Despite the endless focus on what to eat, how to eat, and how and how much to exercise and the constantly changing scientific foundation for these recommendations, the best rule to adapt to is to listening to your body. What makes your body feel good when you eat it and what makes your body feel bloated and tired and low in energy when you eat it. There is no good or bad foods, and the truth is that all bodies are different and need different things. Adapting to what it needs and what makes you feel good instead of what is “right” will help you stay energised and more focused throughout the day. Giving your body proper fuel and movement through a variety of different sources will keep your body happy and healthy, and your brain better conditioned to work.
Water is vital for life and proper cognitive function, and even though we all know that drinking water is good for us, very few actually get enough water throughout the day. How much water we need varies from person to person and depends on our level of physical activity and diet, among other things. Focusing on eating more fruits and vegetables, the food group with the highest natural water content, means we need to drink less water to feel alert and energised. Water helps to maximise both physical and mental performance and research shows that even mild dehydration has an effect on our mood, memory and brain performance. Buying a water bottle you enjoy drinking from (many find that water taste better from a glass bottle than a plastic bottle), having water on you, and in sight, at all times, and flavouring it with herbs, citrus, and fruits are all good places to start if you feel it’s hard to remember to drink water.
We all know what a busy schedule and depending on quick solutions can do to the nutritional value of our food, so preparing for busy days at work or hectic exam periods is key to staying on top of fuelling your body and brain correctly. Preparing your meals in advance, keeping your freezer stocked with things you can heat up when you don’t have time to, or simply don’t want to cook, will save your from the options that don’t serve your body. Bringing leftovers from last night’s dinner in for lunch, and prepping meals for more days at a time will enable you to get a good, healthy meal on the days where you’ve had a day full of meetings or lectures and just really can’t be bothered.
Many of us feel that we can get by on less than the recommended hours of sleep, but research shows that our cognitive function suffers from only a single night of insufficient sleep, leaving us having to pour more energy into tasks we could have solved better, and often faster, if we’d had sufficient rest. Because even if we feel like we can function on less sleep, and get through lectures and meetings, and demanding exam periods on less than what’s recommended, the real story is that our bodies are not able to function in the most optimal way, which ultimately does affect our performance and overall wellbeing. Allowing your body enough rest and sleep will enable you to both work smarter during the day, and enhance your memory. So even if you feel like you can power through your degree without sufficient rest, it might be an interesting experiment to go on the non-negotiable sleep schedule of eight hours a night, that most sleep researchers practice themselves, and see how it affects your professional life as well as personal life.
Being deeply submerged in work for long stretches can make us feel tired and stressed. Breaks are an effective way to prevent decision fatigue and keep you feeling sharp as well as increase your motivation. We often feel that taking breaks equals wasting time, but research has found that taking breaks actually increases productivity and battles stress and exhaustion, and is therefore a good thing to work into your routine for both short term and long term results. Taking breaks and allowing your mind to rest has also been shown to help improve learning and memory. Breaks as short as 5 minutes can have beneficial effects on your level of stress and concentration. However, if you are allowed to enter a particularly focused state, taking a planned break is not the best idea, but rather to utilise it and take a break when you come out of it.
Thinking ahead is key to healthy habits and it doesn’t have to require a lot of time to properly fuel your body throughout the day. Packing little portions of crackers, nuts, dark chocolate and dried fruit, energy balls, chopped veggies and hummus, or a bit of fruit that you can bring with you is a really good way to always have something satisfying at hand that will allow you to get a hit of energy. Some days grabbing a croissant or a chocolate bar is the only thing that will do the trick, but always having a snack ready in your bag is a great way to make sure that you have a good, nutritious option to fuel your body when your energy dips in the afternoon or you crave something sweet.
Motivation is a fleeting thing, and we all have triggers that throw us off. By identifying them, we can focus on dissolving the things that make us feel demotivated and make it easier to power through on determination when our motivation is low. If your energy dips during your second lecture and you can’t stay alert and focused to get the most out of it, maybe you need to have a snack or water between lectures instead of that third cup of coffee. Or if you struggle with motivation at the end of your workday because you feel tired and sluggish, having a big glass of water, a little break from your screen, or going for a walk to get some fresh air might help you back on a more focused track. It’s easy to fall back on bad habits when we lose motivation, but identifying our triggers and the compensating behaviour we engage in following them, we can counter them by having healthier options at hand.
These seven steps are all little nudges that bring attention to where you can start experimenting if you want to make it easier to fuel your body well throughout the day. The important part really lies in integrating these things into your life, and how you listen to your body, instead of thinking about it like something you should do.