The Four Pillars of Health: Sleep, Stress, Intake and Exercise

By now you probably realize that health is complex – if one part of the body system suffers, you’re likely to see consequences in other areas of your life. Though diet and exercise are critical components of healthy lifestyles, it’s also important to remember that sleep is linked with what we choose to eat and how much, whether or not we choose to exercise and how we function on a daily basis. Just as stress affects when and what we choose to eat, our quality of sleep and drive to exercise or not.


Think back to a time that you were in a regular exercise routine.  Did you feel good or bad? Now think back to a time you were out of a regular exercise routine.   Did you feel good or bad? Typically, regular exercise makes us feel better overall. A good workout can make you more alert, speed up your metabolism, energize you for the day and help you sleep better at night.  Since the four pillars all affect one another, be cautious with exercising right before bed which can actually lead to less sleep. Sleep experts recommend exercising at least three hours before bedtime. Your body temperature rises during exercise and takes as long as 6 hours to begin to drop. Because cooler body temperatures are associated with sleep onset, it’s important to allow the body time to cool off before sleep.


What we put into our body that makes up the 2nd pillar, intake, includes food, drinks, supplements and medications. Imagine you're in a cycle of "it's just one fast food meal" repeated day after day, week after week. To break this cycle, do a self-assessment of your current daily intake of food, water, vitamins and medications. Ask yourself what you’re doing well and write down where you could improve. Perhaps your breakfast is always healthy and it’s no problem but you’ve started going out to eat with friends for lunch and letting them dictate where to go. Make some improvements around lunch and don’t worry so much about your breakfast or other meals. Once you break that cycle of poor lunch choices you’ll feel better and more confident in all other areas.


An estimated 18 million Americans have sleep apnea, a sleep-related breathing disorder that causes you to repeatedly stop breathing during sleep.  Since lack of sleep almost always makes us feel terrible, from a behavioral view point, those suffering from sleep apnea may be less motivated to exercise, meal prep, grocery shop and so on.  Many people with sleep apnea are put on breathing machines, like a cPap, to help them breathe better while sleeping. When these work, people feel better and much more rested. This can help get them out of the cycle of feeling terrible and falling into other poor habits.


Exercise and other physical activity produce endorphins—chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers—and also improve the ability to sleep, which in turn reduces stress. Meditation, acupuncture, massage therapy, even breathing deeply can cause your body to produce endorphins.  Often times, this might be the pillar of health that needs the most attention but is the last to be tackled. If you’ve struggled to reach health goals like weight loss despite regular exercise and being in a calorie deficit the majority of the time, set goals around managing stress and getting enough quality sleep.  If you look at regular exercise as a tool for stress management and better sleep you might be more motivated to do it then if you look at exercise as a tool for weight management.

Listen to the full episode here for more details on each of the four pillars of health.