A Rigid Routine Is Key to a Healthy Life
Experts say that to stay well, we need more ‘zeitgebers’ — things like light exposure, exercise, and mealtimes
When the pandemic first hit, stay-at-home took away the normal order of your day. Schedules were thrown out the window, only to be loosely pieced back together.
During a time when mental and physical health are more important than ever, that’s not great, experts say. In fact, experts say that it’s time to tighten up your routine. After weathering the pandemic for the last few months, it’s time for a change.
Routine is where humans thrive. A recent survey from USC’s Center for the Digital Future found that roughly one-third of adults say they miss having set routines in their lives. But it’s more than comfort. “Our bodies naturally want to create rhythms for everything from hormone release to digestion, cognitive functioning, and athletic ability, body temperature, and alertness,” says Christopher Winter, MD, owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. As your body knows what to expect, it can calibrate responses so you can function at your best. “Your brain doesn’t do things accidentally,” he says.
With the shift of stay-at-home orders, schools being closed, and WFH, you lost the main anchors. “As we got rid of those, it created problems for people as they decided to sleep, eat, and exercise whenever they wanted. The major inputs into our circadian rhythm were gone,” says Winter.
Experts call them zeitgebers. “Zeitgeber is a German word that literally means ‘time-giver,’” says researcher Philip Lewis, PhD of the University of Cologne in Germany. Each zeitgeber delivers timing cues to the body’s 24-hour clock, or circadian system. Zeitgebers include light exposure, exercise, and mealtimes, according to research. In a new study published in Chronobiology International, Lewis writes about how the pandemic has negatively impacted our circadian rhythms and why regular timing of everyday activity is needed to sync up your body clock.
“Our bodies naturally want to create rhythms for everything from hormone release to digestion, cognitive functioning, and athletic ability, body temperature, and alertness.”
A great term to remember is “zeitgeber hygiene,” which roughly refers to consistently performing zeitgebers in order to keep your body clock in check and support your health, according to a study Lewis co-authored in Nature Reviews Endocrinology this year. One clue your zeitgeber hygiene is out of whack — you feel kinda crappy. “The short-term effects are probably most relevant to most people who have lost routines because of the pandemic. Cognitively, mood and alertness can be depressed, you can become more irritable, and have more trouble focusing and working,” says Lewis.
You will thrive with more structure — a lot more. Let’s take two scenarios: Person A wakes up, showers, does a few hours of work, eats lunch, and then works for a couple hours longer. Sounds like a schedule! However, that’s radically different from Person B, who showers at 8 a.m., has breakfast at 9 a.m., works until 12 p.m., has lunch, and then goes back to work from 1p.m. to 3 p.m, explains Matt Traube, MFT, a licensed clinical psychotherapist in Santa Barbara, California. “For Person A, their habits depend on willpower. For Person B, it’s conditioned. Their day is set. It takes the thinking out of it so you can get to the doing,” he says.
Not only are habits — and hopefully healthy habits — engrained and automatic in your day, but your body is synced to them. “Once in a routine of good zeitgeber hygiene, it’s easier to stay in the routine because your circadian timing system comes to expect it. You get hungry when you should get hungry, you have willpower to exercise and to avoid snacky foods, and you get sleepy in anticipation of your regular sleep time,” says Lewis.
Here’s how to put these zeitgebers into practice: When you get up, do your normal routine (e.g. drink coffee and read emails) in front of a window for a half hour to get bright light exposure, says Phyllis Zee, MD, PhD, chief of sleep medicine in the department of neurology at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago. (Zee’s research has focused on how light exposure benefits cognition, mood, and metabolism.)
One clue your zeitgeber hygiene is out of whack: You feel kinda crappy.
Then, look at when you’re being active or exercising. If your sleep has been hopelessly off or you’re struggling to get going in the morning, use the power of the exercise zeitgeber to do the work for you. “Light is still regarded as the most important thing for influencing the body clock, but minute-for-minute, exercise might be comparable,” says Shawn Youngstedt, PhD, a professor at Arizona State University. His research in The Journal of Physiology in 2019 found that people who exercised in the morning or early afternoon advanced their body clock. Meaning: by scheduling physical activity early enough, you’ll prime your body to get sleepier earlier at night, making it easier to wake up in the morning. Combining exercise with light — like going for a run or bike ride outside, particularly in the morning — is the best thing you can do to queue up your body.
Ideally, set a routine for bedtimes, mealtimes, and exercise, says Zee. “Seventy-five percent of the time, follow that same schedule,” she says. (This goal helps perfectionistic folks build in some flexibility, and ensures more haphazard people are aiming high enough.) For example, keep your schedule strict for three days in a row. Then, it’s okay to be less regular one day, she says. Just try not to deviate from the timing of each of those things by more than one hour.
At the same time, don’t force it. Just ate a big breakfast and now you’re not that hungry for a full meal at noon? “Have half a snack bar to remind your body and give input into your brain that this is lunchtime,” suggests Winter.
Ultimately, bodies are designed to adapt. Traube agrees: “If you need to deviate from the normal routine for a day or two, that is fine, but we want to get back on track.” Perfection isn’t necessary, and it can be harmful in some instances. If you find that it hurts you — the rigidity is putting undue stress on your household or it’s triggering for disordered eating habits — then do what serves your health or family dynamic best.