As we look toward optimal performance it makes sense to look at the main cornerstones of life and the requirements of maintaining a healthy body and mind. Being and feeling well become the base of a pyramid we need to reach optimal performance.
In this article
- What we consume and what we do
- Love and belonging
What we consume and what we do
What we do and what we consume on a day-to-day basis are all wrapped up in how we achieve balance and maintain life. If we stop or limit these things, we either die or radically reduce our quality and quantity of life.
If we tip the balance a little more toward life quality, all these things become the cornerstones of achieving optimal human performance.
Let's take a quick look at each of these things to see why they are so important and why you will find as we move on to how to eat well, recover well, sleep well, etc we come back to these basics and cornerstones of life. Doing these well simply makes life better!
Let’s briefly think about performance on a 5-point scale and reflect on this against these cornerstones and how they contribute to your feeling and being well.
What we consume
We don’t live long without oxygen. 5 minutes without breathing and we die. Pretty straightforward?
Every cell in our body is dependent on oxygen there isn’t anything more important but often because it’s such a part of every moment the air we breathe is almost forgotten. We all know and understand how vital it is, but the exact reasons why and how may be unknown to you.
Not enough oxygen has serious consequences: Without enough oxygen, the oxygen in your blood falls leading to low tissue oxygen (hypoxia). The symptoms include confusion, rapid heart rate, and breathing, shortness of breath, sweating, and changes in skin color. Untreated, hypoxia damages your organs and leads to death.
Here are a few reasons why the air we breathe and more specifically oxygen matters so much:
You need oxygen to turn food into energy: Those trillions of cells do this for us by a process known as cellular respiration. During this process, the mitochondria in your body’s cells use oxygen to help break down glucose (sugar) into a usable fuel source (ATP). This provides the energy you need to live.
Your brain needs a lot of oxygen: Your brain is just 2% of your total body weight, but it gets 20% of your body’s total oxygen consumption. Why? It needs a lot of energy as your body’s central computer and main communication system. This means a lot of cellular respiration. To just survive, the brain needs about 0.1 calories per minute. It needs 1.5 calories per minute when you’re thinking hard. With 1440 minutes in a day that’s 144 - 215 calories just thinking. Remember We are: What we think!
Oxygen plays an important role in your immune system: Your immune system guards your body against dangerous invaders (like viruses and bacteria). Oxygen fuels the cells of this system, keeping it strong and healthy.
Later on, when we look at optimal performance breathing well, and supporting optimal breathing both during activities such as exercise and work, but also during periods of rest, as well as during recovery and sleep starts to make more sense. This means taking notice of how we breathe, taking care of any restrictions or problems, and making sure our cells get one of their main raw materials without any constraints. Put simply being well, requires breathing well.
Water makes up 60-70% of our bodies, even more, when we are younger (70-75%). Every single one of those trillions of cells needs water for cell respiration, to move things around inside the cell and between cells. Outside of the cells, we have three different types of body fluids, blood, lymph, and interstitial fluid, the fluid matrix between cells inside of all your organs and tissues. Keeping all of this well supplied with water is essential to keep everything moving. It’s perhaps not surprising then that without water our bodies start to fail in just 3 days.
Your body loses fluids continuously even at rest. During a typical day, women use 2.5-3 liters (85-100 floz). This water is lost from the body in sweat, urine, and feces.
Not drinking enough water causes dehydration. Dehydration happens when your body loses more fluids than you take in. Symptoms of dehydration include:
dark yellow and strong-smelling pee
feeling dizzy or lightheaded
a dry mouth, lips, and eyes
peeing little, and fewer than 4 times a day
Here are a few reasons why the water we drink matters so much:
Water maintains your cardiovascular system: Water is a huge part of your blood (92%). If you become dehydrated, your blood volume and blood pressure can fall making it harder to get around all those cells. It also becomes more concentrated, which can lead to an imbalance of the electrolyte minerals. These electrolytes are necessary for proper muscle and heart function.
Water is essential for thermoregulation: Controlling body temperature at its optimal 36.6°C/97.88°F requires a combination of evaporation through sweat in balance with cell metabolism which generates heat. Water is an essential part of both sides of this balance.
Water helps remove waste: Water is used by your body to excrete waste through sweat, urination, and defecation. Your kidneys which are essentially fluid filter systems need water to remove waste from your blood. Water is also important for your digestive system to keep food moving. Keeping well hydrated helps prevent constipation.
Water aids digestion: Water is essential for healthy digestion. It helps break down the food you eat, allowing its nutrients to be absorbed by your body. After you drink, both your small and large intestines absorb water, which moves into your bloodstream and is also used to break down nutrients. Water is also necessary to help you use soluble fiber, which turns to gel and slows digestion. Slower more regular digestion helps the absorption and retention of minerals and vitamins from your intestines.
Water helps brain function: The brain is made up of >75% water, and is required for your brain cells to absorb and metabolize glucose. Reduced attention, a sense of fatigue, and poor memory are all symptoms of poor hydration
How Much Water Do You Need?
The fluid we consume each day can come from water, beverages in general, and food (such as fruits and vegetables. A simple test on how well you're doing with your hydration. After going to the bathroom, look at the color of your urine. If it is very pale yellow to light yellow, you’re well hydrated. Darker yellow is a sign of dehydration. Brown or cola-colored urine is a medical emergency, and you should seek medical attention. But essentially it’s a matter of balance. You can lose >10L/300 oz a day in high humidity and activity. So how much water you need will depend on your environment as well as your activity level. As a minimum, you will need 2.5-3 L / 85-100 oz just to maintain your normal daily water losses.
Check out the article: How to hydrate effectively
We are what we eat.
We’ve seen the composition of our body and what its different parts are made up of. What we don’t always think about especially as adults when we have stopped growing is just how much our body needs to stay healthy and why.
Those trillions of cells aren’t just made once and then live with us until they die. They are constantly being turned over and replaced. Even some of the most stable parts of our body are replaced over time. Did you know that we replace our skeletons every 10 years even as adults? In highly regenerative tissues like the liver, it can replace 50% of its mass in just 3-4 days assuming it has the right nutrition to assist it. So from our nails, skin, and hair which we are used to seeing breakdown and regrow as they are external, we also rebuild and repair internally continuously. We will look later in more detail at nutrition for women and performance but at its basics, we need to provide all of the building blocks of life through the food we eat for our bodies to continue to repair, recover and adapt. Continually growing new tissue to replace old so we stay functioning and feeling well.
What we do (Part 1: Physical)
If we lay down in a cozy corner and just breathed, eat, and drank, how would we do?
The answer is not very well at all. This is a bit like being confined in prison but without sleep and exercise. Let’s start with the movement and sleep first as they align with the physical/physiological needs above and are base requirements or life needs.
Put simply, we were engineered to move. Our skeleton is designed to sense loads and strengthen based on them. Our cardiovascular system needs our muscles to contract to return blood to the heart. After just a week in bed, there is typically a drop of 10% plasma volume. Most of this is due to the postural change and more blood being in the chest rather than the legs which alter the pressure in the aorta affecting how the kidney controls water retention. Further time in bed causes a decrease in stroke volume of the heart and gradual deconditioning. Our breathing is also impacted by a reduced tidal volume caused by restriction and over time our lungs will show mucus pooling as well as the diameter of airways such as the bronchioles decreasing over time.
Each day our body works to sense what we are doing and therefore what we need. If we do less on repeat, then we train or condition our body to do less. So we gradually become weaker, less aerobically fit, less able ‘to do things”. It’s the basis of the saying "use it or lose it" and once you have built it it’s far easier to maintain it than build it again from scratch!
To stay well we must move.
Here are a few signs that we aren’t moving enough:
Constipation: When you move more, your colon moves more, and it's easier to poop regularly. Healthy muscle tone in your abs and diaphragm is also key to moving waste through your digestive tract. Consistent exercise can help you stay regular, especially as you age.
Stiff joints: When joints are moved, they naturally move fluid around and stimulate blood flow to remove inflammation. Yes, we can get aching joints from conditions such as arthritis or overuse. But not moving is one of the most common causes of pain and stiffness.
Out of breath or heart beating faster for small tasks: Just like biceps get weaker when you don’t use them, the muscles that help your lungs move in and out as you breathe lose strength if you don’t work them regularly. The less activity you do, the more breathless you get, even during easy daily tasks.
Emotional or moody: Not moving around enough doesn’t just affect your physical health. A lack of activity has been shown to increase feelings of anxiety and depression. Now jump on the other side and some simple activity can increase your production of endorphins and even just getting your blood pumping regularly will boost and steady your mood. In addition, that sense of accomplishment will even improve your self-esteem.
Sore back One of the first muscles sets to decondition especially if your sitting a lot is your core strength. That weakness means they don’t support your back well, making it easier to damage your back muscles during everyday movements like standing or reaching. Any activity is better than none. Even try sitting on an unstable surface such as a Swiss ball to keep things moving will help while you work. Or try some pilates or yoga, which is great for building a stronger back.
Frequently sick: Studies show the more moderate activity you get, the lower your chance of catching minor illnesses. When you make exercise a habit, both your circulation and your immune system get stronger and help keep you and those trillions of cells well.
Everything is a balancing act. So if we move more, we get fitter, we need more food and water and we feel better as long as we continue to consume in balance with what we do and facilitate recovery and adaptation. This brings us neatly to sleep.
In simple terms, your body needs sleep to repair, replenish and recover. Our central computer (brain) needs to process all that has happened, and monitor for change and repetition. It needs to pay back any debts and restore depleted carbohydrates (glycogen, glucose) and fat stores. Whilst some of this occurs continuously through the day much of the ‘balancing’ out and deep restoration occurs at night. This is true for physical as well as mental restoration.
Without any sleep, we can only survive for 8 days and after only 5 days experience severe cognitive dysfunction. Getting too little high-quality sleep can leave you feeling fatigued, unable to concentrate, and mentally foggy. It can also raise your risk of accidental injury and illness.
Good quality sleep will:
release hormones that maintain growth and digestion
control your appetite
support your immune system
promote good overall health
Sleep can be broken down into three stages:
REM (rapid eye movement) (~20%): REM sleep is typically associated with vivid dreaming. This type of sleep plays an important role in memory consolidation.
Deep sleep (~20%): Sometimes referred to as “slow-wave sleep.” During deep sleep, blood flow to your muscles increases, growth hormones are released, and tissues repair themselves.
Light sleep(~60%): Whilst this makes up 60% of the time it slots between multiple waves of deep and REM sleep. The mix of all three is part of normal sleep allowing your brain and body to move from one to the next and assimilate a balance of both mental, emotional, and physical assimilation, repair, and recovery
Sleep is an important part of your overall health and quality of life. How well you sleep affects how well you feel when you’re awake. Both the length and quality of your sleep are important. Most people spend nearly a third of their lives sleeping, and this is necessary for good productivity and health. Too little or too much sleep can have adverse health effects and impact your quality of life.
The amount of sleep you need depends on your age. Children and teens generally need more sleep than adults. For most adults, the general health consensus is 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.
What we do (Part 2: Social and emotional)
To be well and perform optimally we also need to nurture our emotional and social needs.
The psychology of social and emotional well-being is of course complex with many layers but to keep it at a simple level here are some of the foundations which contribute to our sense of wellness and that are core requirements of optimal performance.
Our social interactions are all about our relationships and interconnectivity with others. These interactions give us a sense of self that comes from outside of ourselves and helps support and sustain us. One of the core markers for both longevity, wellness, and happiness is the quantity and frequency of quality connections we have with others. Whilst there is no one size fits all model and many of these things are founded in both our culture and environment. Having some high-quality social interactions throughout our lives is critical to our well-being.
Personal security, employment, resources, health, and property
As humans, we thrive better when we experience order, predictability, and control in our lives. This gives us a platform and base from which to weave our own lives without fear of catastrophic change, influence, or risk. These needs are often fulfilled in our lives by family and society (e.g. police, schools, business, and health care). Examples of safety needs are emotional security, financial security (e.g. employment, social welfare), law and order, freedom from fear, social stability, property, health, and wellbeing (e.g. safety against accidents and injury).
Love and belonging:
Friendship, intimacy, family, and a sense of connection
Belongingness, refers to a human emotional need for interpersonal relationships, affiliating, connectedness, and being part of a group. Examples include friendship, intimacy, trust, acceptance, receiving and giving affection, and love.
Again thinking about that 5-point scale of wellness. If we feel secure, safe and well socially connected to others as part of a safe family and/or community then this will have a positive impact on our health, ability to perform, and a general sense of wellbeing.
Our emotional sense of well-being and health comes from some of these core areas. They bind into how we see ourselves, our confidence, and our self-worth which in turn facilitate us being independent and achieving mastery over our being and performance.
Feeling respected, having self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, and freedom
Achieving a sense of esteem is developed when we have high autonomy. Working to create a framework in our lives that supports our physical well-being and social connections. A significant piece of our esteem comes from our own ability to control our destiny and therefore feel able to freely express our values and develop our identity, talents, and interests.
Our sense of well-being and value increases as we develop our autonomy and feel as though we are authors of our own lives. Additional robustness and optimization of our mental health about esteem come from the feeling of making good progress toward our goals and receiving positive reinforcement from others to validate our feelings. This makes goal setting, sharing of those goals and aspirations as well as sharing in those achievements important to consolidating our progress toward a sound base of esteem.
Desire to become the most that one can be.
Individuals may perceive or focus on this need very specifically. For example, one individual may have a strong desire to become an ideal parent. In another, the desire may be expressed economically, academically, or athletically. For others, it may be expressed creatively, in paintings, pictures, or inventions.
When seeking optimal performance either at work, play, sport, or other activity of your choice it is this critical element that provides you with the motivation to achieve and fulfill your aspirations.
Whilst historically this has been proposed as a hierarchy this is only true when the various needs are restricted below normal. However, when you are looking for optimization once the base needs are met then optimizing each of the cornerstones can be developed over time and in a sequence that fits your goals and lifestyle.
Remember: Ignoring any of the simpler and most basic of needs such as drinking sufficient water will most certainly limit your optimization of any endeavor.
Keeping sight of the basics is the foundation of wellness. Do the basics well and you are well on your way to performing optimally and ensuring the main controllable elements which determine both quantity and quality of life.