How do you leverage your basic needs?
These health habits make all the difference.
In today’s Instagram-driven world, there is no shortage of miracle weight-loss diets or fad health shortcuts. Simply put: If a proposed health plan isn't flashy or can't be easily profited from, you won't see it in the headlines.
The cornerstones of health aren't sexy, but these fundamentals present the greatest opportunities for health within the general population. The good news is that anyone can improve their baseline health by bringing conscious practice back to these foundational health habits.
1) Nasal Breathing
We have four main vital signs: body temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory (breathing) rate. Without a breathing rate of course, the other points are irrelevant. As an 80 year-old client recently put: “I’m still breathing, so it’s a good day”.
Depending on the literature cited, a “normal” adult breathing rate is considered to be between 10-14 breaths per minute. Changes in respiratory rates precede the decline of the other vital signs, acting as a warning sign to a variety of health issues. Breathing rates of over 27 breaths/min, as measured in general medicine patients, were predictive of cardiopulmonary arrest within 72 hours.
For argument’s sake, if your resting breathing rate is average at 12 breaths/minute, you are taking in approximately 17,280 breaths every day. Add to that moments of stress, and you can easily jump up a few more thousand. Needless to say, you have at least 17,280 chances every day to impact blood pH, digestion, sleep quality, stress management, neck tension, back health, general stability, pelvic function, headaches, and much more (right down to all cellular functions).
How you breathe is equally as important as how frequently you breathe:
- Are you breathing through your nose while at rest and while active?
- Can you feel your abdomen and ribs move with each breath in a relaxed manner (or does part of your torso feel limited)?
- Do your shoulders and neck feel chronically tight?
If you're unable to nasal breathe or feel relaxation throughout your torso and neck, it's unlikely that you're getting proper expansion of your diaphragm in your breath cycle. The negative effects of poor breathing mechanics get magnified over time, leading to a higher breathing rate along with a number of structural (muscular) tension patterns that develop throughout the neck, shoulders, and hips.
In other words, imagine walking with a very slight limp for 17,280 steps every day. The body is able to compensate but eventually your knee, hip, and spine will start to complain.
This is an especially important message for anyone who sits all day: Persistent hunched static posture and tight hips will prevent you from achieving a complete (diaphragmatic) breath as the rib cage and neck positions alone will impair breathing function due to the inhibition of primary breathing muscles.
Defaulting to mouth/chest breathing has additional ramifications:
- Shallow chest breathing is linked to anxiety and tends to occur in high-stress environments, creating highly-stressed individuals.
- The rhythmic compressions of the breath cycle help the digestive tract move along (learn more about digestion and connective tissues here). Any issues with breathing can lead to: poor digestion, heartburn, constipation, and even allergic reactions over time as food lags within the system.
- The abdominal muscles are responsible not only for “core stability”, but they are also strengthened by healthy breathing patterns. Dysfunctional day-to-day breathing will weaken trunk stability and lead to instability for all movements over time.
Bringing conscious focus to your daily breathing patterns can help:
- Improve quality of sleep
- Improve digestion/elimination
- Relieve stress and anxiety
Any time you commute, eat a meal, go to the washroom, or are heading into an appointment/meeting, you have the opportunity to use those routines as reminders to check your breathing and ensure it’s calm and through the nose.
Further to that, any time you catch yourself mouth-breathing (stress is often a trigger), you should:
- Put yourself in a gentle 2 minute “time out” to breathe with a slow tempo (5-7 breaths/minute)
- Focus on all breaths done solely through your nose
- Take longer to inhale and exhale so as to deliver a significantly larger amount of oxygen to the bloodstream.
By mastering your breathing alone, you may resolve several of your nagging health concerns up front.
2) Adequate Water Intake
The second basic human need is water. Our brain, blood, & muscles are made up of around 75% water. Organs such as the kidneys and liver come in at roughly 85%. There is no question that, like oxygen, water impacts every system within the body and is a cornerstone to health. We are incredibly fortunate here in North America to have access to clean drinking water (in most places, at least), although it’s something a lot of us don’t get enough of on a daily basis.
A few common signs of inadequate water intake include:
- Fatigue and brain fog
- Joint aches/pain
- Muscle or digestive cramps
Adequate hydration is necessary for waste removal (detoxification), temperature control, metabolic function, oxygen delivery, hormone regulation, and joint lubrication (to name a few).
As a result, chronically inadequate water intake contributes to weight gain over time. This occurs as digestion slows down and the body loses the ability to properly remove waste products and adequately break down sugars in the blood stream.
There are camps that say you only have to drink when you’re thirsty and others that claim precisely 3L/day. The truth is, water intake depends on you, your diet, your lifestyle, and your environment- and most in our population are not in the health habit of getting enough.
As general guidelines:
- People who don't drink any water: Be aware that your thirst signals may not be terribly present so going by thirst alone initially may not serve you. Start drinking 2-3 glasses as early in the day as possible and bring a bottle with you to work.
- Those who only drink water at meals: You likely find yourself with mixed hunger and fatigue signals throughout the day. Add in another 1-2 glasses per day.
- If you drink water but don’t eat much fresh produce: Drink an additional 1-2 glasses per day.
- Those who exercise regularly: Aim for at least 2L daily (and the bigger you are, the more you will need).
- Health-conscious people: You consistently eat unprocessed foods like vegetables/meat, and already make a conscious effort to drink water: You likely get enough water and know when you need more.
(Bonus: If your breathing rate is high (over 14 breaths/minute), your need for water will be elevated.)
Getting too much water is rare but has been of great concern in the endurance community, and rightly so. Over-hydration can result in a condition called hyponatremia. Recent research published in PNAS 2016 showed that swallowing will become excessively difficult and inhibited if you’re surpassing your hydration needs- a sign that your brain is telling you to stop. If you’re forcing water down, you’ve probably had enough.
For the majority of people, the simplest health habit to increase water is to have a bottle nearby at all times.
3) Frequent, Daily Movement
Amid all the various exercise recommendations and constant re-evaluations of “minimum doses”, there is a general consensus as a society that we need more than we’re getting.
Guidelines in exercise are largely in response to a sedentary lifestyle or, by contrast, to the pursuit of a specific skill/sport. Attention is rarely brought to the need for movement accumulation throughout one’s day outside of a set gym routine. Much like the body needs oxygen and water to survive and thrive, a regular stimulus of movement (outside of a gym regime) is equally valuable: All exercise is movement but not all movement is exercise.
Cells require water and oxygen to survive and communicate with one another though they also do so via force, and force is achieved through movement. Without sufficient movement, cells start to become sick. Unfortunately, our current environment is based entirely around convenience and efficiency. We live in a world where we seek comfort in everything we do, but this by proxy has outsourced much of the movement we would otherwise come by naturally (pre-chopped vegetables anyone?).
Take Back Your Movement
For anyone who is truly interested in improving their health habits, maintaining longevity & cognition, reducing stress, or even losing weight, work to reclaim some movement in your daily life:
- Walk or ride a bike to work (or at least part of the route)
- Carve out an hour to walk around running errands instead of driving
- Cook food at home as often as you can
- Change levels when you’re reading or working: sit, stand, squat, or grab a spot on the floor.
- If you drive daily, choose one day of the week to avoid using your car entirely
If some of this seems too daunting, start small by simply making an effort to never sit for more than 45 mins straight. Research has shown that the most detrimental aspect to sitting is when you don’t take breaks. To be clear, any static posture for hours on end will not serve you whether it’s standing or sitting; the latter of which carries with it a litany of other issues as well (relating to hips, digestion, breathing, etc.). If you are at a desk for 8-10 hours/day, you can mitigate the damage of a “stuck” posture by getting up at least once every 45mins, even if just to stretch your arms and get blood flow into your legs.
- Practice deep, slow, and quiet nasal breathing: allowing shoulders and trunk to relax.
- Prioritize drinking water based on your lifestyle and needs- you should never feel thirsty or parched by end of day.
- Move daily. Reclaim outsourced daily movements and avoid sitting for periods of longer than 45mins.
The final piece to the puzzle regarding human needs is nutrition, but if your breathing is off, your water is insufficient, or your movement is lacking, you will be unable to reap the full benefits of a nutrient dense diet.
Don't put the cart before the horse: Cover your basics before spinning your wheels with an advanced plan.
If you have your heart set on getting healthy, focus your energy on these basic human health habits and you’ll notice the positive changes in every aspect of life.