• Alexandra L. Edwards

3 Major Pillars of Health you may be Overlooking

writing by Alexandra L. Edwards, photography by Alex Mulyarchuk

Before you scrunch your face through more nasty protein shakes to increase strength or jump to the next miracle-results-promising diet for fat loss, consider these 3 essential, yet overlooked, pillars towards your health goals:

1. Optimal Neuromuscular Function

Optimal neuromuscular function is absolutely necessary for any fitness goal, but there is still little awareness of what it is and why it is needed.

The human movement system needs the muscular, nervous, and articular (joint) systems to function properly for strength gain, performance, and injury prevention or rehabilitation.

If the human movement system doesn’t have neuromuscular function –– communication between the nervous system and muscular system –– it is difficult to build strength in the muscles that lack activity and communication from the nervous system and the overactive muscles worsen with compensation leading to an increased risk of injury.

Neuromuscular function is dependent on muscle balance, which means having normal length and tension relationships within the muscular system. Having proper muscle balance allows our bodies to efficiently transfer weight or force to accelerate, decelerate, or stabilize the kinetic chain (nervous, skeletal, and muscular systems), according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine.

Many individuals become frustrated or discouraged from lack of results, injured, or all of the above when exercising. Approximately 80% of the US population suffers from back pain related to non-contact injuries at some point in their lives. Other types of spinal and joint pain are alarmingly high also. Exercise helps with other leading causes of disease and decreased quality of life, but we need to learn how to gain muscle balance for optimal neuromuscular function to achieve our desired health goals.

Education is available in the health and wellness industry for learning to release tension and lengthening overactive muscles, activating the under-active muscles, and integrating the interconnected systems needed for physical activity.

Physical therapists and Personal Trainers with nationally recognized certifications, such as ACSM and NASM, are a great resource. There are also health and wellness programs overseen by physicians, such as the OWLS program at Marina Medical in Normandy Park, Washington, which also can provide guidance in multiple areas of health, including the following topics of proper sleep and enjoyable nutrition.

2. Sleep

"If you don't get enough sleep, you are going to end up sick, fat, and stupid", says Robert Stickgold, one of the world's leading researchers on sleep, in John Ratey's book Go Wild. He also said, "We understood the biological functions of the sex drive, hunger and thirst two thousand years ago, and for sleep we didn't know it a dozen years ago, so the first thing I would suggest is, it is subtle". Even though it is subtle he says, "If you don't sleep, you die". On a study of volunteer college students that were deprived of sleep, their glucose tolerance results came back as prediabetic, with only 4 hours of sleep per night.

Sleep is easy to place last place on our priority lists, but this is the time when muscles are given the opportunity to recover and grow, and weight management is a struggle without enough of it. It can alter insulin levels and hormones that signal satiety, which makes food consumption go up. It also effects cortisol levels and other hormones, the immune system, and cognitive function.

In addition to many other health benefits, getting outside for natural light during the day can make a dramatic difference in your sleep cycle for a variety of reasons. It is also helpful to dim your lights a couple hours before bedtime if you're indoors.

3. Pleasure in Food

It is well known that nutrition is a large determining factor in our health goal success, but what is often overlooked in this area, is the pleasure part of eating.

Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, talks about how our culture is obsessed with eating healthy and yet we are one of the most unhealthy in the world. He brings up the important point of how culture and pleasure have little consideration in food choices.

Even science has acknowledged the importance of enjoyment of food. The nutrition world is a mess and can be confusing to navigate, but one thing can be certain –– food is complex.

A common thread seems to be that one-ingredient-whole foods with little or no processing are good for us, especially the leafy kind. As Michael Pollan would say, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Learning to enjoy cooking and making enjoyable nourishing meals is like taking the “scenic route” in your health journey.