When Chris Johnson entered the health and fitness world three decades ago as an exercise physiologist, his main focus was on strength training, cardio, stretching, heart rate, and bone density. Anything to do with exercise was No. 1 in his mind. Next in importance was nutrition, followed – without much attention paid to it – by rest. After all, he figured, who really needs to teach people how to rest?
Today, rest is a prime focus when working with individuals and corporate clients, many from the financial services world, where they need to learn how to relax. "I see some of the CEOs personally, and when I start with rest and rejuvenation, that's one of the hardest things for them to do," he says in an interview. "They will never be the best without rest and rejuvenation – productivity comes down to health and vitality. And that requires rest and rejuvenation."
Mr. Johnson, whose recent book On Target Living is a manual for healthy living, says in an interview that the fastest-growing medication these days is sleep medication and hormone therapy is on the rise, driven, he feels, in part by the fact people don't get enough sleep and rest. Our problem is that we lack the strategies and tools to build R&R into our daily lives.
The first step is awareness – examining your life to see how you fare with sleep and relaxation. In his seminars, he will ask the audience: Do you plan your sleep? "If it's random when you go to bed it will be random whether you get a good night's sleep," he declares. Keeping a regular sleep schedule is crucial for maintaining a synchronized circadian cycle. It conditions the body to expect specific sleep and wake-up times, which helps you attain a longer, deeper sleep.
"Lack of sleep destroys the mind and body. One of the fastest ways to age the human body is lack of sleep. Poor sleep can lead to many health-related problems, such as heart disease, cancer, hormonal imbalances, obesity, headaches, high blood pressure, poor digestion, imbalanced pH, inflammation, joint pain, along with driving accidents and major catastrophes, such as Exxon Valdez and Three Mile Island," he writes in the book.
He proselytizes against "blue light," which we are exposed to by the energy-efficient screens of our computers and cell phones as well as fluorescent bulbs. He says it can stir us up, stimulating the pineal gland in our brain and suppressing melatonin, our sleep hormone.
If there's any light in your bedroom, he argues it's unhelpful. If you can't eliminate it completely, he suggests buying eye shades. Keep away from blue light for at least an hour before bedtime – that includes television and electronic devices. He warns you not to sleep with your cell phone or check your tablet in the middle of the night, as the blue light will be disturbing enough without the thoughts stirred up by the messages you read.
Also, make your bedroom as quiet as possible. White noise from a fan or other calming sounds can help relax you. He says your sleep will be improved if the room is cool, about 18 degrees C, as that can soothe the parasympathetic nervous system, helping us to slow down and relax.
He urges you to get sufficient sunlight during the day, as that helps the pineal gland achieve the proper melatonin levels. "If you are locked up inside all day long, your pineal gland may have a difficult time recognizing day or night, leading to an imbalance of melatonin production. Just a few minutes of sunlight in the morning and afternoon has a powerful impact on melatonin production," he writes.
Staying hydrated – drinking lots of water during the day – will also have a powerful impact on your health and sleep. He says being dehydrated leads the body to become acidic, increasing inflammation and constricting blood vessels. Limit your intake of caffeine, alcohol, and processed foods and beverages, which can also hinder the quality of sleep.
Learning to breathe from the diaphragm also fuels your rest and rejuvenation. Most of us breathe from the chest, which is a less efficient. Diaphragmatic breathing turns on the parasympathetic nervous system and turns off the ever-anxious sympathetic nervous system, giving the body and mind a nice relaxation break. "If anything bothers you, take 30 seconds to do diaphragmatic breathing and it will go away. It's very powerful," he says in the interview.
To practice, he says lie on a flat surface, bending your knees slightly and placing a pillow under them. Put one hand on your belly and the other on your chest, closing your eyes and mouth. Breathe in slowly through your nose so your belly moves against your hand, with your chest still. When you exhale, your belly will come back in. Feel your breath through your nose. He recommends this exercise – three deep breaths – three times a day. He also does it for a minute before bed, to lower his blood pressure and prepare for sleep.
Beyond that, he urges you to deal with the stressors in your life and give yourself days to refresh. He is a student of Toronto's Dan Sullivan, known as the Strategic Coach, and every three months schedules "free days" for the coming period – days without work or cell phone or being tethered to the office – before scheduling his regular appointments. To some that may seem like a luxury, but he says that "rest and rejuvenation is not a luxury – it's a necessity for being your best."
Special to The Globe and Mail
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter