The Importance of Routines

Things are crazy right now. We all know this and that’s the bad news. The good news is, we have the power to make them a little less crazy. While everything probably seems a little off right now there are small, concrete steps we can take to create some semblance of normalcy in our daily lives. If you’ve ever care for children or even pets, you know how crucial maintaining a normal daily schedule is for their health, well being, and emotional stability. You are no different!

Disclaimer: This post is not intended as a substitute for medical or health advice. I cannot diagnose you from my computer at home. If you have symptoms of pain or other issues please see a qualified health practitioner. Before making any changes to your lifestyle that may affect your health, first check with a qualified healthcare professional.

Many people right now are missing the normal daily markers for their routines. Schedules are all over the place. Where you go (if anywhere), who you see, and even what you do day to day may be wildly different than it was even a few short weeks ago. The key here is to try to cultivate as much stability and regularity into your daily life as you can. That also includes scheduling downtime to rest and recover. Today I’m going to discuss 5 basic ways our bodies keep track of our natural rhythms or “internal clocks” and what you can do to keep yourself on schedule.

5 Basic Time-Givers

A zeitgeber is “any environmental cue that entrains or synchronizes an organism’s biological rhythms to the Earth’s 24-hour light/dark cycle and 12-month cycle .” Zeitgeber means “time-giver” in German but can be understood as the way your body keeps track of what time it is from a clock and calendar perspective. This helps regulate and synchronize the processes that keep you healthy.

There are 5 basic ways your body keeps track of time and coordinates its internal processes.

1. Light

Sunlight is our signal to wake up and be active! Lack of daylight tells us it’s time for sleep. It’s important to maintain your normal sleep schedule as much as possible. That’s why you should get up the same time every day and maintain a bedtime as best as you can. While it may be tempting to use this downtime as an excuse to sleep in or stay up late watching movies, your body will thank you for sticking to a regular schedule.

Getting some light first thing in the morning is important for entraining your circadian rhythms. Similarly, limited artificial light at night time is important to induce sleep. Even small amounts of blue light have been shown to disrupt melatonin secretion (the sleep hormone). While the impact seems to be bigger on kids, adults should also reduce their exposure to screens at night to improve their sleep and overall health. It only takes 8 lux, about twice the strength of a night light, to disrupt circadian rhythms.

What To Do About It:

Turn off all screens at least one hour before bed

Candles are best, but at least switch to dimmed lights after dark

Take the TV out of your bedroom

Use black out curtains

If you can’t pry the phone from your hands at least try those dorky blue-light blocking glasses. They may help mitigate the decrease in melatonin secretion.

Pro-tip: I tell patients that if you can still see your hand at arm’s length with the lights out, there’s too much light in your room.

2. Physical Activity

Sunlight can signal to your brain that it’s time to be active but activity can also tell your brain what time it is. The effect of exercise may be even greater when combined with exposure to light. By being active during the day time, you can help to entrain your normal, healthy circadian rhythms.

What To Do About It:

Stay active throughout the day but tune down at sundown

Take breaks from sitting

Take on major projects like cleaning out the closet or garage during the day, not at 9 pm in a fit of quarantined-induced mania

Avoid exercising at night, especially if you find that it makes it more difficult to sleep

Pro-tip: Use this extended quarantine period to finally fit regular exercise into your schedule. Design your ideal daily routine that includes some physical activity and make it a habit now so that when things get back to business as usual, you have the routine down.

3. Food

Because people are normally active during the day, this is also when we should be eating. It turns out that the timing of your meals regulates your internal clock. We all know that if we feed children or pets at varying times it wrecks their mood, their energy crashes and no one has a good time. Why is it then that we think adults can get away with it any better?

What To Do About It:

Eat 2-3 meals per day and avoid grazing

Plan out your meals for the week. It will minimize your need to go shopping and limit your interaction with other people thereby reducing your exposure to infection. It will also streamline your shopping if you know what you’re buying and help you make healthier meals if you can plan ahead.

Eat at the same time every day

Eat dinner as early as is reasonable. Don’t go to bed on a full stomach after you just ate

Pro-tip: Meal prepping, (cooking meals for the week in bulk) can save money, shorten the total time you spend cooking during the week, keep your eating choices healthier, maintain caloric balance and manage portion sizes, and gives you a chance to brag on social media when you take pretty pictures of all the food you made.

4. Social Interactions

People are social animals. So much so that the CDC even changed the term du jour from “social distancing” to “physical distancing” because people need to socialize to stay healthy. The emphasis right now should be about physically distancing oneself, not socially. Because humans are social animals, and are active during the day, it makes sense that the bulk of social interactions should occur during daylight hours as well.

What To Do About It:

Reach out to friends and family during the day

Interact with people online, through video chats, phone calls etc to stay connected without increasing your exposure by physical proximity

Consider avoiding TV at night (light exposure) but especially shows involving people. Instead pick entertainment choices like nature documentaries as an example

Pro-Tip: Most phones have settings that allow you to manage how people are able to contact you. Put your phone down at night and limit unnecessary socializing close to bed. Make the most of mood-boosting social interaction during the day to keep you connected and feeling at your best.

5. Temperature

Ambient temperature can affect sleep quality. Heat, especially humid heat can negatively impact the quality of your sleep. Cold signals to your body that it’s time for rest and sleep. Your internal body temperature is also on a cycle and you get a little warmer during the day, and a little colder at night. Make sure you heat up your house during the day and let it cool down at night. If you’re having a difficult time getting to sleep, consider lowering your thermostat a few degrees and see if that helps.

What To Do About It:

Keep your living space at a comfortable temperature during the day

Allow your bedroom to cool at night to encourage better sleep and allow your core temperature to drop to help you get to sleep

Pro-Tip: Take a hot bath before bed. Your skin will vasodilate, releasing a lot of heat, lowering your body temperature and helping you get to sleep more easily.

Take Home

When things get a little crazy, this is the best time to double down on routines because they help organize our days as well as maintain our health. The take home here is that you need a schedule to keep you balanced as well as feeling and operating at your best. We all know that children and pets need regular schedules to maintain their health as well as their mood. You’re no different! Take good care of yourself, if for no other reason than so you can take care of others.