You’ve tried every health booster under the sun, from green juice to supplements to the hottest new workout meant to leave every muscle quaking. Your clean diet rivals Gisele’s. But you look and feel less than stellar, and no amount of naps can seem to reset your sleep debt. (And the Mayo Clinic says only 2.7 percent of us are actually leading their definition of a healthy lifestyle.) Cue sad face.
What’s happening? While our bodies were designed to hum along like a well-oiled machine, our modern lifestyle has thrown us out of whack, says Jamé Heskett, MD, author of The Well Path.
“Anytime your body is stressed, your body reacts and adjusts. It pulls you out of balance and goes into a defensive mode to protect you,” she says. It’s not only physical dangers like a virus or an attacking bear that pull you out of equilibrium. Restrictive diets, over-exercising, lack of sleep, and your addiction to your iPhone all have the same effect, says Dr. Heskett. The problem is, rather than returning back to a calm, cool, collected state, we’re frazzled 24/7. “You body goes completely into preservation mode because it wants to survive. It wants to protect you,” she says.
According to Dr. Heskett, there’s a super straightforward way to improve your overall health that has nothing to do with your blood pressure, diet, or workouts. It’s what she calls the Four S’s—sleep, sex, stress, and social interaction. These factors play a big role in your hormonal balance, wellness, weight, and happiness.
Ready to see where you are on the path to wellness? Go over this checklist to see how you rate when it comes to the Four S’s.
Why it’s important: Who doesn’t want more sleep? And for good reason. Sleep is key to keeping your body in balance. When you don’t sleep enough, your body switches into survival mode. “When you don’t rest, you’re not recuperating. You’re not rebalancing your hormones,” says Dr. Heskett.
When you’re sleep-deprived, you’re more likely to get the munchies and mess up your metabolism, not to mention experience a wicked case of brain fog. “You have to give your body an opportunity to shut down, to regroup, and to get back to homeostasis so you can hit the ground running the next morning,” she explains.
Where you stand: While we generally hear that you need a minimum of seven hours of restorative sleep, that magic number may differ from person to person. Instead, Dr. Heskett suggests asking yourself this question: Do I wake up in the morning without an alarm and ready to start the day?
What you can do: If the answer is no, you’ll want to focus on improving your ZZZs. Step one? Start by going to bed 15 minutes earlier. “It’s never about sleeping more in the morning. That disrupts the routine of life and just adds more stress to your life,” says Dr. Heskett. If you don’t have a normal bedtime, try setting regular sleep and wake times.
The doctor’s other tried-and-true strategy? Snack for sleep. That’s right—she wants you to eat right before you go to bed. “It helps the body register that there’s an abundance so it knows it can go into homeostasis mode and use nutrients to regenerate tissues and rest,” she says. She typically includes some carbs, good fat, and protein in her bedtime nosh. (These 8 foods are all great options.)
Why it’s important: According to Dr. Heskett, the benefits of sex are far-reaching; think improved circulation, boosted immunity, pain relief, and reduced heart disease. The hormones released during sex affect everything from fat metabolism to stimulating the growth of healthy skin cells. Not to mention the fact that your orgasm is an instant stress relief: Your brain is flooded with blood carrying oxygen and nutrients—plus the amygdala, your brain’s anxiety center, shuts down when you orgasm.
And since we hold on to past pain and trauma deep inside our bodies, sex is the one time we can let it go. “All those core muscles that get so tight from fighting chronic stress—the hip flexors, pelvic floor, abs, spinal muscles—they impact how your organs function and your total level of physical fitness,” says Dr. Heskett. “When you give them a chance to completely relax, everything resets in that moment.”
Where you stand: Dr. Heskett is quick to point out that it’s not about a specific number of times you get it on in a week—so there’s no need to track your sexy times like you do your workouts. “Everybody is where they are and any step forward is a step forward,” she notes. Instead, assess if you engage in sexual activity that you feel good about, either with a partner or by yourself.
What you can do: It’s no secret that adding more sex can feel like another item on your to-do list. Dr. Heskett suggests saying yes to your partner when you’re inclined to skip it—or initiate sex when you otherwise wouldn’t. “For those who don’t have a partner, it does not take two to tango,” she says. “Practice self-orgasm at least once during the week, or try during a time of day you normally would not.”
Why it’s important: It’s no surprise that stress is bad for you. But when you can’t find your inner Zen, you stress about being stressed, and your body gets stuck in survival mode…again. That means your body holds onto fat and your mind can’t think clearly—not to mention the fact that your skin, hair, and fingernails will begin to look dry and brittle.
Where you stand: A healthy stress profile depends on your coping strategies. Have you developed two to three self-care tools (like meditation, yoga, or therapy) to help you quiet your mind? And do you practice them on a daily or weekly basis?
What you can do: “Most books will tell you that you need to eliminate stress from your life, but that’s unfair—it’s impossible,” says Dr. Heskett. “Be aware that stress might screw up the moment and your mood for the day, but it will have no impact on you in a week, a month, or six months from now.”
The trick is to identify the stressors that you can control and those that you can’t. Identify three small stressors in your daily life that hijack your emotions (hello, road rage). Recognize patterns to how you respond to these stressors and try something different, like a mantra. One that Dr. Heskett suggests: “There is no real consequence to [this small stressor].”
4. Social interaction
Why it’s important: Humans are social animals and we crave connection. But in our technology-driven world, it’s easy to hide behind screens and social media profiles. “Creating positive social interaction is where we all need to be for our own personal betterment,” says Dr. Heskett. Not only does it boost our mood and give us a sense of gratitude, but being kind has been shown to stamp out stress and anxiety too.
Where you stand: Do you have at least three positive interactions with others on a daily basis? Your preferred way of socializing depends on whether you’re an introvert or extrovert; introverts will thrive on one-on-one conversations whereas extroverts love a crowd, she says. “Once you’re aware of what works for you, increase the interactions that are actually meaningful to you.”
What you can do: If you’re struggling, Dr. Heskett wants you to focus on three specific interactions: with someone in your immediate family or inner circle who you’re most likely to ignore; a stranger like the barista or receptionist at your doctor’s office (a smile and kind word works); and someone who annoys you.
“That person who pisses you off and can totally derail your day, whether they cut in front of you in line or [are] your annoying coworker, that’s the person you need to let go of. That’s a stressor that’s probably meaningless,” she notes. Kill them with kindness—you’ll feel better, too.
Want to know where you stand, from a fitness perspective? We’ve got a test for that, too!