When people try and to make their lifestyle healthier, they tend to focus on two areas – their diet and the amount of exercise they do – but there’s more to a healthy, happy life than that.
So says Dr Rangan Chatterjee, author of new book the 4 Pillar Plan (RRP £12.99, Penguin), which suggests, as you’ve probably already worked out, that there are four factors to consider when trying to make positive changes to your lifestyle. What are those factors? Good question, in fact it’s the first one we asked when we spoke to Chatterjee.
What are the four pillars?
“The four pillars are relaxation, food, movement and sleep,” says Chatterjee. “Many of us recognise the importance of food and movement, but sleep and relaxation are very much undervalued. I’m finding more and more that a lot of people’s diet and movement aren’t too bad, and rather than trying to become perfect in those areas, or get a 5% improvement, they’re much better off if they focus on the other pillars.
“It’s about balance, not perfection, and it’s not prescriptive. It’s not me telling people what to do. This is a case of trying to shine a spotlight on the things you can do, that are going to help you.”
You recommend five things you can do for each pillar in the book. Do people need to do all of them?
“Frankly it’s going to be very hard to do all 20. For most of my patients 12 seems to be about right. That’s enough to get them feeling really well, but it’s individual. You can personalise this plan.”
The Four Pillars
For a closer look at the plan we spoke to Chatterjee about each of the pillars and asked for a recommendation of one thing you can try from each.
Chatterjee’s five actions to try include living one day a week screen-free, or ensuring you eat at least one meal a day at a table without a connected device next to you.
“I start with relaxation is because I think it is probably the most undervalued component of health,” says Chatterjee. “We think relaxation is something we’re going to fit in when we’ve done everything else, but unfortunately for many of us we never finish our to-do list.”
Try… a daily practice of stillness
“This is just a moment in the day when you press the pause button,” says Chatterjee. “Try starting with just two minutes of meditation a day. That daily practice will start to have a massive impact on your overall health.
“We have to train our minds. If you were going to run the London Marathon, you wouldn’t go for one jog around the block and say you can’t do it – you’d understand you have to train your body to do a marathon.
“You can be mindfully listening to your favourite music on your phone through headphones – as long as you’re not scrolling social media at the same time. Also, there are so many meditation apps now. Calm is one of my favourites and there’s also Headspace.
“You can also try 3-4-5 breathing – you breathe in for three, hold for four, and breathe out for five. When our out-breath is longer than our in-breath, we activate the relaxation part of our nervous system.
“Put it in your diary – at 7pm I stop everything and plug into this meditation app, or at 7.30am I do 3-4-5 breathing for five minutes. This is achievable for everyone – you just need to start.”
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The dietary advice in the 4 Pillar Plan shies away from the idea that there is a one-size-fits-all diet that will work for everyone. Instead it recommends general changes you can make, which include eating five portions of different vegetables every day and drinking eight glasses of water. One change that you might not have considered, however, is only eating in a strictly defined window each day.
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Try… the 12-hour window
“This is one of my favourite interventions in the book,” says Chatterjee. “Because although I would recommend changing what you eat, you don’t actually need to change what you eat, just when you eat. In our modern culture, we’re eating all the time. When we’re eating late in the evening, we’re generally just a bit bored. We’ve got what I call an itchy mouth. It’s just something to do.
“When you restrict your eating window a huge amount of benefits kick in to the body. You can get better control of your blood sugar and your weight, and your immune system functions better. Your mitochondria, which are the energy factories of your body, also work more efficiently. It also improves the health of your gut bugs, which is critical for overall health.”
As with Chatterjee’s advice in the Eat pillar, most of the suggestions for movement fit with current thinking, like walking at least 10,000 steps a day and doing some kind of strength training twice a week. One suggestion that did stand out to us, however, was the exercises Chatterjee says you should do every day.
Try… daily glute exercises
“Most of us are not putting ourselves in positions where we need to switch our glutes on,” says Chatterjee. “If you’re sat down all day your brain has no reason to activate your glutes, so for many of us they’ve gone to sleep. Even when you’re walking you’re not firing them appropriately.
“Glute exercises give your body no option but to switch your glutes on. I do two minutes of glute exercises every morning while my coffee is brewing. It sets me up for the day. I can feel myself walking better.”
You can see videos of how to do glute exercises, like the hip extensions and foot clocks Chatterjee recommends, on his website.
You might think that it’s harder to take control of your sleep than the other aspects of the plan. That’s what we thought, anyway. Chatterjee disagrees.
“Most people who are having trouble are doing something in their everyday lifestyles that’s affecting their ability to sleep,” says Chatterjee.
“The reality is when most people go camping they fall asleep easily and sleep soundly. That’s because you’re removing yourself from this techy modern environment.”
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To take remedy this, Chatterjee recommends a period without tech – ideally 90 minutes but as long as you can manage if not – before bed. Another action you can take to improve your sleep is to “manage your commotion”. We didn't know what that meant, so we asked.
Try… managing your commotion
“This is to do with emotional commotion,” says Chatterjee. “One of the most common causes of not sleeping is not being able to switch your brain off.
“There was a huge UK sleep survey in 2012 and it showed that the most common thoughts that kept people up at night were about what they’d done that day and what they’d have to do tomorrow.
“The idea is to minimise any activity that’s going to raise emotional tension before bed. If you’ve got something deep and meaningful to discuss with your partner, try not to do it late in the evening before bed. Or if you need to go through your bank statements and talk about financial matters, try not to do it in the evening. If work emails stress you out, have a cut-off time like 8pm or 8.30pm and say, ‘after this time I am not going to go on my work email account’.
“Anyone can send you an email at whatever time of day they want – you have no control over when someone sends that email, but you can control when you look at it. This was a huge change for me a few years ago. I closely guard the 90 minutes before I go to sleep, and it’s life-changing.”
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.