A friend of mine is a family physician. We are both health professionals who have kids, busy careers, and a history of athletic pursuits. Our health, our children’s health, and the general health of the patients and clients we work with is often a point of discussion.
My training in the conversation of health began when I started practicing as an occupational therapist in the traditional medical system. Over time, my work with clients with chronic disease and my own health challenges shifted my perspective- I began to look at health management and disease prevention through a broader lens.
But it was my most recent studies in Yoga Health Coaching where my ideas on health care took an even bigger turn as I started to learn and experience the massive benefits of implementing a daily routine that is repeatable and simple. Now, as I teach my clients the benefits of eating an earlier dinner, going to bed earlier, and waking earlier to meditate and move, the significant change I am seeing in their physical and mental well being is telling me that there is an untold story of health that needs to be shared.
A Simple Lesson in Prioritizing
So let’s backtrack.
One of the things I’ve always admired about my friend is that she has a strong capacity to handle a large amount of challenge with grace and ease. This is something I have struggled with- for much of my adult life I have slept too little and worked too much. When I don’t get enough sleep or the right type of sleep I’m not able to show up effectively in my relationships, my work is sub par, and everything suffers.
Studying dinacharya- the Ayurvedic recommendations for daily habits and routines- I learned that my ideas of “self care” were heavily informed by the media and traditional models of medical care .
But recently I remembered that one of the greatest teachings I received about self-care was from this friend. And it dovetails beautifully with the Yoga Health Coaching approach that I now use. This is what she told me:
Sleep first – it is the most important priority. If you have slept enough you can make better decisions. THEN focus on food choices and eating in a way that is nourishing. From this solid base of rest and nutrition you are set- exercise becomes more accessible and you can start to build a healthier body.
What my friend offered me was a clear hierarchy of how to care for myself. I remember that it made sense- and that I unsuccessfully tried to make some changes in my routine. I realize now that this was my first experience of experimenting with creating self care habits for myself.
So here’s the thing – if family physicians knows that sleep and eating and movement are critical for health, we can then ask how health professionals effectively help their clients start to make these critical shifts? How can we help people pro-actively choose to go to bed earlier when work, laundry, relationships, and even down time are all calling us to stay up to midnight?
Introducing Three Key Habits and the World of Habit Change Science
We know that there is significant research that shows us self-care is critical for managing chronic illness like diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
We also know that most of us don’t know how to get started or how to create these new self care habits. That’s why my friend’s “Sleep First” advice – as much as it resonated with my view of self care- was not accessible for me. I didn’t know how to create a routine from an idea.
In his book “Getting Things Done” David Allen tells us when are goals are too big- when we have not identified a small enough “next action” to get started- we can become paralyzed. For me buying new tires for my car is like this: if my to-do list says “buy new summer tires” I can’t get started. What next action will mobilize me? If I take this to-do and make it into the tiniest action what I write down instead is “ask my brother what tires he recommends.”
A similar approach can work for our clients. Start with the most critical habits. Start with one at a time. And most importantly use of the concept of kaizen to help them get started.
Kaizen- Good Change
Kaizen means “good change.” A concept that evolved from wartime, it’s about small continuous change- small improvements that add up to bigger change over time. Everytime we look to create new habits in self care, a kaizen approach can help us to create the kind of small next actions that will give us success and prevent paralysis.
So what does this look like when we are talking about self care habits and the world of Ayurveda? When we look at the Ayurvedic daily routine we can see that three key habits form the basis for good health- Earlier Lighter Dinner, Early to Bed, and Start the Day Right. These habits follow the natural rhythm of the Ayurvedic clock and the corresponding circadian rhythm. And each one of them can be approached using kaizen as a tool.
Three Key Habits
Habit one is all about eating an Earlier Lighter Dinner. When we eat earlier- ideally by 6pm- we are able to digest our food more effectively before we go to sleep, and the physiological processes of recovery and growth that happen on a biochemical level are more effective and more available to us. Through the lens of kaizen and earlier later dinner could look like eating off a smaller plate so less food is consumed, replacing beef with tofu in a stir fry, or dialling dinner back from 7pm to 6:30pm. Encouraging our clients to eat their largest meal in the middle of the day gives them a greater chance of letting go of the “big dinner” mentality that often comes with a busy lifestyle.
Habit two is Early to Bed. Going to bed before 10 PM is critical as it helps us avoid the second wind that many people experience with a rise of energy that naturally occurs after 10 PM. How do we change our bed time? The kaizen is approach here could include rolling bedtime back by 15 minutes at a time, adding in a habit like a sleep inducing foot massage before bed, or moving your daily shower to bed time instead of the morning so that work and other alerting activities are less accessible and less desirable.
Habit three is called Start to the Day Right. This habit teaches us that getting up before six, drinking warm water to encourage a bowel movement, and doing some type of movement, are critical to ensure we wake up feeling light and alert rather than heavy and groggy. People who wake up later often struggle with getting out of bed. Although a cold turkey approach to getting up earlier can be effective with some people, changing the alarm by just 15 minutes a week can be an effective way to become a morning person. Movement can be as simple as doing 15 jumping jacks or dancing to a song. Drinking warm water? A sip or two can be a start and over time shift into a full intake of a liter.
It’s At Our Fingertips
I think back with gratitude to the framework that my friend introduced me to. She encouraged me to give my need for sleep more attention and introduced me to the idea that I have the ability to make change by taking responsibility for my own routine and habits.
But looking back on my lack of success with changing my own sleep habits makes me realize that creating new health habits is a science- and most of us haven’t learned the basics of how to successfully make this kind of change.
So how can we best help our patients? By educating them about these simple habits of health care, and linking them to a coaching program where they can get help with making the habits real. Truth is, to make new habits stick we need to learn habit change science AND we need to learn why the habits have value. Both are needed to make the habits stick.
Wondering who you can refer to? See if there is someone in your community who specializes in habit change and health. Or consider taking the plunge and adding Yoga Health Coaching to your repertoire of skills or as a primary care program offered within your health clinic. Bridging the gap between the idea of self-care and making a change on a personal level is where we can really start to make a difference.