From millennials to seniors, health has become a near obsession. Health-related discussions are everywhere, from bestseller lists to nightly news stories to political debates to what seems to be every other product commercial on television. As the saying goes, if you don’t take care of your body, where else are you going to live?
Tom Rath shares the concern. Considered one of the most influential authors of the last decade, he writes about and studies the role of human behavior in health, business, and economics. He’s senior scientist and advisor in the Gallup organization, where he focuses on employee engagement, strengths, and well-being. He’s written several bestsellers, including How Full Is Your Bucket? and Strengths Based Leadership.
I’ve been particularly interested in Rath’s book Eat Move Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes. So I explored his thinking on a range of issues that affect our health and wellness.
Rodger Dean Duncan: In your research, what have you discovered to be the two or three most dangerous myths about health?
Tom Rath: The first myth is that changing your lifestyle requires a major leap such as an entirely new diet. It seems to me that “going on a diet” is almost an admission from the outset that you will stop at some point and revert to less healthful habits. In contrast, what I found is that building small changes into a sustainable lifestyle is what creates meaningful change for good.
Another big myth is that lack of exercise is the primary problem. Personally, I think lack of activity throughout the day is a much bigger issue than people not going to the gym regularly or not exercising for 30 minutes a day. Even if you do have a regular exercise regimen, that will not offset eight or 10 hours of sitting throughout the day.
Then the third myth, that I have been guilty of telling myself for decades, is that I can always “get by” with fewer hours of sleep if I have a lot to get done. The more I studied this research, the clearer it is to me that I actually need more sleep in order to be as effective as possible on important days. Sleep is essentially a positive investment, yet many of us treat it as the first expense we cast aside.
Duncan: In a nutshell, how are good eating, exercise, and sleeping habits interdependent?
Rath: It’s simply easier to work on all three elements at the same time. If you try to improve in just one of these areas in isolation, you are less likely to succeed compared to what occurs if you work on three of them at once. While the research on this topic is fairly recent, it makes sense when you think about the way a poor night’s sleep can lead to bad dietary choices the next morning, less energy for exercise, and so on.
Duncan: It makes sense that people with overall good health tend to perform better. Specifically, how can good eating, exercise, and sleeping habits help a person who’s in a leadership role?
Rath: The more time I spend on this topic, I think modeling good health will turn out to be one of the most important leadership priorities over the next quarter century. We have developed a lifestyle, at least here in the United States, that is not sustainable for the future. In order to lead us out of this, we need the people who guide the largest social networks in our society to show us how we can fix this colossal problem.
My hope is that some of the best leaders in our society see that they need to be role models and show followers how important it is to eat, move, and sleep well. If leaders prioritize the health and well-being of their people, instead of simply viewing workers as a means to an end, that will be a much greater contribution to society over time.
Duncan: How can the discipline of maintaining good health habits affect our ability to make good choices in other areas of our lives?
Rath: Creating good health starts with small choices that make it even easier to create positive change over time. I think the same approach applies to almost any area of life. Our lives are essentially the product of these little moments that accumulate over time. If you are able to improve your health one decision at a time, it should also make it easier to make better choices about what you are doing at work, how you are spending your money, your relationships, and what you do for your community.
Duncan: Why do so many people talk a good game about health habits while still failing to take very good care of themselves?
Rath: That may be the biggest challenge we face today, at least in terms of helping people to improve their own health. So many of us are wired to put other people and other priorities ahead of our own basic health. Just think about professionals like nurses and teachers who, almost by nature, put the priorities of patients and students ahead of their own. While this is admirable and done with the best of intentions, there are consequences.
If you fail to take care of your own health first, there is no way you can be as effective for others as the world needs you to be. Whether you are in nursing, teaching, manufacturing, or management, you will have far less energy tomorrow if you do not eat, move, and sleep well today. The people you serve need you to be at your best, and that starts by putting your own health first.