How to Embrace Morning Routines for Well-Being

Whether it’s exercise or reflection, adopting a morning wellness habit can unleash your potential

man tying shoes
Bill Bass, left, and his F3 brethren enjoy volunteer-led workouts on most mornings. Photo courtesy of Bill Bass.

“I’ll go out and push myself hard and if I have anxiety about anything, I can let it out there,” Bass said.

The morning rush from wake-up to work can be chaotic, filled with numerous tasks in limited time, accompanied by daily challenges.

Yet, colleagues like Bass who incorporate a healthy routine or habit in the morning enhance their overall well-being.

“When you wake up in the morning to do something that you want to do, whatever it might be, you go into your day with a much more purposeful intention,” said Shannon Byrne, Clinical Psychologist and Assistant Professor in Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “When you do these things, exercise in particular, you boost your cognitive function and you’re actually in a better place for the rest of the day.”

Discover the secrets of early morning boosts from colleagues:

Valuable Quiet

Amanda Gruebel finds balance by including a few moments of peace into her morning routine. Photo courtesy of Amanda Gruebel.

On workdays, Assistant Director of Human Resources at Duke Raleigh Hospital Amanda Gruebel has plenty to keep her mind busy. From serving as a link between hospital leaders and team members, to setting up onboarding sessions and helping teams build healthy cultures, her days are fast paced.

That’s why she makes sure that her mornings are slow.

Gruebel, who splits her week between working on-site and from her Burlington home, said she’s found balance by building in extra time into her morning routine so she can enjoy some peaceful quiet before her work preparations begin.

She said her habit is informal, she sets her alarm for around 5 a.m. so she can enjoy coffee, read the latest news on her phone or simply reflect on what she hopes to get out of the day ahead.

“For years, I woke up and had to rush out the door to get to work on time,” Gruebel said. “Since COVID has allowed more flexibility, I use that time for self-care and starting my day intentionally.”

Shannon Byrne, of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, said reserving time to meditate, reflect or enjoy a few moments of peace during the morning can reduce stress and send you into the day with mental and emotional clarity.

“We are our most effective, and emotionally regulated, when our mind is present in the moment we’re in,” Byrne said. “When we can do that in the morning, to help our brain to be present in that moment, it can help us be present for the rest of the day.”

Get Moving

A dose of morning exercise, often with her dog, Panda, helps Shannon Byrne feel energized heading into her day. Photo courtesy of Shannon Byrne.

Whether she’s walking her dog Panda around her Durham neighborhood or venturing to the Downtown Durham YMCA for early morning weight training, cycling or PiYo classes – a mix of yoga and Pilates –Duke Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences' Shannon Byrne tries to start most days with exercise.

“I always feel better when I do something,” Byrne said. “If there’s a morning when I have to get going right away and I can’t get to the gym, or if it’s raining and I can’t walk the dog, I feel it the rest of the day.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week, which breaks down to 30 minutes per day for five days.

And research shows that adding more physical activity to your day may help improve mental function.

In addition to making sure you get to bed earlier, it’s important to be patient when building a morning exercise habit. Adjusting normal rhythms can take time, but if you stick with the new routine, it will eventually feel more natural.

And it’s also helpful to start a new morning exercise routine in the summer, when there’s more daylight, and an early morning walk or run doesn’t feel quite as daunting.

“That little bit of exercise can boost your mood, reduce depression and anxiety and help you build a sense of mastery,” Byrne said.

A Beneficial Breakfast

Before the pandemic, hurried mornings left Terri Beck with little time for healthy breakfasts. Instead, she’d often find herself at her campus desk in the morning feeling weak and jittery. That often led to quick trips to the nearby Whole Foods breakfast buffet for a calorie-heavy dose of eggs and bacon, hashbrowns.

With more flexibility in her morning, Terri Beck has been able to create healthy, satisfying breakfasts. Photo courtesy of Terri Beck.

After embracing a hybrid schedule in the wake of the pandemic, Beck, Duke Alumni Engagement and Development’s Human Resources Representative for Recruitment, found a healthier morning routine.

With a little more time and planning, Beck’s breakfasts now consist of a piece of fruit – usually an apple or banana – a handful of nuts and a frittata made in advance.

“That gets me through the entire morning,” Beck said. “It gives me a more consistent amount of energy throughout the day.”

When thinking of building your own healthy breakfast, Esther Granville, Nutrition Program Manager for LIVE FOR LIFE, Duke’s employee wellness program, recommends including three elements: whole grains, lean proteins and fruit.

Food with whole grains – such as whole wheat toast or many cereals – provide fiber that helps with digestion. Lean proteins in yogurt, cottage cheese, peanut butter or eggs, help stabilize blood sugar levels and help people feel full longer. And fruit provides helpful micronutrients while often being low in calories.

For people who don’t like to eat in the morning, or who don’t feel they have the time, Granville recommends starting small, perhaps eating a piece of fruit or a cup of yogurt, and looking into items that can be prepared in advance, such as hard-boiled eggs or overnight oatmeal.

“People often have a whole busy schedule planned, so being prepared to eat a healthy breakfast can be a challenge,” Granville said. “But a well-balanced breakfast each morning provides your body with the energy it needs and it really does help your concentration.”

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