying to lose weight, your ideas about The Big Three have been heavily influenced by our current culture about the outdated calories in/calories out equation. Check out my Weight Loss Guide to update that mindset and free yourself from “The Deadly Triangle”.