Max Lowery is a personal trainer and online health coach with a different perspective to most fitness influencers.
In this wide-ranging interview, Max discusses some of the things you can do to improve your sleep and underlines the importance of getting your Circadian Rhythm on point.
2 Meal Day founder Max has long been an advocate of Intermittent Fasting, but more recently he’s been experimenting with ‘digital fasting’ – taking time away from your phone and other devices.
Max is also the founder of Connect Retreats, a new adventure retreats company based in the French Pyrenees.
It was great to welcome Max back to the show and I hope you enjoy the interview!
You’ve been posting a lot about ‘digital fasting’ recently. Could you introduce us to that as a concept?
Digital fasting is basically exactly the same as regular food fasting. It means that I’m breaking my day or my week up into periods where I’m not using my phone and I am using my phone.
Just like with regular intermittent fasting, it gives you control over your life in certain respects. Digital fasting improves your relationship with your phone and gives you control back.
For me, social media is a way of sharing my message and connecting with people, and it’s obviously part of my business and why I’ve got to this stage. But it can mean that it consumes my life and that I’m constantly checking it. It can sap and drain my focus and attention, which is really important. I’m really aware of that, so I’ve been incorporating Digital Fasting as a way to combat that.
The first thing I did which was really powerful was to turn off all notifications other than phone calls. At the end of the day, if it’s really important, then someone’s going to call you. If it’s not that important then they won’t call you and you won’t have to look at it immediately.
If we were in a restaurant and your phone goes off in your pocket, your focus is going to be immediately taken away from the moment and you’re going to be thinking about who’s messaging you.
Then I started to incorporate a ‘daily’ fast, just like I do with regular intermittent fasting. I try as hard as I can not to look at my phone before 9am and not after 9pm. That’s made a big difference.
And then more recently, I’ve been doing a 48-hour weekend digital fast. What I do is I delete the Instagram and Facebook apps, which for me are the two ‘problem apps’. They’re the ones that I’m on most. Because I delete them, I barely look at my phone the rest of the weekend.
That has improved every aspect of my life on the weekends. I’m more connected with the people that I’m with. I’m more relaxed overall and I get more done. It’s just an amazing thing.
I’m someone that isn’t necessarily predisposed to suffering from mental health issues. Not many things are able to bring me off my game. But even with me, I’ve noticed that the social media and my phone is really affecting my mood, stress levels and focus.
Mobile phones and social media have made us better connected with people far away from us, but less connected to the people close to us. Because when we’re together with friends, we’re looking at our phones.
What are your tips for someone looking to start digital fasting?
It’s exactly the same advice I give to someone who is starting with intermittent fasting. Start small, and be kind to yourself.
I don’t want to make it another thing to feel guilty about. When some people see that I’m doing intermittent fasting, they can start feeling guilty that they’re not doing it. That’s not what I’m trying to promote.
Start incorporating something small. Perhaps the first thing you could do is not look at your phone after a certain time in the evening. Then try not looking at your phone first thing in the morning.
And then on the weekend, maybe try not looking at your phone on a Saturday.
It’s something to start small with and these are things that have worked for me. I’m now starting to advise it to my coaching clients and online community.
Everyone can benefit from doing this. Mobile phones and social media are designed to keep you addicted to them. Having control over that is really important.
On the weekend, when I have the apps deleted, I will go to use my phone to make a call or something, and in the time that I’ve gone to take my phone out, I’ve forgotten the reason why I want to take my phone out and have gone straight onto the Instagram app. But as it’s not there, I can’t do it. This is just a prime example to how it’s changing the wiring in your brain. It’s almost a reflex.
You’ve just come back from the Pyrenees. What were you up to out there?
In the past five years, I’ve become more sensitive to how living in a city isn’t doing me any favours. It’s great, because I’ve got friends and things to do, but mostly I find myself feeling more stressed in a city and it’s stress that you don’t necessarily realise – it’s subconscious.
It’s from millions of other people having to go to work at the same time, having to dart in and out of those people, being in a rush, being cramped on a train, the stress of noise pollution, air pollution… these stresses make you less able to deal with other stress in your life.
I’ve been going to this region in the French Pyrenees for 20 years and the more time that I’ve spent there in the last five years, the less I’ve been able to adjust to living in a city.
I’ve been using hiking and nature immersion to improve my overall health. As I’ve been doing that and documenting my journey on social media, a lot of people have really engaged with that. So I decided to do two hiking retreats last September as a little experiment for my social media followers. I did my mountain guide qualifications.
I did two retreats last year and they went really well. Most people don’t even take their phones with them. We do mobility, breathwork, meditation, cold water therapy. There’s great food, great wine, great beer, great people. It’s a really cool experience for people who are looking to get out of the city and switch off and reconnect.
This year I did five retreats and next year it’s going to expand. I want to do fitness-based stuff, not just hiking.
Lots of people are putting time and effort into their training and their diet, but they’re not getting the mental health benefits of removing themselves from the city.
People change when they’re out of their normal city environment. What I’ve noticed is that people are a lot more open and a lot more relaxed. They are happier generally and I’ve seen this with the guests that have come.
We’ve had 32 guests from 18 different countries and not a single retreat have I not had a great time. I’ve met interesting people who are now lifelong friends.
A lot of people come on the retreats who want to get into multi-day hikes but don’t know how to plan it. A trip like this just gives them the confidence to do it themselves.
It’s a three-day hike and we end up climbing the highest mountain in the region, which is a sacred Catalan mountain called Le Canigou. We climb it in the dark to watch the sunrise at the top. And that’s just a really special experience.
Not only are people pushing outside there comfort zone by climbing up a mountain in the dark, they then experience something many of them have not experienced before, which is watching the sun rise over the mediterranean sea.
One of the things you’re big on is Circadian Rhythms and Circadian Biology. For someone living in a city, how important is it to be connected with that rhythm and what are some of the things you do?
It’s something I’ve been aware of for a few years now, how the timing of doing certain things will optimise your circadian rhythm or de-optimise it.
Initially I got interested in it because of how food timing will affect it. I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains, where obviously it’s really easy to get outside during the day.
What people don’t realise is that getting outside and getting that daylight into your eyes is synchronising your body clock. For example, in the mountains, the first thing I do when I wake up is get my cold brew and watch the sunrise overlooking a valley of mountains. It’s such a great way to start the day.
I’ve been living with my girlfriend in Brussels at the moment. I’ve got a few exciting things that I’ve been working on with my online businesses and so I’ve been more indoors.
Even though I’ve been training and doing the same bedtime routine, I’m not sleeping nearly as well, because I’m not getting that outside time. The difference has been very powerful.
I’m still working out my routine but what I try to do is go to a green space around midday and do some meditation, breathwork or stretching. Not only has that improved my concentration and mood, but it has also improved the sleep.
I think a lot of people living in cities don’t realise how important this is. I saw an infographic that said that the average American spends 90 per cent of their time indoors. That is having a detrimental effect in so many different ways, and I don’t think people full comprehend how important that is.
We aren’t designed to be indoors all the time. All this artificial lighting – there’s more research showing that it’s just taking us out of sync from our natural rhythms.
You’re circadian rhythm governs everything. If it’s out of sync, then fundamentally your body is not going to be functioning optimally.
There is more and more researching coming out that suggests nature time just improves every aspect of mental health. It improves stress, reduces anxiety, increases endorphins, increases dopamine.
A recent study said that the optimal time for most people is 120 minutes per week, which isn’t that much. It’s 20-30 minutes a day.
It’s the kind of thing that you don’t realise until you break that cycle of being indoors all the time. The only reason I realise it is because I was able to go and immerse myself in nature and spend two or three weeks in the mountains, where it’s a completely different rhythm. London is completely the opposite. Sensory overload everywhere, food everywhere, the lighting, the people. It’s once you remove yourself that you realise it’s actually an issue.
Your circadian rhythm is ultimately guided by the light-dark cycle of the sun. It’s all done on the wavelengths of light. In the morning, the wavelength is going to be more orange, and then as the day goes on it’s more white, and then in the evening it starts to become more orange.
At different times of day, different things are happening in your body. If you’re constantly around these artificial lights which emit a blue light, that blue light mimics midday sun, and so you’re just confusing your circadian rhythm.
One of the things I’ve been working on improving is my sleep. Do you have any quick tips for improving sleep?
The number one most powerful thing you can do for your sleep is wake up at the same time every single morning. That synchronises your body clock so that at that time in the morning, you’re likely to be in a light sleep phase, which means that you’re going to wake up feeling refreshed and ready for the day.
If you’re constantly changing your waking time, it’s pot luck whether you’re going to be in deep sleep, REM sleep or light sleep. Having a consistent waking time improved everything for me.
After that, it’s about having a fairly consistent bedtime. Obviously people have to have a social life and it’s not a disaster if there are a couple of nights a week where you’re not going to bed at the usual time.
But if you’re at home doing nothing, go to bed at the same time, because you’re more likely to fall asleep quicker.
Once you’ve done those two things, it’s about having a bedtime routine. It’s really powerful for helping me switch off gradually.
I dim the lights once it starts to get dark, I turn my phone and the TV off, I get rid of any electronic stimulation. I then usually clean my flat and get myself ready for the next day. It means that I’m not lying there in bed thinking about all the stuff I have to do for the next day. I then do some stretching or meditation, and I’ll go to sleep, with ear plugs and an eye mask.
Being outside during the day can help with sleep as well, can’t it?
Like I mentioned earlier, getting outside first thing in the morning and getting that sunlight in your eyes is going to make you sleep better in the evenings.
It’s synchronising your body clock and telling it that it’s this time of day.
In the mountains I was doing it naturally, but now that I’ve removed myself from there, I know that not being outside is affecting my sleep. Even though I’m doing the same things, the fact that I haven’t been outside in the middle of the day, I’m not able to fall asleep as easily.
What’s your perspective on intermittent fasting these days?
I’ve been doing it for six years myself and the 2 Meal Day is my trademark method of intermittent fasting, which I believe teaches people to incorporate it as a way of life, rather than a crash diet.
The difference with the 2 Meal Day, you’re not focusing on the clock, or calories, or days of the week. You’re just focusing on dropping a meal.
The difference is that you’re not eating because the clock tells you to, it’s getting roughly to the time that you might eat and you think to yourself, ‘am I hungry?’.
This small change is really important and profound. It means that you learn to understand what hunger actually is and to listen to your body.
Having done it myself for six years, I don’t like calling it intermittent fasting. I just eat when I’m hungry. It’s nothing groundbreaking and everybody has the ability to do this.
Unfortunately, if you are constantly drip feeding yourself with food from as soon as you wake up all throughout the day, you’re never going to understand what hunger actually is.
The only way you’ll understand what hunger is is if you go through a period of a few hours in the day, when you’re not eating. You’ll feel ‘perceived hunger’ come and go. Just because your stomach is empty, it doesn’t mean you should eat. We aren’t designed to have full stomachs all the time.
Understanding that perceived hunger comes and goes throughout the day is really powerful, and it will give you control back over food, your energy levels and your hunger.
That’s why I promote intermittent fasting and the 2 Meal Day. It’s not because of weight loss. What’s really profound is that it’s completely transforming people’s relationship with food. That is so empowering and has a drastic effect on every aspect of your life. If you have control over the food that you eat, you have control over your entire life.
I don’t like labelling it so much. I just eat when I’m hungry. It’s a more natural way of eating and that’s how it should be. Everyone should have that communication with their body.
You wake up in the morning, you don’t have to eat because ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’. Am I hungry? How much did I train yesterday? How active was I? Do I actually need to eat? These are the questions you begin to start asking yourself.
It just makes staying at a decent weight effortless. You enjoy food so much more, because when you have gone a few hours without eating, when you do eat, you appreciate more. You’re able to eat larger meals and still eat a bit less overall, which is why it’s become one of the most popular lifestyle trends in the past few years.