Posts by "Chris Branch"

The Perfect Day for the Perfect Night’s Sleep

If you struggle with your sleep, you are not alone. Many of us struggle to get the recommended 8 hours, and research suggests this is harming our health.

If a patient of mine struggles with their sleep, I teach them about all the little things that influence our sleep through the day, and then I challenge them to try and achieve one perfect day to get the perfect night’s sleep.

There is a problem with this, of course. The first problem is that it’s really hard to achieve a perfect day, so it’s not sustainable. The second problem is that one perfect day probably won’t do much for a chronically poor sleeper anyway because being consistent has been shown to be highly correlated to good sleep. One good day probably won’t cut it.

With this exercise, though, that’s okay. I’m not expecting anyone to sustain the perfect habits every day, nor am I expecting this one day to lead to perfect sleep (although it might!). What I hope is that this one day teaches the person that it is possible to drip in a few simple tactics into the day, and many of them are easy to do. Although they won’t all happen every day, you will see what’s needed and then you can think of it as a checklist and tick off as many as you can.

The day isn’t easy, and it may mean you are more tired initially, but it will teach you good lessons, and, over time, the more of these lessons you integrate, the better your sleep will be.

To have the perfect day, we need to start at the beginning; get up when you wake up. No hitting snooze and no laying in bed tossing and turning hoping for a little more shut-eye. For some of my patients who struggle with their sleep, this might mean getting up at 4:30 am, which is the first time they stir. Although this isn’t optimal, on this day, it’s what has to happen. 

When you are up, have a few moments where you gently move and connect with your body. This could be a basic yoga routine, some focused breathwork, or some simple bends and twists to wake up the spine. We’re not looking to exercise here (this will come later), but waking up the body is a nourishing way to start the day.

Have a glass of water and start replenishing those cells.

If you have tea or coffee in the morning, that’s okay. We need to be more mindful about caffeine later, but we’re not going to take all the fun out of the day! Having a mindful ritual of making the perfect cup of tea or coffee isn’t a bad thing.

Here’s where it gets interesting. In the first ninety minutes of the sun being up, make sure you get at least thirty minutes of sunlight. Ideally, there should be no glass between you and the sun. Be outside so the unfiltered rays bathe your eyes and skin. This stimulates the hormone cortisol, which creates a cascade of events around your body. 

Cortisol is in a dance with the hormone melatonin. In the morning, cortisol is elevated by the sunlight. As the day goes on, it slowly drops until cortisol gets low enough, allowing melatonin to rise. Melatonin is responsible for the feeling of sleepiness later in the day, but for melatonin production to be maximised, you need a big spike of cortisol at the beginning of the day. Get out in that sun for thirty minutes as early as possible.

I like to kill two birds with one stone here and exercise outside. Depending on where you are with your fitness, this could be a brisk walk, a run, yoga, or swinging a kettlebell in the garden. Exercise is an essential part of your day if you are aiming for a good night’s sleep. This can be counterintuitive if you are chronically sleep-deprived. You might feel too tired to exercise, and your mind plays tricks with you. Remember, this day isn’t supposed to be easy, and if this bout of exercise makes you more tired, it’s only one day. The goal here is that your habits lead to a great night’s sleep so that you feel amazing the next day!

Once you have been outside and done some exercise, you can go about your day as usual. We need to bring a few little things in, though; stay hydrated, eat well (no sugary treats!), and move often.

Avoid caffeine after 11 am. Yep, you heard me, 11 am. The half-life of caffeine is about 6 hours, but there can be small amounts in the blood for up to ten hours. Even a small amount is too much for this perfect day, so no caffeine after 11 am.

As the day progresses to late afternoon, avoid media that might upset you. Social media and the news have ways of getting under your skin, and you don’t want anything on your mind as you go to bed later.

Eat your dinner at least three hours before bed. Eating too late requires metabolic energy to digest, and it keeps your heart rate elevated, which reduces sleep efficiency. I can’t always achieve this myself because of work, but when I do, my sleep-tracking Oura Ring says my sleep metrics are so much better than when I eat later.

And lastly, avoid blue light from phones and laptops in the last hour before bed. If you want extra brownie points, even avoid the telly. Reading a book in dim light is best. I use the brand ‘Lumie’ for my bedside light, and they have special bulbs that have the correct frequencies of light for the beginning and end of the day (it’s a light alarm clock, which wakes you up with light. It’s wonderful!). 

While you are reading and winding down, make sure you don’t have any microsleeps! You might be tired after getting up when you wake up and doing some exercise in the day, so if you feel yourself drifting off, take yourself up for an early night. 

So, there’s a lot to take on there. I certainly wouldn’t expect this to happen every day, but in trying to achieve it once a week, you will learn lessons from it. You may find that some of it is easier and more enjoyable to integrate than you think.

Does Posture Even Matter?

Not a week goes by when someone doesn’t walk into my clinic saying that they know they have ‘bad posture’. They blame themselves as if they have done something wrong, half expecting a telling-off from their friendly osteopath.

When they explain their pain to me and mention their posture, most people start pointing at parts of their body, saying that they’re a bit hunched here or a bit too curved there. They think this is a bad thing. 

I have some good news for you, though. The research is very clear that if you take a large population of people, there are no significant differences in posture between those who have pain and those who don’t.

To say that another way, it is just as likely for someone who doesn’t have pain to have a hunched upper back, scoliosis, or an increased lower back arch than someone who does have pain.

How can we blame posture for causing pain when we see the same postures in those without pain? Well, it turns out, we cant.

Before we move on to ask what might actually be happening here, there’s another curious feature of posture that we need to discuss; posture is constantly changing!

Sure, broadly speaking, your body will have some anatomical patterns that it will be following. However, you are still changing from moment to moment. It will depend on your environment, the task you are performing, how long you have been performing it, your stress levels, your level of fatigue, the clothes you are wearing, the temperature … and on and on. When we talk about posture, which posture are we talking about? There’s an infinite number of them!

So, when it comes to posture, we now know that, on average, people without pain have the same postures as people with pain. And even within one individual, posture will be in a constant flux of change from moment to moment. 

So what is going on when someone has pain?

Well, as is often the case when it comes to the human body, it’s complicated.

Many factors could lead to someone having an episode of pain, but there is a pattern.

Someone is more likely to have pain if they are not flexible enough for the tasks they perform, if they are not strong enough, if they are fatigued (either through repetition or due to actual fatigue caused by poor sleep or over-work), if they are stressed or anxious, if they haven’t conditioned themselves to something, if they have a history of injury … and again, the list goes on.

Although there are many reasons why someone may end up with pain (some mechanical, some physiological and some emotional), they all change how a person functions. 

When I assess someone, I care much more about how someone moves than how they stand or sit still. When watching a patient move, it’s not just about how far they move (range of motion), but about how much control they have while they are doing it. Also, how do they feel when they are moving? Are they confident, or is there a sense of trepidation and unease? And lastly, how does the whole body move? Is movement travelling nicely through the entire chain?

These are more helpful things to discover because, firstly, it leads to a clearer, more holistic diagnosis, but secondly, it helps us create a plan to come out the problem.

If we blame things on posture, where do we start? You can’t exactly go changing your anatomy very easily. And which of your infinite postures do you want to change? Whereas suppose we discover that someone has good genetic flexibility but a lack of control. In that case, we need to strengthen them up. Conversely, if someone has good strength, but through years in a particular job, they have tightened up, then they will need a good mobility plan. Or maybe, due to a previous injury, someone is nervous to perform certain actions. They need a rehab system to gradually rebuild coordination and confidence in movement. 

As I said, it’s complicated … but thankfully, it’s not your posture!

Avoiding Temptations – ‘Surf the Urge’

I was listening to The Knowledge Project’ podcast about business and productivity where Nir Eyal, the author of ‘Indistractable’ was interviewed.

His book teaches us to stay away from distractions so you can do your deep work, but as I was listening to him talk, every time he said ‘work’, I replaced the word with ‘health’ and it worked exactly the same!

Eyal speaks about how distractions are not extrinsic, but intrinsic.

We love to blame Facebook and Instagram for wasting hours of our lives, but what we are actually doing is trying to escape the intrinsic feeling of discomfort. Discomfort of trying to write something on a blank page, discomfort of solving a hard problem, of having a tough conversation, discomfort of growth.

If we can master the intrinsic feeling of discomfort, we can avoid distraction. Or when it comes to our health, we can not give in to temptations.

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Is Too Much Sitting Causing Heart Disease?

Our understanding of sitting and heart disease dates back to 1953 where a study was done on bus drivers and conductors. The bus drivers sat down all day, but the conductors were standing up and walking up and down the stairs checking the passengers’ tickets. The researchers found that the drivers were 30% more likely to have a heart attack and they had them much younger and with worse outcomes than the conductors.

Since then, other studies have started to explain why. We have started to discover that excesses of a type of fatty acid known as ‘triglycerides’ can cause heart disease.

Triglycerides float around our bloodstream, particularly if we over-eat high carb meals, but the body has a solution to this. When we use our muscles in exercise (including gentle exercise like walking), our muscle activity uses an enzyme called ‘lipoprotein lipase’. Scientists nickname this enzyme the ‘triglyceride vacuum cleaner’ because it scoops up the triglycerides in its chemical reactions and therefore takes them out the bloodstream.

So, despite all the long fancy words, it’s actually quite simple. If we eat too much, the levels of triglycerides build up in our blood, but if we exercise and move, chemical reactions mop up the excess and help prevent heart disease. Wonderful!

But here’s where it gets interesting. It’s not just about how much movement we do, it’s also related to how we rest. 

Researchers followed a hunter-gatherer tribe called the Hadza tribe in Africa. They found that although they are active when they are searching for food, building their homes and being social, they also rest for ten hours a day, which is even more than us Westerners! The big difference though is that their resting position is mostly sitting in a deep squat, rather than sitting on chairs.

Although they find it perfectly comfortable to sit in the squat because they do it so often, it requires much more muscle activity in the legs and core than sitting in a chair where the muscles are completely passive.

This muscle activity activates the lipoprotein lipase and scoops up the triglycerides and is one of the reasons this tribe have almost non-existent levels of heart disease.

What can we learn from this in the developed world? I appreciate it’s unlikely you are going to adopt this deep squat as your preferred resting position!

Thankfully we don’t need to, we just need some muscle activation to do the work. The simplest strategy for this is to use a standing desk or get up from sitting every 20 minutes to do some light exercise.

If you are working from home and no one can see you, you can even do a few squats or lunges (although this might look a little odd in the office, admittedly). 

I sound like a bit of a broken record when I chat with my patients because I am always telling them to get up often and move around. This has wonderful benefits for your joints, but now you can think that you are helping to prevent heart disease too.

References:

All references are taken from https://www.newscientist.com/

How to Get the Most Out of Your New Years Resolutions

As we pass into the new year, it can be a time to reflect and plan for what’s to come. Many of us try to make big changes – ‘new year, new me’.

Over the years I have tried many different goal setting strategies. Something I have come to learn is that although goals can help guide our lives in the right direction, they are not what make us happy. Imagine the Olympian who achieves the gold medal and thinks ‘what now?’. We need goals to drive us, but what’s far more important is the lifestyle we create to get there.

There is another dark side of setting goals – sometimes they end up too daunting! It is so common to start our New Year with a grand plan to clean up an area of our life and become a better version of ourselves, but when we start trying, we realise that’s actually quite a hard thing to do. 

With this in mind, I have three solutions for you. 

I am going to use an example that is right up my street as an osteopath, and that’s how to build the habit of stretching. Many of my patients found that 2020 tightened them up due to less walking (no commuting etc) and more sitting at a home desk. 

Let’s say you wanted to feel looser and you had a specific goal of being able to touch your toes. As someone who has had the same goal in my life, I can tell you that stretching your hamstrings everyday SUCKS! There are some stretches I do that feel blissful. I fall deep into the stretch, breathe and meditate my woes away. Not so with the hamstrings. When I get into a deep hamstring stretch my only goal is to not vomit on the carpet. I hate it.

So how do you overcome a hurdle like this, when the thing you want to achieve is on the other side of hardship?

Well, you start small. So small it feels too small. You just put a light stretch through the hamstrings, to the point where a voice in your head says, ‘this can’t be doing anything, it’s too easy’. But if you turn up every day, it will do something. After a week or so, you will notice that the level of stretch you started with no longer feels like a stretch, you’ll have to push a bit further. This will feel like a success! And with that feeling of success, it will bring an undercurrent of motivation, a feeling of curiosity. What if you kept going? How far could you get?

This leads us on to the next lesson. Don’t wait for motivation to get started. We have this belief that we need to be motivated in order to start a new habit. Well thankfully, that’s a myth! As you build this perpetual cycle of success leading to motivation, and motivation leading to more success, and on and on, you will create your own motivation.

Once you become a motivated person, we end up at our final lesson … you will feel your identity changing. This is probably the most powerful part of any new habit – the moment you identify with the thing that you’re doing. Rather than someone who has to stretch, you are someone who stretches. The moment you are someone who does ‘the thing’, the easier it becomes to stick to the habit. When you feel in your mind that you are someone who stretches every day, when you get home from work feeling a bit tired in the evening, and all you want to do is slump on the sofa watching Netflix, there will be a little voice in your head saying, ‘get on the floor, you can stretch those hamstrings and watch Netflix’. 

To accelerate this process of changing your identity, all you need to do is change your language. When you do this, you may feel a pang of imposter syndrome, like you’re not allowed to use the language you’re using but ignore that! I give you permission to dropkick that voice out your mind.

Rather than think, ‘I need to stretch’, you think, ‘I am someone who stretches every day’. Rather than feel daunted by going for a run 3 times a week, say, ‘I am a runner’. And rather than struggle to come up with meal plans as part of your weight-loss strategy, say to yourself, ‘I am someone who uses food to care for my wellbeing’.

With these three things in place – start small, don’t wait to be motivated and changing your identity – you will be sure to get off to a good start with your goals. And most importantly, they will be sustainable.

The Discipline Myth

Have you ever wanted to change something in your life and thought, ‘if only I were more disciplined I could achieve that’?

Or maybe you’re a bit harsher on yourself and end up in a spiral of negative chat in your mind, beating yourself up for not doing the things that you know will help your health.

Or maybe you look at someone else who has achieved those things, comparing yourself to them and think that ‘it’s okay for them’ because they have more discipline.

Well, I have some good news for you. Discipline is a myth!

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A ‘Net-Positive’ Day

Life comes in waves. When we’re riding high, everything feels easy, but when we’re low it feels like we’ll never get back on form, the whole world is against us.

Like an economic life-cycle, some waves occur over a period of months, some days and some minute to minute, second to second.

You may have heard yourself say, “that was a good Summer”, or “I hated that Winter”, and what you are doing is taking note of all the ups and downs in the previous months and figuring what the net result is.

Did the goods outweigh the bads, or was it the other way round? Continue reading

What Is the Best Way to Stretch?

Fitness can be broadly split into three categories: cardio, strength and flexibility. It’s not quite as simple as that, but that covers the basics.

As a teen, I had the cardio one covered. I did not stop. Early morning swimming training, badminton every lunchtime, running most evenings, football training a couple of times a week, cycling to see mates … my heart and lungs were sorted!

However, I was no Arnold Schwarzenegger! Having had the rapid growth of a boy destined to be 6 foot 2, my arms and legs were more spaghetti than penne. I was not exactly what you would call ‘strong’.

And if you asked me to touch my toes? I’d be lucky to get past my knees. My muscles felt like lead wires, creaking under the tension. But, I was 16, so I didn’t care. Continue reading

Why Don’t We Do the Things We Know to Be Good for Us?

I’m currently reaping the benefits of a low sugar month which I am doing in conjunction with my ’30 Day Habits’ group which I run in Facebook. I have a clearer head, better sleep, I’ve leaned up a little and my running feels better.

I have done this many times in my life, I’ve managed to break the sugar addiction and I always feel better for it. But then I go back.

Why is that?! Everything about life is better when I’m eating less sugar. Not only is my energy better, but I am more productive, calmer, my mood improves and I am a better communicator with those around me. Why wouldn’t I want to be like this always?

The same goes for other habits of health. Exercise, stretching, meditation and a good night’s sleep are all essential for optimal health and they make life feel good. But as with the diet, the good routine of these things comes and goes.

This is something that has fascinated me both in my life and in that of my patients.

We all know what’s good for us, so why don’t we do it?

After years of wondering, I think I have finally found the answer. Continue reading