BYU Education Week: Strengthening one’s foundation through diet, exercise and sleep

PROVO, Utah — The soul, as described in Doctrine and Covenants 88:15, is the combination of the spirit and the body of a person. With this understanding, Dr. Matthew B. Morgan, associate professor of radiology and imaging sciences at the University of Utah School of Medicine, told an auditorium full of BYU Education Week attendees, “I’m saving souls today.”

The annual weeklong event began Monday, Aug. 16, with students attending classes on the BYU campus for the first time since 2019. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Education Week was held virtually in 2020. The program is designed to spiritually strengthen participants and foster commitment to lifelong learning and service. Classes include topics on religion, education, personal development, family and home. 

Noting the wide offering of classes focused on nourishing the spirit, Morgan turned his focus to nourishing the body. “I think BYU Education Week does a fabulous job with the spirit part. I’m here to sort of balance the equation.”

Morgan taught four classes on Monday, covering the importance of eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep.

“Health is your foundation,” he said. “It’s what everything is resting on.”

He quoted President Russell M. Nelson, who stated in an August 2019 New Era article: “Your physical body is a magnificent creation of God. It is His temple as well as yours and must be treated with reverence.”

Most people know they should eat better, exercise more or get more sleep, but they don’t. Why? “I think it’s because we’re not converting,” Morgan said. To help his students experience a change of heart, he shared some “doctrine” on each subject, as well as outlined some of the problems preventing people from living healthily.

Diet

Light, whether it is spiritual or literal, gives life to all things (Doctrine and Covenants 88:12-13). Plants use the energy from the sun to grow. Animals consume those plants in order to grow. And humans get their energy from eating plants and animals.

The Word of Wisdom states that God has ordained “all wholesome herbs,” “every fruit in the season,” “flesh … of beasts and of the fowls of the air” and “all grain,” for men to eat (Doctrine and Covenants 89:10-20).

Food is made up of three basic units: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. “None of them are bad,” Morgan said. 

The problem with today’s food landscape? “Yummy, yummy everywhere.” 

Food used to be more scarce and difficult to obtain. Today, food is abundant, highly processed and cheap. Much of this processed food is designed to be “hyperpalatable” or “irresistible” using a formula of calorie dense, intensely flavored, immediately delicious, easy to eat and dissolves easily in the mouth.

Morgan cited a study that showed “that ultraprocessed foods cause people to eat too many calories.” This same study showed that those who ate processed foods also experienced weight gain. Conversely, those who ate whole or unprocessed foods experienced weight loss and didn’t eat as many calories.

Eating processed foods has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other diseases. In fact, “nonalcoholic fatty liver disease has now taken alcoholism as the most common reason for liver transplants,” Morgan said.

On Monday, Aug, 16, 2021, stacks of the BYU Education Week class catalog sit ready for the kickoff of the annual event held on the Provo, Utah, campus.
On Monday, Aug, 16, 2021, stacks of the BYU Education Week class catalog sit ready for the kickoff of the annual event held on the Provo, Utah, campus. Credit: Rebeca Fuentes, BYU Photo

Exercise

Bodies are meant to move. “It’s an amazing feat of engineering,” Morgan said. “It’s designed to do all the things that we need it to do: 206 bones, 350 joints — ball and socket, hinge and pivot joints and gliding joints — 600 different muscles. … You also have an amazing engine inside: 78 organs and 11 organ systems. This is all coordinated with exquisite sensors and systems like a chemistry system.”

What is exercise? “Exercise is a repetitive movement that works your body at a greater intensity than your usual level.” Exercise combats disease, helps manage weight, improves mood, boosts energy, promotes better sleep and can be fun or social.

However, today’s modern world has many conveniences — from cars to automation to escalators — that humans didn’t have to rely on for many years. “We’ve graduated to slumping in our chairs and looking at a computer screen all day long every day for your work life — 25 to 65,” Morgan said.

“Comfort is killing us.”

When it comes to the body, “this is a case of use it or lose it,” he said. 

As taught in 2 Nephi 2:11 — “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things” — bodies are designed to become stronger with opposition. Bones need pressure in order to stay strong, and muscles will atrophy if they aren’t used.

Sleep

Sleep can be thought of as part of the health trinity with diet and exercise. Rather than being one of three columns that supports health, diet and exercise support health while standing on the foundation of sleep. One day of eating junk food or not exercising can probably not affect one’s health significantly, but sleep is different. “Sleep, you force somebody to stay awake all night, I guarantee you, you’re going to notice that in everything you’re doing the next day,” Morgan said.

While scientists aren’t entirely sure what’s going on in the brain during REM and non-REM sleep, Morgan explained that it’s likely the brain is working on cognitive and biological functions. “The cognitive is that you are literally processing memories and experiences, from short-term to long-term memory,” he said. “The other one is biological: a recent discovery of something that’s called the glymphatic system. … It’s a clearing of metabolites and waste products.”

Losing hours of sleep means the brain can’t finish working on these two processes.

“Cheating sleep is a fool’s game,” Morgan said.

Lack of sleep can be incredibly dangerous. “People die all the time — more than drugs and alcohol — because somebody fell asleep,” Morgan said, showing a few headlines of news stories where someone fell asleep at the wheel while driving and someone died in the resulting car accident. The Church has stated that the Word of Wisdom does not prohibit the use of caffeine — a chemical that halts drowsiness. “Don’t die because you think Diet Coke is against the Word of Wisdom.”

There is a sleep-loss epidemic in the world today, with two-thirds of adults not getting enough sleep each night. 

Short sleep, or getting six hours or less of sleep a night as opposed to seven to nine hours, activates the sympathetic nervous system, which chronically increases blood pressure and heart rate and can exacerbate coronary artery calcification, Morgan said. “So you have 10 times the risk of premature death, four to five times the risk for cardiac arrest, and two times the risk for heart attack or stroke. It’s like you’re revving your engine to the red line and you’re not giving it the recovery. You’re running that engine too hard.”

Attendees of BYU Education Week chat between classes on the first day of the five-day conference held on the Provo, Utah, campus Aug. 16-20, 2021.
Attendees of BYU Education Week chat between classes on the first day of the five-day conference held on the Provo, Utah, campus Aug. 16-20, 2021. Credit: Rebeca Fuentes, BYU Photo

Strategies and solutions

With the number of barriers to living a healthy life in society today, “You can’t afford a passive approach,” Morgan said. Each person has to actively take responsibility for their health. So following each class, he gave an outline of steps each person can take to get started on improving their health.

Get psychology right

In addition to talking to a counselor if one has any mental health concerns, Morgan gave three things to keep in mind. First, it’s not too late; start today. Second, “Keep the focus on what you want. It’s not about guilt and shame. Where do you want to go with this?” Third, “Progress doesn’t require perfection.”

Seek a testimony

The steps to gain a testimony of nutrition, exercise or sleep are similar to gaining a testimony of the gospel: Learn the doctrine, act in faith, repent as needed and endure to the end.

Know the score

Morgan gave six health metrics each person should know about themselves: body mass index, waist-to-height ratio, body fat percentage, cholesterol, blood glucose and blood pressure. He also encouraged attendees to talk to their health care providers and know their conditioning status before beginning a new exercise routine.

Set objectives

When setting objectives, consider these questions.

Who are you? “We’re all different. Old, young, middle-aged.”

Where are you? “What’s your status? Advice will be different for you than it is for somebody else,” Morgan said.

Where are you going? “Some people are just trying to stay out of the hospital,” he said. Others want to be fit and healthy, while others want to be in optimal shape. Different destinations will have different methods to achieve those goals.

Make a plan and act

Stop the damage first, Morgan said, by not drinking alcohol or smoking, limiting sugary drinks such as fruit juice and soda, and limiting highly processed foods. After that, “Use premium fuel,” he said. Fill up on “real” food or whole foods, read food labels to look for and limit added sugar, limit the amount of processed food in the house and share portions when eating out.

As a reluctant exerciser, Morgan has added high-intensity interval training and strength training to his routine — exercises that have the “minimum effective dose to get the best result,” optimized for one’s metabolic health, require minimum equipment and have variety. He suggested doing high-intensity interval training three times a week and strength training twice a week.

To improve sleep, Morgan advised setting a time to go to bed and sticking to it. At least two hours before going to bed, stop looking at screens. The blue light can inhibit sleep. Adopt a bedtime ritual in order to wind down, such as reading a book, meditating or writing in a journal.

“The healthy person has 1,000 wants, and the sick person only has one,” Morgan said. “It’s amazing what changes when suddenly, you’re brought face to face … with your mortality. Let’s do what we can to not neglect that.”

Education Week will be held through Friday, Aug. 20. Those who are interested in registering can do so Tuesday through Friday at the Wilkinson Student Center Garden Court from 7:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. and at the northeast concourse of the Marriott Center from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.