Disclaimer: Peter Alexandrou is not a qualified personal trainer, psychiatrist, nutritionist, sleep coach or shaman.Always, Always, ALWAYS do your own research and due diligence before trying anything involving drastic changes to your body and/or mind.
The Healthy Actor
Being an actor, or any kind of artist is an athletic event. You need endurance, stamina, drive, heart, grit and a great hairdresser?As my tax man put it when I was gathering my acting related expenses, “The things that most people do out of necessity are things you need to do for your career (and therefore can add them as an expense)”.Being an actor is being a human.Being a human takes work, endless maintenance and upkeep both inside and out.From picking the most complimentary hair style for the shape of your face, to picking the therapist that suits you the best. From eating right, to exercising, to meditating in order to keep the white noise of self-deprecating bullshit to a minimum. From knowing what foods to avoid to what foods you must eat. Am I allowed to eat cheese past the age of 30? To picking the right clothes for an audition versus what to wear when getting your headshots updated. From going to the dentist to knowing weather you should wax, shave or laser. Do I need a facial if I’m a guy? Does anyone really notice what state my shoes are in and if they do, are they making a judgement call on me because of it? Yes and probably. From knowing which survival job would cause the least amount of emotional distress to knowing when to say no to an acting job (yes, that’s an option). I know this is a lot to cover, but this article series is to help give a little insight into the daily, weekly, monthly and annul habits that can give you a bump up in confidence and take away some of the guessing about things you may not usually want to ask about because you think you should know it already.
Today I am going to touch on the topics of Sleeping, Eating, Staying in Shape and Mental Health.
And as always, if you have a topic you want explained in more depth, please reach out to us or ask us to write about it!
Sleeping:Let’s start at the beginning. When do you wake up? What time did you go to bed? Do you wake up at the same time everyday or do you sleep and wake like a cat? Are you hungover more than 3 days of the week? Is the hangover a badge of honor and something you laugh about or something you’re beginning to regret and want to stop?There are dozens of science based reasons why sleep is important. Neuroscientist Professor Matthew Walker has A LOT to say about sleeping habits. I highly recommend watching his Master Class or any of his interviews on YouTube. There are a few key things that I was surprised to learn that I thought of as normal and found out are actually not that good for your sleeping habits.Some of the common misconceptions around sleep are things like, ‘I can survive on 3-4 hours this week and I’ll catch up on sleep on the weekend’. I have done this 100’s of times. The bargaining that happens when it comes time to sleep is a daily fight between the inner child that wants to stay up and the reasonable, boring adult that says, ‘No. Sleep now.’ The inner child is on a hot streak at the moment… charming little bastard.The term for this is ‘Sleep Debt’ according to Matthew Walker. This is exactly what it implies. Let’s say you’re functioning on 3-4 hours of sleep from Monday to Friday and your plan is to ‘catch up’ on sleep on the weekend. This is flawed for the basic reason that hours of sleep are not comparable to money. You can’t borrow hours of sleep and pay them back when they’re due. When you lose hours of sleep, you lose those hours of sleep, period.Think of it this way: You can’t go back in time and add an extra hour of sleep to each day by sleeping 12 hours on Saturday. The body doesn’t work like that. If you’re sleep deprived for multiple days in a row, you accumulate fatigue for those days. And to rectify it, you just need to add consistency to your sleeping habits.Consistency will save you. Here are a few tips on how to correct your sleeping habits going forward
1. Vitamin D – 30 minutes of natural sunlight a day can help regulate your sleeping patterns. Incidentally, dimming the lights around bedtime also helps a lot. Turn your screens down or to ‘night mode’ and try and avoid bright artificial light close to bed time.
2. Avoid Intense Exercise – Working out late at night can definitely impair sleep performance. Try to leave at least 3-4 hours between the time you work out and time you plan to be in bed.
3. Drinking and Eating – A little late night snack is fine but try and avoid large meals and lots of fluids before bed. Sleeping through indigestion and constant pee breaks is not ideal for a full nights rest. Alcohol is also a sleep inhibitor, contrary to most peoples opinions. Too much alcohol can inhibit your breathing and reduce your REM sleep. A nightcap is fine. Eight nightcaps? Nah.
4. Get up – If you find yourself staring at the ceiling wondering when you’re going to fall asleep. Don’t. Get up, read something (avoid bright screens), meditate or anything you find relaxing until you feel tired enough to try and sleep again.
5. Routines and Rituals – Going to sleep and waking up at the same time is the best tool you have to facilitate consistent, quality sleep. Also try and avoid doing anything on your bed other than sleep and playtimes 😉 This will help your brain affiliate your bed with sleeping and make it easier to dose off.
Eating:Ask anyone what you should be eating, and they will no doubt have loads of unofficial, nonresearched advice on how you should be stocking your fridge and pantry. The simple truth is you should eat when you are hungry, and you should eat clean, organic foods whenever possible and avoid excess sugars and trans fats. Simple right? Not really if you don’t know where to look, shop or order from. Personally, I avoid animal products, gluten, soy and alcohol. That’s a personal preference and works for me. But if you love all those things and refuse to part with them, that’s totally fine as well. The only thing I would question is quantity. A slice of bread with butter on it is an amazing, simple snack. 5 slices of bread? That not so optimal.I don’t like the idea of dieting or cleanses. I don’t like to have too many conditions on what I eat as I find it restricting and irritating. I prefer to think of the way I eat as just another lifestyle choice I maintain. Why? When I am restricting myself from something, I want it more. If I say to myself, ‘No sugar this week! You ate 4 cookies yesterday, so you’re banned for 5 days!’ Now all I want to do is the thing I’m not allowed to do, and I fixate, bargain and eventually break my own rules and indulge again. Instead, I try and say, ‘Just a little. Maybe a little more. Okay that’s it.’ And that’s it. No chastising or berating for things I ‘should not have done.’If you really have no idea what to eat or when, I recommend looking up The Whole 30. This isn’t a complete juxtaposition to my previous point. It is essentially an elimination of all major food groups that are considered either bloating or reactive foods, then slowly reintroducing those foods back into your daily life to see how they react to your body. It also does wonders for your relationship to food in general. It is very challenging to do the entire 30 days, but I assure you that the results, for me anyway, were life changing in terms of understanding what certain foods do to my body. This was partly because during the 30 days I read the label of EVERYTHING I ate. Just that alone will inform your choices a lot!Another thing to consider is emotional attachment to eating and food. Do you eat more when you’re sad? I eat when I’m happy. I was raised in a Greek household and food held a particularly high reverence growing up. Food was celebrated, adored and almost worshipped. Every family event was filled with delicious foods. I affiliate eating with good times (My mother also happens to be an amazing cook. So is my Dad). Most people I know eat excessively when they are depressed, then get depressed because they ate too much then eat more to self sooth the initial off set. This is not uncommon at all. This is also not easy to combat. It takes a curiosity of your own habits and designing a game plan to change them if you feel like they need to be changed.Here are a few tips to help you manage your calorie intake.
1. Try the Whole 30 – Here is a link to the website that has all information: www.whole30.com
2. Keep a food journal – This is something I would never do but my wife does religiously. She plans and writes down all the things she eats when she has a specific goal she’s attempting. She swears by it. I personally find it cumbersome. But to each his/her/their own, I guess.
3. Ask if you’re actually hungry – This one might sound silly, but as a frequent ‘bored eater’ I find myself asking myself, ‘Are you hungry or bored? You’re bored? Don’t eat that, go do something else! Eat when you’re actually hungry’. (I talk to myself a lot)Don’t be too strict with yourself. Be reasonable and be as honest with your hunger levels as you can. Try to see food as fuel, not an activity to fill the time… some say…
4. Plan your meals – This one is highly recommended by several food experts. This is great for you to keep tabs on exactly what you’re eating, where the food is coming from and how much of it you are eating. It is also a great money saver as you will tend to eat out less when you have a weekly plan to follow.
5. Eat Slowly – Again, this seems a little silly or obvious, but it is in the same vein as ‘Stop and smell the roses.’ In this case, stop and taste your food. Chew slowly and deliberately, taste as many of the ingredients as you can in what you are eating. Savor it, enjoy it, experience it. Eating can also be a very sensual experience.
Staying in shape:Similar to eating, ask anyone what you should do to keep in shape, and they will undoubtedly have a plethora of tips, advice, myths and folklore related to how you should do it. And in many cases, they might even be right. But is it right for you?As an actor a lucid body is pretty much non-negotiable. Being an actor is being a human and humans move in millions of different ways depending on their work, location, temperature, status, ability, deformity, you get the point. This doesn’t mean that every actor has to have an 8 pack and be able to squat 1000 lbs. Far from it. But you need to have a pretty in depth understanding of your own instrument and its limitations. Like Bruce Lee said, ‘Use no way as way, no limitation as limitation.’ But the Bruce Lee quote you are most likely familiar with is, ‘Be like water.’ There is acting advice gold in the entire quote which goes, ‘Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.’There is a lot to unpack there so I won’t get into every point right now. But if you want to keep reading more about the philosophy of Bruce Lee, pick up a copy of The Tao Of Jeet Kune Do. The basic principle here is to be adaptive to whatever is happening which as an actor is pretty much the entire job description. Being on stage is very much like being in a boxing ring or an octagon. You rehearse/train until all your instincts are poised to react to the series of everts you think are going to happen. Then you get up there and forget your first line or get punched in the face and the game plan flies out the window and you rely entirely on instinct, which is where you find out if what you rehearsed and trained for work or not. Then you adjust as you go. Win or lose, you learn what works and what doesn’t. *I once forgot the first line of a scene in a Shakespeare play and improvised for 3 lines before my brain decided to join me once more and not many people noticed.But what does my body need to be in shape/healthy?This varies from person to person obviously, but there are certain universal truths to living happily inside your own skin. Here are another 5 points to help you make a plan if you feel so inclined.
1. Stretch – There are 100’s of reasons to stretch. Do it as often as you can. Before exercise, after exercise. Before bed or just as you’re waking up. Before an audition. After a large bowl of pasta… Stretching improves blood flow, flexibility, posture, muscle soreness and on and on. It is the primer to any activity that involves movement. Do yoga, Pilates, martial arts, Qui Gong, Tai Chi as often as you can. There are literally thousands of free classes on YouTube for any of these practices. All you need is a little floor space and a body (preferably your own). Stretching helps prevent injury, which for me is the biggest reason to do it. It also makes you feel more grounded and improves the quality of your breathing. Easier breathing? Do you really need more reasons?
2. Get in that cardio – Most experts will say that light cardio 5 days a week is fine. Intense cardio 3-4 days is great too. This totally depends on your ability and preference. Personally, I try and get in about 4-5 cardio-based workouts a week. I also like to mix it up to prevent boredom. Some days I spin (Peloton Junkie), some days I jump rope and sometimes I just look up a 20-minute Tabata class on YouTube and grind that out and call it a day. Some prefer running, although as I edge ever so close to 40 I think preserving my knees is the more attractive option. But to each their own. I don’t think the activity is as important as consistency in this case. If you move and get your heart rate up on a daily basis, you’re doing yourself a huge favor. If you are just starting out, my advice would be to go easy. Go easy to avoid scaring yourself off doing it again and to steadily build up your tolerance and in turn build up your fitness level. Set easy goals at the beginning and celebrate them as you go. Inch by inch you’ll be amazed by how quick your progress goes. And stay hydrated! 😊
3. Lift weights – I have found that there are a lot of misconceptions and misinformation around this one more than any other. Everybody has a method that they think is the best one. Something to remind yourself, especially when it comes to fitness, is that there are no shortcuts. If anyone is telling you about one, it’s wrong. There absolutely are ways to make your workouts more efficient, but shortcuts in training are just not a thing. And even if they were, why would you cheat yourself out of any part of the process? Lifting weights is not only to build muscle. It helps with bone density, posture, boosts metabolism and assists in weight loss. Sure, it also makes muscles bigger, which not only looks great but does wonders for your confidence. Arnold Schwarzenegger gives some of the best advice on body building that applies to people of all levels and it is this. Change it up. Like your mind, your muscles remember things and adapt to them. So that routine you have done a dozen times? Your muscles know what you’re about to do and they get bored easily. So, once you feel you have gotten into a pretty good routine, look up a new one. Always do bench press for chest? Next time add some flies or change the incline level. Want to get bigger quicker? Push to failure. That means doing as many reps as you can. Not how many you feel like, but the actual point where your muscles revolt against you and you have no choice but to put the weight down. Why? When you rep out to failure you are flooding your muscles with blood and increasing your natural HGH levels (testosterone). It also helps break plateaus if you find yourself in a gym-rut. Always train safely with a spotter when possible and make sure you stretch before and after. And like Jeff Cavalier says, ‘If you wanna look like an athlete, you gotta train like an athlete.’ Jeff Cavalier is my personal fitness guru. I’ve been watching his YouTube channel for years and he always has amazing fitness advice for everyone at any skill level. Both practical and scientific. Look him up!
4. Learn a new discipline – Not everyone wants to spend hours in a gym or spend time running outside. That’s fair. One of the most fun ways to get fit is to do it through a method you haven’t done before. Like what? Personally, I would pick Martial Arts. Not only because it is great for self-defense, confidence and agility. But it also parallels in principle with acting in so many ways. There is also the social aspect of it. When you join a boxing club, dance academy, go rock climbing with a group, you are also exposing yourself to a whole community of people and guess what? You already have something in common with them! Some of the closest bonds I have made have been through training and incidentally it also helped me quit smoking. That’s right, I used to smoke a pack a day for a long time. But when I join a martial arts club, I found myself gasping for air and struggling to keep up. So, with the help of my sage like instructor’s advice and a clear goal in mind, which was to be able to train for 3 hours and not faint, the cigs had to go. And they did! Eventually. So go to google and find a dance class, Thai boxing class, Brazilian Jujitsu, gymnastics, rock climbing, join Peloton, Soul cycle, find running groups, yoga for the people, basketball, volleyball… etc. (wear a mask and social distance)
5. But I hate working out… – Fantastic. If you are one of those people who hate exercise and people who never shut up about it (looking at all you Cross Fitters), feel free to disregard the previous four points. But there are somethings you can do that don’t exactly fall into the category of exercise perse but do involve movement. Things like going for a 10-minute walk. This is proven to reduce anxiety and is also great for your heart health. Rock out. Put on your favorite music and dance around your apt, it’s fun and burns calories at the same time, brilliant. And finally, housework is also an incidental cardio promoter. Vacuuming and sweeping the floor is great core work. So is walking to the laundromat to pick up your clothes. As long as it involves movement. Do it. You live in your body so you may as well make it as comfortable as you can…
Mental Health:Out of all the habits people tell you that you should be working on developing, this is by far the most challenging and probably important one to maintain. Taking care of your mind is so important and, in some cases, controversial that some industries try to undermine it as ‘hippy dippy bullshit’ or even go so far as to label you a radical libtard that is wishing for the downfall of American society. Seriously. When people take care of their minds and question their own thought processes and make a concentrated effort to improve it, questions come up that a lot of people would rather not deal with, ignore, deny or ridicule. This is a good thing. This is a sign you’re probably onto something valuable. Keep digging. As an actor, asking yourself and incidentally the role you’re working on the toughest questions can reveal the most integral parts of your/their character.As an actor is it especially important to be curious about the world at large and the world within. Uta Hagen says you need to have a point of view of the world because any character you play definitely has one and if you don’t… well it’s hard to make one up without having one yourself.As someone who has been diagnosed with and manages depression, I can say firsthand that looking after the health of your mind is a fulltime job. I can also attest to the contrary, that when you neglect to take your mental health seriously, the results you get can be terrifying and ultimately deadly.Especially with the involuntarily solitude that the pandemic has imposed on millions of people around the world, mental health management is paramount and needs to be spoken about candidly and often. It can be scary, embarrassing at times, confronting and seemingly insurmountable but I promise you, with the right combination of friends, family, therapy, medication, habits and a will to be better, you can and will improve the state of your inner universe.Maintaining healthy sleep patterns, exercising regularly, eating well all result in an improved based line mood. But if you want to take it a step further, there are so many things you can do on your own that can brighten up your day, help you sleep easier and wake up with a more optimistically inclined mind. However, like I said in the earlier section, there are no shorts cuts. There are only efficient and less efficient ways to approach it. There are supplements, breathing techniques, a variety of therapeutics, medications, drugs, the list goes on. Not all of them are for everyone, just like exercise, you must find the one or ones that work for you.
Here are 5 points to help you make a plan to maintain and improve your daily state of mind.
1. Meditate – Watching the Explained series on Netflix, there was an episode on meditation and one of the meditation experts explained it like ‘going to the gym, but for your mind.’ I’ve heard a lot of people tell me, ‘Oh, no. I can’t do that. I have ADD.’ Or, ‘I can’t sit still, it drives me nuts.’ There are also a lot of misconceptions on what exactly meditating is, and the real answer is that it can be anything. Going for a long walk, sitting still with your eyes closed and counting your breaths, long distance running is just scratching the surface. Start slow. Try 5 minutes to begin with and go from there. No pressure, just sit still and observe your breath. Namaste. 😊
2. Journal – Just like meditating, journaling can be incredibly enlightening and creatively rewarding. Using the metaphor that your brain is an old-style radio; journaling is the equivalent of turning the dial through the white noise static to find the right station. Another helpful way to think of it is that writing something down is literally taking a thought out of your head and putting it on paper. It is that literal. Julia Cameron greatly encourages morning (or mourning) pages in her book, The Artists Way. She does so in order to get you into the habit of getting all that noisy, negative, repetitive chatter out of your mind to make space for clearer thoughts. A helpful way to think of it is to make writing down your thoughts synonymous with your morning dump. Because it makes your mind lighter just like your… well, you get it. But just in case you do not, it’s like pooping. But for your mind. It honestly doesn’t matter what you write, just grab that pen and jot it down. You can keep it, throw it away, whatever you want. 😉
3. Seek Professional Help – There are so many resources available for this. I found my last therapist by literally typing ‘Therapist’ into google with my zip code. We worked together for years! Working with a trained professional is paramount to figuring out why you are they way you are and do what you do. And you guessed it, as an actor this is invaluable. Know Thy Self.
4. Experiment with different treatments – There is no one size fits all when it comes to managing your daily inner chatter. If talk therapy is not your jam or it’s too cost prohibitive, there are so many alternatives. Something like Dynamic Breath work helps clear the parasympathetic nervous system, flush out blocked thoughts/ideas and in some cases assist in personal breakthroughs or surmount mental blocks that you could not see past. There is also Holotropic breath work, Reiki, EMDR and the list goes on.
5. Alternative medicine – There is a big interest in new methods of psychiatric treatments, but none has gotten more buzz than Psilocybin or magic mushrooms. There is very a good reason for this and that is it gets results and is non addictive and nontoxic. Can’t really say that about a lot of FDA approved treatments, can you? There are also a lot of promising studies being done on MDMA, LSD, Ayahuasca and DMT as alternative therapies to western methods. Do your own research and you will quickly see why the ancients put so much reverence into the ritual of self-discovery that these herbs, chemicals and fungus can provide.
That is all I got for now, folks. Please comment and let me know if there are any topics you want me to discuss further and/or elaborate on.
I will leave you with one of my favorite things I like to go to when I feel less than optimistic about it all and that is the incredible wisdom of Bill Hicks (If you don’t know who that is, we’re not friends 😊)
“The world is like a ride in an amusement park, and when you choose to go on it you think it’s real because that’s how powerful our minds are. The ride goes up and down, around and around, it has thrills and chills, and it’s very brightly colored, and it’s very loud, and it’s fun for a while. Many people have been on the ride a long time, and they begin to wonder, “Hey, is this real, or is this just a ride?” And other people have remembered, and they come back to us and say, “Hey, don’t worry; don’t be afraid, ever, because this is just a ride.” And we … kill those people. “Shut him up! I’ve got a lot invested in this ride, shut him up! Look at my furrows of worry, look at my big bank account, and my family. This has to be real.” It’s just a ride. But we always kill the good guys who try and tell us that, you ever notice that? And let the demons run amok … But it doesn’t matter, because it’s just a ride. And we can change it any time we want. It’s only a choice. No effort, no work, no job, no savings of money. Just a simple choice, right now, between fear and love. The eyes of fear want you to put bigger locks on your doors, buy guns, close yourself off. The eyes of love instead see all of us as one. Here’s what we can do to change the world, right now, to a better ride. Take all that money we spend on weapons and defenses each year and instead spend it feeding and clothing and educating the poor of the world, which it would pay for many times over, not one human being excluded, and we could explore space, together, both inner and outer, forever, in peace.”