It's all so complicated.
In our quest for healthier bodies, we've shown a willingness to do and spend almost anything on an ever-increasing number of workouts and workout equipment. Over the past few decades, we've seen Thighmasters and Stairmasters, P90X and DDP Yoga.
I recently wrote a book about the fitness economy (it's called "Sweat Equity") and in reporting and researching (not to mention at cocktail parties and book signings), am regaled with stories of workouts and races. We are a society of achievers and one-uppers, especially in and around the urban centers of New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco, where the business of the body is booming.
I've started to take these conversations in a slightly different direction, in part out of enlightened self-interest. While I'm eager to hear about new workouts, my follow-up questions these days are a bit different and a lot simpler: What are you eating, and how are you sleeping?
I ask because I wrestle with this constantly. Like many people, even people much fitter than I am, I overeat and undersleep. So what's a guy to do?
Let's start with sleep. Hamlet pondered, "To sleep perchance to dream."
I'm more about, "To sleep, perchance to get enough rest to be able to wake up and work out, not be completely exhausted at work, and hopefully not fall asleep at the dinner table."
(Arianna Huffington has written a book all about sleep and has barnstormed the country preaching a gospel of getting more, higher quality rest. Her anecdote involving a dramatic injury directly tied to exhaustion is harrowing.)
For me, I can read and listen to all of it, but I have to figure out what works for me (a point I'll come back to, when it relates to food). And what I've discovered is that all the science about bedtime and reading an iPad are true. Going to sleep has become my most intense internal battleground, a struggle between what I want and what I know I should do. I'm my own worst enemy in this case.
The lure of the device is strong. We got rid of the TV in our bedroom a few years ago, but technology has a way of finding its way back in to your life. Here's what I know: The science is right, at least for me. The light from the screen disrupts me to the point where I know I sleep worse on the nights when I fall asleep reading on my iPad than when I either read an old-fashioned paper book, or read nothing at all.
But I still don't get enough sleep and every morning, I wake up with a variation of the old cartoon devil and angel on my shoulders. The pajama clad character wants me to hit the snooze button, the one in running shoes knows that I'll feel better if I drag my butt out of bed and get in even a few miles. After all, I'm hard-pressed to recall a single time where I've said, "I wish I didn't go for that run."
So it ultimately means going to bed earlier, which I don't always want, and sometimes just can't, do. There are actual obligations related to work and family, and then wants, like my current obsession -- binge-watching the show "Billions."
My "hack," which I know are all the rage, is not exactly universal but highly effective for non-driving commuters: Train naps. Sleeping on my commute, unabashedly and drooly, like a tuckered-out toddler, is my not-so-secret weapon.
I've yet to find a great food hack, or one that really satisfies me. Once again, there's a struggle between head and heart, or head and tummy. I know that brownie, or that second beer or that slice of pizza is not optimal fuel. But there I often am, scarfing it down.
My only solution so far is counterprogramming with the so-called superfoods, especially avocados, blueberries and kale, which I can pretty easily feather into my diet on a near-daily basis. I wish I could avoid bread more than I do, but I'm a sucker for fresh-from-the-oven homemade baked goods.
Life's too short, in my estimation, to totally eliminate anything, other than for religious, health or deeply held philosophical reasons. Even though I like rules, I've decided that flexible guidelines are my best bet. I'm a big fan of Michael Pollan, the author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and other books. I listened to an interview with him recently that reiterated his brief and useful axiom: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
That makes a huge amount of sense to me. And it argues for an approach to both of those basic needs that sometimes gets lost in all the magazines, TV shows and, yes, books devoted to being a healthier, happier human being.
Make good choices. Eat less and better. And get some sleep!