Stuck Moment: It’s 3 pm and you’re down for the count. You’re tired, hungry, and cranky — longing for a venti-size, two-sugar latte. Sigh. Once again, the rest of this workday is going to be an unproductive drag.
But it doesn’t have to be. All that’s required are some small diet and exercise fine-tuning to sharpen that remarkable instrument you call your body. Because what you feed it and how you care for it affects the physical and mental factors that contribute to productivity: Mood. Confidence. Concentration. Energy. Memory. Your immune system.
Even better, these tweaks to your daily habits are so easy to implement that they can quickly become second nature — building a positive and lasting impact on what you can get done. Let’s get started.
Go easy on your digestive system. Digestion is work for your body. After you eat, increased blood flows to your stomach and intestines for the energy-hungry task of breaking food down — energy which then isn’t available for other kinds of work. Like brain work. On average, if you eat a mixed diet of carbs, proteins, and fats, 5% to 15% of the calories (a.k.a. energy) you take in are used for digestion. To compare, the brain uses about 20%.
While some foods, like fats and alcohol, take extra work to digest, others, such as a pastry or white toast with jam, break down easily to glucose (the sugar that fuels brain and muscles). You get a quick burst of energy (yay!). But as soon as 15 minutes later, you’ll crash (oh no!) and need another sugar-fix. Why? Because your brain needs glucose delivered in a steady supply to keep it running at its best.
The upshot: Eat the right foods, in the right amounts so that the energy produced isn’t “eaten” right back up by your stomach. And eat to control the release of glucose into your system to avoid the blood sugar roller coaster.
Here are five easy ways to do that:
• Your morning meal helps set your blood sugar pattern for the day. What you want: fiber, slow-burning carbs, some fat, and some protein. Try a shake (soy, almond, or low-fat milk) with fresh or frozen fruit. Or an omelet with veggies and multi-grain toast.
• Choose foods low on the glycemic index, which means that they burn slowly, giving your brain that nice even flow of energy. Choose toast with whole grains over a white bagel. A handful of nuts and dried fruit over a cookie. Here is a helpful chart listing high, medium, and low-glycemic foods.
• Avoid heavy meals. That three-martini bistro lunch you see on Mad Men? Terrible for productivity. Instead, order salads, veggies, a high protein-to-carb ratio such as a baked potato with tuna or a light turkey sandwich. Go big on volume (to help you stay full) but judicious on calories (to help you stay perky).
• If you do opt for fast-burning carbs, counteract them with fiber-rich foods — even a snack-size portion of carrot sticks can slow the release of sugar into your blood stream. Fiber also helps you stay full longer, so you don’t get distracted by cravings. Use this chart to check the fiber content of common grains, proteins, fruits and vegetables. (Berries and lentils are big winners in the fiber department.)
• Avoid foods that you know make you feel sluggish or bloated. Gluten, dairy, and soy are common culprits.
Get into the focus and memory zone. We all know the feeling when our mind wanders and nothing sticks. You scan the same paragraph over and over. And just when you finally feel like you’ve got it and flip the page, whoosh! It’s gone.
The ability to concentrate and retain information, like your energy level, depends on how you tune your instrument. Studies show that diet and exercise choices not only affect mental alertness, but also memory formation. Fortunately, it doesn’t require a diet overhaul. There’s lots of easy stuff that you can do right now to make today (and tomorrow) work better.
• Get in a half hour of low to moderate intensity aerobic workout. No need to cross-fit or marathon-train to get brain-boosting benefits. Instead of carpooling, take a brisk walk to work. Or jump on a bike. Or get on the elliptical, where you can review an important brief while your blood gets pumping. Exercise and learning are the perfect multi-tasking companions; working out during or just before a demanding learning task has been shown to improve memory or brain performance.
• Stay hydrated. A parched system can tire you and cause headaches, making it hard to concentrate. You know the drill: eight eight-ounce glasses of water throughout the day. And avoid the double-whammy of sodas and alcohol when you need to get stuff done: They dehydrate you and funk up your blood sugar and digestion.
Tend to your immune system. On average, we get two to five colds a year. But studies show that it’s possible to halve your chances of getting sick with some simple choices.
• Just 20 minutes of light to moderate exercise (enough to break a sweat) five days a week will boost your immune system. If you do catch a bug, researchers found that regular exercise can reduce the length and severity.
• Eat lots of fruit, especially citrus, during cold season. The vitamin and mineral benefits boost your immune systems, and Vitamin C can actually help reduce the duration of a cold by a day.
• Avoid suppressing your immune system with sugar and alcohol. These indulgences make you more vulnerable to bugs and can slow recovery.
• Sleep well because when your sleep is out of sync with your schedule, your immune system suffers. When ready for bed, shut off screens — TV, smart phones, tablets, computers — and dim lights to cue your body for rest.
Boost your body to boost your mood. Confidence, stress, and happiness levels are hugely influenced by chemical and hormonal fluctuations in the body — i.e., diet and exercise. And they, of course, affect your productivity. These three actions will pump up your mood to power through your to-do list:
• If you’re a non-morning person who needs to function in the A.M., eating breakfast regularly helps you avoid becoming tired and cranky. Eat something light — not too much fat, not too many fast-burning carbs — such as a shake with almond or soy milk and fresh or frozen fruit. And don’t eat until you’re fully alert, which is when your body is ready to start digesting.
• Regulate your coffee intake. While caffeine can jolt you awake, too much at the wrong time, like early morning on a empty stomach, can kick you into an adrenalin overload, stressing your system, and leaving you with the jitters or mood swings. However, an afternoon coffee (go easy on the sugar) is a good offset to the slowness caused by a heavy lunch.
• Finally, there are so many benefits to exercise that there’s really no reason not to. For instance, just 20 minutes of walking or other mild workout will boost endorphins and other chemicals that give you a feeling of euphoria, help your body and mind reset, and leave you feeling clearer and fresher.
PRINTABLE TIP CARD #19: Four diet and exercise tips to all-day productivity