Photo Credit: Michael Dawson (RTB2020)

Hippocrates: ‘A wise man should consider that health is the greatest of human blessings and learn how, by his own thought, to derive benefit from his illnesses’. 

Our greatest blessing is our health and our ability to learn and adapt during adverse times, which allows us to become the best version of ourselves. Over the health defining series our goal has been to challenge your ways of thinking about your health. We have reflected on health and well-being and looked at the bigger picture, while encouraging you to take responsibility for your health. We then encouraged you to be critical of the information you see and read, to help you make informed decisions. This next blog is about what you can do now; how can you implement the information from the previous blogs and use it as a turning point for your health. 

We will always focus on how we can help you achieve your goals, but our goal in its raw form is to help you be a healthy person. We discussed in blog 2 that a healthy person is one that adapts to the physical and emotional stress placed on them. A healthy body is one that will orchestrate an appropriate response to the stress and allow for adaptation. This makes us more resilient. 

So what practices can we put in place to help us achieve healthy physiology? 

There are so many components that can contribute to health, and this comes back to understanding what works for you as a person, and understanding that the human body is dynamic and adaptable. As a scientist I am always going to value the input of data from a client to help me make an informed decision on how their body is tracking and responding. Without data or without valuable information we are guessing, and to make the best decisions we need evidence. In other words ‘test don’t guess’. There are some basic measures that you can start recording now that will help you to start building a picture of how your body is responding physiologically to your current environment, workload, stress and training.

Basic testing and measurements that I encourage everyone to record and try:

  1. Resting heart rate and heart rate variability (via apps on the phone) to assess nervous system activation in the body.
  2. Getting 2-3 blood tests a year as standard health check tests that can be used to see how your body is responding physiologically. 
  3. Nutrition. There is no one size fits all and understanding your physiology can help you understand what you need nutritionally.
  4. Track your sleep and look at ways to improve your sleep hygiene. Sleep is the best form of recovery that you can ever give your body.

For those that are athletes, the extras that you can add:

  1. Taking time to understand your biomechanics and how you move. Where are your limitations and how can you work with your body to move well. Or what can you improve? 
  2. Test your physiology, don’t guess. Understand your thresholds and use heart rate to control your pace and intensity. Don’t get caught up training in a grey zone where you train your easy sessions too hard and then are too fatigued to hit these harder sessions. In this case variety is the spice of life. 
  3. Massage and Physio is not a special treat! It should be a regular practice that you implement in your training schedule. 
  4. Cross train. You would be amazed at the fitness you can gain from moving the body in a different way. For example swimming is hugely beneficial for building the aerobic engine of an athlete, but is low impact so can help alleviate forces through the lower limbs in runners. 

One thing we also must consider is that change does not happen overnight, and our bodies need time to adapt. Nutritional changes may take longer to feel like they have improved or resulted in a change. It is important to remember this when you start to move forward and take control of your health. A key factor to consider is sustainability. Your nutritional plan should be affordable, enjoyable, time effective and provide the adequate nutrients required for your body. If there are any gaps in your nutrition then that allows us the opportunity to work with you to identify what areas you can improve to create a more sustainable dietary pattern  (just like thinking how we can improve our cake). The only person that dictates what food is eaten is you. You decide what goes in the trolley at the supermarket (income can be a huge factor for some), you are the one who decides what is included in a meal, how it is prepared and cooked and what the serving size is. Through the blog series we wanted you to think about how you can take charge of your health and nutritionally it is being able to understand the science and research.

So my tips for the basic nutritional needs that everyone should meet:

  1. Eat. Your. Fruit. And. Vegetables! Yes fruit has sugar but it also has vitamins, water and dietary fibre (which helps slowly release the sugar in fruits). To prevent health related disease, we know that eating 5 – 7 servings of fruit and vegetables (½ a cup = 1 serve)  a day is optimal (at least 3 vegetables and 2 fruit). Be mindful that if you are eating starchy vegetables like potatoes and kumara, they will also count towards your carbohydrate intake.
  2. Take a look at your plate. If you were to ask me what an optimal plate looks like, I would tell you 3 things:
    a) It has a source of every macronutrient (carbohydrate, fat and protein).
    b) It is colourful.
    c) It provides adequate energy for your needs (physiological functioning and exercise).
  3. What type of eater are you? Not everyone likes to eat 3 meals a day at a specific time, some people like 6 smaller meals/snacks, others like 5 or 2. What you want to achieve is a balance in your lifestyle, so that may mean having smaller meals frequently to help steady energy levels. Be aware of your hunger cues. Eat with a purpose and refer back to suggestion 1 and 2.
  4. Don’t be restrictive. This may seem odd to put this in here, but it is for a good reason. When we restrict food and food groups we can create bad habits and relationships with foods. Instead, prioritise the nutrients you need to improve your health. Then have those enjoyable moments when you eat what you feel like without feeling you need to work it off or feel guilty. 

Now about those toppings on the cake- how do we make your dietary plan right for you?

This is where we see the relationship between physiology and nutrition. An assessment and understanding of your physiology will provide us with details about how your body is functioning right now. For example, how you are adapting to stress, how you are performing during exercise, how you are recovering from exercise. Then using the data we have collected about your physiology and applying what we know from science, we can make an informed decision about how to support you nutritionally.

From an athletic perspective this will mean that nutritionally you should be ticking the majority of the boxes from the above 4 recommendations. But here are some ideas you can implement to help push your performance to the next level.

Athlete specific recommendations:

  1. Organise and plan meals and snacks pre/during/after training. This is important because you don’t want to be stuck in a situation without food. It is important that you are getting the right nutrients in before training to maximise your performance during that session. You also want to be prepared for after training to restore energy and help the body recover and positively adapt to training. Create a plan that allows you to prioritise nutrients and energy requirements so that you are not overeating or under-eating, and you are maximising your training adaptations. 
  2. An important aspect for an athlete is making sure you are getting adequate energy into the tank. This helps prevent fatigue, injury and malnutrition. It is also important in athletes that are in a weighted specific sport or who are trying to maximise their power to weight ratio. The distribution of food intake to support training and recovery is key, and will mean scheduling meals and snacks appropriately before and after training.
  3. Supplements for athletes are the decorations on the cake. Supplements will never replace food or automatically improve your performance. As we talked about in blog 3, typically experiments are completed within a lab with all variables controlled. This mean that results from the lab may not directly translate to the real world. If you are thinking about taking supplements it is important to ask yourself why you are taking this and what the benefit is. It is also important to ensure that your supplement is batch tested, or alternatively you could check through online apps. Finally, you should consider if you can get this nutrient through a food source first. If not, then consider speaking to a registered nutritionist or dietitian before commencing supplementation, even if it is for health needs (i.e. iron, vit D etc.) 
  4. Periodized nutrition – with nutrition being a factor that affects your physiology we need to consider how we can use it to achieve performance improvements. Just like a coach will periodise your training so that you have harder sessions, longer aerobic sessions, rest days and easy days, so should your nutrition be periodised to match the daily fluctuations in training. On hard days, or longer training days, your food intake should be higher and there should be an increase in protein to support recovery and sufficient carbohydrates to help you maintain your effort. On easier, or rest days, you can have slightly smaller meals that still focus on protein but may have slightly lower carbohydrates to reflect that this day is for repairing the body and letting it absorb the training load. Working with a registered nutritionist or dietitian to achieve this periodisation can be beneficial for you as an athlete. Team USA nutrition has some really good plate models for athletes and their training days too which can be a good place to start. 

A lot of the time in New Zealand we get stuck into this ‘she’ll be right’ mentality. But our focus over this blog series has been to challenge you to change the way you view your health so that you can say, ‘yes I am healthy, and I feel good’. Some of these changes mean broadening your understanding of your physiology and how it is affecting your body right now. Some changes mean creating a healthy and sustainable nutrition plan. Some changes mean going to see the physio and massage therapist with the aim of preventing injuries and maintaining your body’s ability to move and function. Now is the perfect time to start implementing new practices and creating good habits that can help you in the long run.

So take a moment to ponder: what are 1-2 things that you can change that will help you be healthy, both physically, mentally and emotionally?
We challenge you to try 2 of these and implement them into your daily activities. We hope you enjoy spending more time invested in yourself and hopefully along the way you enjoy the process of learning what makes you the best version of you. 

Dr Claire Badenhorst
Eliot Fenton

We reckon Sports Lab is the dream team. And these two are like a dream team within a dream team.
Dr Claire Badenhorst  is our physiologist (PhD Exercise Physiology, Academic at Massey University in Auckland) with research focus areas currently in female health, iron deficiency and endurance athletes.
Eliot Fenton is our nutritionist, currently completing his Masters of Science in Nutrition and Dietetics. As physiology and nutrition are closely aligned, these two more often than not working with our Sports Lab clients in a truly tailored and multidisciplinary way.