With stress ever-increasing, try a 10-10-10 response, advises resiliency expert Jenny Evans. Mix that with some healthier daily habits to deal with your willpower deficit and keep on an even keel.
Her 10-10-10 formula for exercise – 10 minutes, three times a day – is more inviting and, she insists, even healthier than a 30-minute session. Optimal defaults – those healthier daily habits – are activities laced into the day that improve your balance without much conscious attention, from routinely taking the stairs instead of an elevator to using a smaller plate when eating.
They are necessary because our willpower can wither in the face of stress and stress isn't going away.
"If you ask anybody if their job stress will be less in a year's time, they'll say no. Similarly, the pressures to deal with family and friends won't be less in a year's time. You therefore have only one option: To train your body so you can bounce back from stress more quickly," said the Minneapolis-based exercise physiologist and author of The Resiliency rEvolution.
Her ideas stem from evolution – our days as hunter-gatherers, when sudden threats appeared and had to be dealt with, precipitating the fight-or-flight response we carry in our body today. "For our ancestors, the stress response was quick – either with the stress gone or you were gone," she said in the interview.
Those short bursts of activity, her research shows, are ideal ways to deal with stress – if you insert such exercise throughout the day, it increases the release of endorphins and other blissful hormones, and trains the heart to recover more quickly, helping you to be resilient. Indeed, in just 60 seconds of exercise, you can reset the body physiologically. "There's a connection between the stress of missing an airplane, for example, or recovery from exercise. It's the same stress hormones being released," she explained.
That's why she recommends high-intensity, interval training – or in her catchy formula, 10-10-10. Obviously, a big advantage is that it seems a plausible regime. In today's busy lives, asking someone to find 30 minutes (or more) for exercise may strike them as impossible. "We see things in black and white. If you don't have 30 or 60 minutes, your reaction will be, 'I can't exercise.' You can, instead, embrace the grey." Ten minutes of grey, three times a day.
She says short bursts of exercise may be even better for us physiologically, research is showing. Heart recovery is improved by more tests to that vital organ. Our metabolism improves when we exercise more frequently – insulin sensitivity is improved for example, helping to control blood glucose levels more effectively – and we seem to get more energy bursts from fat, a good thing.
A 10-10-10 program is more likely to be consistent than a 30-minute daily regimen. And if you exercise for 30 minutes at a time, you may pace yourself, whereas in a 10-minute burst, you won't hold back and will work harder. "There are big advantages to breaking it up rather than finding one big chunk of exercise in a day," she said.
While the research tends to be on 10-minute periods, she imagines much of the benefit would carry through to shorter bouts. She sells a Hit The Deck series of 35 playing cards with a timer and suggested exercises. But she says as long as you have your body and gravity, you can try squats, push-ups, and other convenient exercises, not just in the office or at home, but in a hotel room while travelling.
Our environment often works against us in trying to deal with stress. She encourages you, instead, to manipulate environmental factors in your favour through optimal defaults. For example, research shows that we eat 22-per-cent less food if we switch from a 12-inch plate to a 10-inch. "Creating a default activity, where we don't have to wrestle with a choice, saves willpower," she writes.
When eating in the dining room, keep the serving dishes back in the kitchen. Having to go further to enjoy seconds can restrain the impulse, research has shown. Eat ice cream in a wine glass – it looks nicer, and less ice cream gets consumed than in a bowl. Join an exercise group, since the social element increases adherence to a fitness program. Keep a spare set of exercise clothes in the office and the car, to encourage spontaneity, and consider sleeping in your exercise clothes so when waking up you can immediately launch into some fitness activities. When travelling, keep healthy snacks in your car, brief case or purse. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. At the grocery store, stick to the perimeter where the fresh foods are, staying away from the centre aisles with their processed foods.
She says that willpower is a terrible tool for making changes to your life. It's like a muscle, and if overused, becomes exhausted. Then you cave in to your bad impulses – especially in stressful moments, when comfort is particularly alluring – without the willpower to resist.
However, exercise surprisingly increases willpower in most aspects of your life. So exercise – 10-10-10 – and develop optimal defaults to build resiliency and balance in your ever-stressful days.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.