Now that the clocks have gone back, there’s something just that bit more difficult about forcing ourselves out of bed in the mornings and this year the stresses of lockdown have added to our lethargy. But is tweaking your routine the answer?
A 2018 study found that in stressful times creating and sticking to a good routine creates feelings of security, stability, and calm. Not only that but having a good morning routine can increase motivation and boost mood. After the year we’ve had there’s never been a better time to craft a good morning routine.
“Identify three to five things that you would like to do in the morning, that you feel confident you can achieve, and that you feel will benefit your physical or mental wellbeing,” suggests Niels Eék, a psychologist who founded mental wellbeing app, Remente. “You’ll find that within a few weeks these will become a habit, and you may want to incorporate additional elements.”
To help, we’ve spoken to experts from nutrition, psychology, and fitness to put together some ideas for a new winter morning routine.
Start the night before
It’s infinitely easier to get up in the morning when you’ve had a good night’s sleep. The old saying goes that eight hours is about what an adult needs, but this figure varies. Hope Bastine, a sleep psychologist and resident expert for sleep brand Simba suggests a book before bed can make some difference, particularly fiction.
“Stories help us shift down a gear before bed,” explains Bastine. “Our visual cortex and occipital lobe are engaged in imagination, so the analytical pre-frontal cortex quietens down. Embedding stories into our pre-sleep ritual can not only help us to let go of stress, but it provides a bridge for our conscious mind to step over to dreamland.”
Despite the temptation being to turn up the thermostat in winter, Bastine recommends turning the heating down or even off in the bedroom overnight. “Overheating is one of the biggest barriers to restorative and quality sleep,” she says. “In June this year, a government study concluded that sleep problems are growing because energy-efficient homes are too warm at night.”
A survey last year from British Gas found that people are 30 per cent more likely to hit the snooze button on their alarm in winter versus summer, but it’s a bad habit to get into. “They jolt you out of sleep, they basically terrify you,” explains sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley. “That has been shown to increase your heart rate, spike your blood pressure and increase your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, basically because it is really quite stressful to wake up with an alarm clock. To hit ‘snooze’ five more times really isn’t a good start to the day.”
Go for a ‘commute walk’
Even if you’re not commuting to work thanks to lockdown, it can be useful to factor in a quick “fake commute” into your morning by going for a little walk. “A commute plays an important part in our routine, and separates our working day from our leisure time,” says sleep expert Dr Guy Meadows, founder of The Sleep School.
“Every morning, before you start the day, take a ten or twenty minute walk around the block,” he suggests. According to Meadows, the fresh air and exercise will help you sleep better, but more broadly we know from a 2019 study from the University of Western Australia that light exercise first thing improves attention, focus, and decision-making for the rest of the day.
Eat a proper breakfast
Not only is it the most important meal of the day, breakfast should also be the biggest. Studies show that a big meal late in the evening goes against our internal body clock, preventing us from properly digesting food. A 2017 study, from the University of Pennsylvania found that eating late at night raises glucose and insulin levels, both of which can lead to type 2 diabetes. They also found evidence that poor timing of meals can affect cholesterol levels, which can increase the risk of heart disease.
But what should you eat? Well, slow-release carbohydrates like oats and some cereals are good for you as they give you energy throughout the day. They’re also full of fibre which we all need to get more of. According to nutritionist Ian Marber, the average adult eats about 18g of fibre per day, but we need 30g.
Marber also suggests that eggs are very good for you. “There’s no such thing as a superfood, but if there was, eggs would be a good candidate,” he says. “They’re a good source of vitamin D, which is hard to find in food which is why we’re encouraged to supplement. You have a little bit of folate and vitamin B12, which is only found in animal foods.
“Then there’s selenium; a single egg has around 25 per cent of your recommended day’s intake, which is something that’s not missing in the diet but it’s hard to find and is used in helping the body make its own antioxidant defences. You also have protein, which is very important.”
Other morning activities
Once you’ve done these basic things, choosing a few activities to occupy your morning routine will depend on you. You might try “morning pages”, a technique where you write three pages long-hand of anything you want from a diary to a novel, which can help make you more creative.
Or check in with your mental health. “As soon as you wake, rate your mood on a scale of one to 10, where one means you’re feeling totally negative/hopeless and 10 means extremely positive/optimistic,” suggests psychologist Linda Blair. Then go on to do the same for your confidence in tackling the day, your physical wellbeing, and how connected you feel to others.
“You’ll be aware straight away of the area(s) that require your attention,” she says. “Should you break today’s tasks into smaller chunks to increase your sense of accomplishment? Would it be wise to make time for a healthy breakfast, take a power nap after lunch, or promise yourself an early night? Would it help if you arrange to meet up with a good friend soon?”
Perhaps you could make a to-do list, do a short work-out or yoga session online, or even spend some time playing with pets (all things proven to make you more productive and boost your mood).
Eék suggests it’s best to start with easy things: five minutes of meditation you can do from bed, drinking a glass of water, a few gentle push-ups or a stretch. Once you know you can stick to an easy routine, it’s easier to add some more complex things.
“There is no right or wrong when it comes to choosing these activities: just make sure that you choose things that you’ll enjoy, or that you know are necessary, and that you feel are achievable,” says Eék. Completing these daily tasks, no matter how small they are, will make you feel as though you’ve already achieved something, and will help ensure you start the day with a positive mindset.”