The things that count for your well-being today have the startle of simplicity. They are everyday habits, with moderation the key. Here, edited by Jane Ogle, six pages of guidance from experts, starting with an hour-by-hour health plan
One of the best ways to get started in the morning is to exercise first thing on rising. As you use your muscles, your body temperature climbs, and your heart rate speeds up. The increased circulation and metabolism activate your whole system. And you get a good feeling of energy.
How much exercise should you do—and what kind? That depends on your schedule for the day. If you are going to an office and will not have a chance for much physical activity, you might make this your main exercise period—go for an early morning jog, perhaps, or do some other form of aerobic workout. But if you do expect to get plenty of exercise later on, then maybe you are better off with just some stretches and light calisthenics to limber up.
The choice of food for the day's first meal is determined more by social convention than biological need. Or it may simply be a personal habit—like the three chocolate-covered garlic balls that Eleanor Roosevelt always ate for breakfast in order to keep her memory sharp.
Think of breakfast as part of your total well-balanced diet for the day. You do not have to have a big one (a nineteenth-century English innovation), although that is a good idea if you have trouble getting enough calories for your daily needs. Breakfast is certainly a good time to make sure you get cereal fiber. And milk on your cereal increases your calcium supply and provides some complete protein.
What about coffee? Remember that it is a drug. It has no nutritional value. It is a liquid “go pill”. If you have no digestive complaints and are not edgy or too keyed up, you may find it helpful. But you quickly develop a tolerance for it—you need increasing amounts to get the same effect. And you can usually activate your biological system with early morning exercise every bit as effectively as with coffee—and it is much healthier for you.
Do you need some fresh fruit or fruit juice? These fit in nicely with breakfast, of course—they are nutritional foods and good sources of vitamin C, which you should get every day as your body does not store it. Some nutritionists favor vitamin C in the form of fresh fruits or vegetables at every meal.
Will you get energy from your breakfast right away? No. The food has to stay in your stomach until it has been thoroughly churned and, depending on what you eat, it may be several hours before it goes from the stomach into the small intestine and from there into the bloodstream. You do not absorb food from the stomach itself.
BEFORE YOU LEAVE
There is a well-ordered sequence of events that works with your body's natural rhythms. Jumping out of bed, into the bathroom, and grabbing a cup of coffee and a piece of toast on your way to the door is not the way to begin the day. Have a breakfast that includes two glasses of liquid and some bulk. And after you finish, allow time for the gastrocolic reflex to act—when your stomach is filled, this stimulates the bowels. If instead you rush out the door without giving yourself this leeway, you suppress the natural reflex—and you then may begin to have bowel problems.
By 10:00 or 11:00, you may feel a slump—your system may be slowing down a little. Studies show that coffee halfway through the morning can increase your efficiency. But, again, the reason is that caffeine is a stimulant drug—like an amphetamine tablet. The apparently desirable effects, such as being able to concentrate better, do not offset the potentially harmful ones for some people.
What should you do for a mid-morning break? If you have been sitting still for a couple of hours, an exercise break—even if all you do is go up and down the emergency stairs for a few minutes—helps your body get rid of accumulating stress hormones like adrenaline. Psychological factors are also important—a break can be refreshing mentally as well as physically. And, in fact, this is often the key thing.
What about mid-morning snacks? Some people do tend to have a drop in their blood sugar if they eat a breakfast that is high in refined carbohydrates with little or no protein or fat—a pastry and a cup of black coffee, for instance. The pastry has practically no bulk, and the whole meal may be processed in two hours. The starch and sugar stimulate insulin production; and, if it is excessive, the blood sugar falls by 11:00 or so. A sweet snack will bring it back up quickly but may cause another “rebound” fall later on. Such blood-sugar swings do affect energy. If you have this tendency, avoid refined sugar for breakfast. Eat some solid fresh fruit like an apple instead, and choose whole-grain cereals. These are digested slowly and won't cause the sharp rise and fall in blood sugar—and help to eliminate the craving for an 11:00 o'clock snack.
By 12:00 or 1:00, there may be signals that it is time for food. What is best for maintaining your energy level the rest of the day? What should you eat? This depends partly on how active the morning has been—if you have been in meetings the whole time, you will not have used up much in the way of calories. In this case, your feeling that it is time for a meal is largely due to habit.
Any healthy person has nutrient reserves that will take care of the body for a long time—glycogen stored in the liver that can be broken down into glucose, fat stores that can be drawn on almost indefinitely, an amino-acid pool for maintenance of body protein.
With these nutrient reserves, the three-meal-a-day system is not essential. It is, of course, important that you get all the necessary vitamins and minerals as well as adequate good-quality protein and sufficient calories. But the schedule for supplying them in the course of the day can be flexible. So plan your lunch in relation to your daily intake and needs.
In any case, the lift that lunch gives you does not come from food energy, as you may have to wait an hour or more before anything starts to be absorbed into the bloodstream. You get a lift because the lunch hour provides a break in the pattern of your day. That is why eating at an office desk may not do as much for you as a meal outside the building with friends or a period of light exercise—even a brisk walk. The thing that counts most is the break you get from the morning's pressure buildup.
THE MID-AFTERNOON LOW
By around 4:00 in the afternoon, you usually reach the lowest point in the day. And if you have had a drink or two at lunch, this only makes matters worse—alcohol cuts down on your energy level and performance because it is a mental depressant, not a stimulant. If you have had to deal with multiple inputs—meetings, appointments outside, the phone every other minute—you have been subjected to sensory overloading. Unload for ten or fifteen minutes—close the door, close your eyes. After the rest, a couple of minutes of stretching helps. Or, if you have been locked in a conference all day, maybe you would prefer to skip the rest and just walk a few blocks. A snack or beverage is not essential. A change is.
By evening, your body temperature may be nearly two degrees higher than it was when you got up. Your heart rate will be faster, and your metabolism at its peak. How you feel at the end of a busy day, however, has a lot to do with how successful you were at diversifying your day's schedule. When you are not able to get out, and not able to get the needed breaks, you often feel quite tired. And, for many, the impulse is to have a drink. This is a poor idea—a drink may make you feel relaxed but, in fact, only dulls your senses enough to make you less aware of the fatigue. It is much better to give your body a chance to get rid of stress chemicals by exercising—a game of squash, a jog, a swim, a fast walk.
Vary the routine if you like. Have a short nap before exercising. (But be sure to nap first, exercise later—otherwise you are too revved up to sleep.) Or have a bath after exercising and put your feet up for half an hour. The key thing is the exercise—because what we are talking about here is inactivity fatigue, not physical fatigue. And activity is the great energizer.
Dinner should be planned to fit your individual life style—and also to balance out the nutritional needs of the day. It is often better to eat somewhat on the early side if you can manage it, so your meal gets a chance to be digested fully before you go to bed. It is also a good idea to go very easy on exercise after dinner. The evening is a time to unwind, relax. So try not to involve yourself in anything that is too stimulating as you get close to bedtime. And try to keep your bedtime as close to the same hour every night as you can—regular sleeping hours have a lot to do with getting to sleep readily and getting a good rest.
TWENTY-FOUR HOURS AT A TIME
The key to any active woman's twenty-four-hour day is to diversify. Change is what breaks the tension of sensory overloading or monotonous sameness.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.