Our mornings can set the tone for the rest of our day. Starting the morning on the right foot allows you to start the day with intention rather than letting it run away from you.
These are some of the simple healthy habits, backed by research, you can incorporate into your daily morning routine to kick-start your day in the best possible way.
When I get stressed or just need a break, one of my first instincts is to go for a walk because it helps me feel relaxed and grounded. I assumed that walking made me feel like this because I have had this habit since a young age and have come to associate it with stress release. As I delved into human physiology, however, I realised that the impact of this simple habit is deeper than a memory trigger.
Any type of movement, such as walking, running, or biking, generates optic flow, which is “the pattern of the apparent movement of objects, surfaces, and edges in a visual scene caused by the relative movement between an observer and a scene”. In other words, it is the visual change of scenery that occurs when we move through the world. Optic flow has been demonstrated to be beneficial to the central nervous system. When our brain circuitry understands that we are moving through space, we can experience a sense of relaxation.
Not only does movement calm us, but studies have shown that walking in the morning may even enhance energy levels for the remainder of the day (especially if done outside) and improve our cognitive response. This is especially important during winter to combat ‘winter fatigue’, given that daylight exposure is what tells your physiological clock it’s time to start the day. A morning walk in the wintertime is a great way to ensure your body is getting that exposure to sunlight.
Of course, it’s not always easy to adopt a new habit. That’s why I partner with my clients when setting up their health goals. My focus is not on achieving everything quickly, but on taking baby steps to build long-term habits. Here are some tips that could help you to adopt this new habit:
- Prepare everything you need for your walk (e.g., clothes, shoes) the day before.
- If you enjoy entertainment while you walk, create a music playlist or check the latest podcasts on topics you’re interested in.
- Make sure your walking objectives are attainable. Aim for 30 minutes of movement or exercise per day; however, you should also do what seems good for your body on that day.
- Combine walking with other habits, such as walking the dog, listening to podcasts, meeting friends, or dropping the kids off at school. You could even simply wake up earlier and enjoy a longer walk on your way to work.
- Relax. Don’t allow missing a day to disrupt your schedule. It’s fine to take a day off and then pick up where you left off the next day.
- Consider switching up your route to make your morning walks more pleasurable. Having fresh things to look at in the morning might offer you something to look forward to.
When sunlight enters your eyes shortly after you wake up, it activates a brain circuit that regulates the timing of the release of the chemicals cortisol and melatonin, both of which impact sleep.
Cortisol synthesis is increased in the morning through exposure to bright light (sunlight). Melatonin levels fall as cortisol levels rise, and vice versa. We want cortisol to rise in the morning and then fall in the evening so we can sleep. Unfortunately, cortisol has a bad reputation; it is associated with high-stress events, and persistently high cortisol, as well as mismatched cortisol cycles, might indeed be harmful. But the reality is that we do need a certain amount of cortisol: it wakes us up in the morning and is an important hormone for our health.
Anxiety disorders and depression can be caused or exacerbated by a delayed cortisol pulse. Encouraging your cortisol pulse to happen earlier in your wakeful time provides a number of advantages, ranging from reduced blood pressure to enhanced mental health. Going outside to get your sunlight is preferable to sitting near a window since glass blocks part of the UV light that aids your circadian clock setting. You’ll want to leave the sunglasses at home for the same reason. A light therapy lamp is an alternative worth considering if it is not feasible to enjoy direct sunshine early in the morning (this is quite a challenge in the UK, especially during the wintertime!).
We can easily become dehydrated at night, as during sleep our body naturally loses fluids and electrolytes through the skin via perspiration, moisture when we exhale, and urine production in the kidneys. Being adequately hydrated helps our organs perform the necessary chemical reactions to supply energy and keep their vital functions going. This factor is quite important; our brain is made up of more than 70% water, and therefore staying hydrated is crucial for maintaining healthy brain performance. When we are dehydrated, the brain uses less fuel in order to conserve energy, which may lead to exhaustion/fatigue and mood changes. Adding electrolytes to your water (sodium, magnesium, and potassium) can help with ionic flow and brain function.
Adopting a time-restricted eating pattern in the morning, after a fasting period of over 12 hours, can cause positive metabolic change and enhance your health outcomes.
Fasting is rooted in human physiology, causing a variety of important cellular actions to be activated. Switching from a fed to a fasting state helps us accomplish more than only burning calories and losing weight. Among many benefits, fasting enhances metabolism and reduces inflammation, improving a variety of health concerns.
According to one study, breaking your fast with 35 grams of protein at breakfast helps you to feel full throughout the day, leads to favourable changes in the hormones and brain signals that govern hunger, reduces food motivation and reward, and improves overall diet quality. What’s even more surprising is that a recent study at Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan revealed that protein ingested in the morning stimulates more muscle development than protein consumed later in the day. Unfortunately, typical breakfast meals tend to be carb-heavy – toast with butter, a croissant, fruit juices – and protein is the macronutrient that is usually missing when I analyse my clients’ food diaries in clinics. Check out my free breakfast recipe book to get some inspiration for balanced, protein-inclusive breakfasts.
Let me know in the comments below, what’s your morning routine?