Physical fitness is the basis for all other forms of excellence – John F. Kennedy
Your mind does not live in a vacuum. In fact, it lives in a very specific place – your body. So just like you need to tend your mind, you also need to tend your body. And like the mind, I start with the question of what I want. Here’s what I came up with:
I want to be pain and disease free with enough physical energy, strength, and mobility to do any activity I want at any time.
This one is a bit more straightforward. I want my body to be an enabler of my life and those are the ingredients I believe are needed to do so.
Achieving that by following health news can be both fascinating and frustrating as there are often competing ideas about the “right” way to be healthy. Sifting through all that I have learned, I think it comes down to 3 basic concepts:
- Eat well: Your body is literally constructed out of what you eat. Use the best building material you can find.
- Move well: Your body follows the old maxim of “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” Use all of it as often as you can.
- Sleep well: Being awake is actually a low-grade destructive process. Sleep is your recovery mechanism. Give your body what it wants.
In terms of what that means in practice, here is what I do.
There are many delicious things that are not good for you and it is hard to cut them all out, so I’ve adopted an 80/20 rule to eating.
If I eat “well” 80% of the time, I can indulge a little. For me, eating well for the 80% means the following:
First, the things that are universally true, or at least I’ve never heard anyone disagree with:
- Eat wild, whole, minimally processed, fresh, local, organic foods (in that order if I can’t get it all).
- Read the labels. Go for the food with the least ingredients (5 or less is best). If I don’t know what the ingredient is, I avoid it.
- Use olive oil, avoid vegetable oils and don’t eat any partially hydrogenated oils.
- Avoid sugar.
After that it tends to get a bit murky as to what your mix of food should be. I currently take the middle ground – lots of veggies (salad for lunch, green veggies with dinner), a moderate amount of high-quality protein, and medium to low carbs.
Supplements are even more complicated. Here, you need to do your own research, but it’s clear that no one really gets enough sun exposure these days, so Vitamin D is the one thing that almost everyone should take and is considered very safe.
Each of us will have a different definition of what “any activity” means. For me, I enjoy going rock climbing, but have no interest in climbing Mount Everest, so my baseline will be more moderate than a mountain climber.
This means that you need to do a little work in the beginning to determine what your baseline needs are, but the good news is, once you get there, maintaining it is pretty easy.
I have found it useful to define a baseline using the following categories:
- Posture: This is one of the most important and least thought about aspects of physical fitness. Posture, by definition, is the position your body is in most of the day, and therefore has the most potential for long term effects. The simple advice? Make sure you sit, stand, and walk using the posture that you wish to have when you are 90 years old.
- Breath: Another underappreciated aspect of the body. There are plenty of practices that will teach you breathing from yoga to meditation. In short, breath as slow and as deep as you can as often as you can.
- Strength: This is what most people think of when they think of a healthy body. It’s a measure of how much work your muscles can do.
- Balance: Strength is not much good if you can’t keep your balance.
- Flexibility: Gradual restriction of motion as you get older is not inevitable and you shouldn’t accept it. Stretch, reach, and move to the full extent of normal human motion.
- Conditioning: The other “common” view of physical health, basically how long can you keep up an activity. Back to the original definition, you want it to be high enough to do any activity that you want to do.
So how do you build up the baseline that you want?
Start with posture, breath, balance, and flexibility. These are things that should be a daily practice and only take a few focused minutes a day for each to make continual progress.
Building strength has two major approaches:
- Build additional muscle fibers: Work out hard enough to stress your existing muscle fibers (ie. “feel the burn”) which will convince your body that it needs to build more of them. Give yourself enough time to recover before trying again (the growth comes in the recovery). How do you know if you gave enough recovery time? You should have more work output (last time you did 10 pushups? next time you should be able to do 11 or more). If not, rest more.
- “Grease the Groove” to improve the neuromuscular patterns: Do the exercise in minimal doses (half of what your max is), often. For example, if you can do 10 pushups, do 5 pushups 3-5 times per day, focusing on form.
Conditioning can be done periodically (every week or 2 weeks), with incremental improvement, until target state. Then you can do as little as required to maintain it.
Once you have hit your baseline, you can test it periodically to ensure that it is still in place. I do have specific suggestions of what a good baseline fitness is, but given the variety of activities people may want to engage in, I didn’t include it here. If you are interested, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I would be happy to share.
If you really want to know why you should get a good night’s sleep, you should read Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Suffice it to say, it’s critically important to almost every major body system.
A simple test to see if you are getting enough sleep is whether you can wake up regularly without an alarm and feel refreshed.
Honestly, this is an area that I get close but don’t quite meet. Modern work schedules mean it is hard to get as much as I need while working full time, but close is not too bad.
Here is some advice that I’ve found helpful:
- Quality is more important than quantity, so focus on sleeping well first
- Go to bed at the same time each night
- Avoid caffeine after 2pm
- Start winding down 2 hours before bed (that means putting the phone and other electronics away)
- Avoid eating big meals or doing a hard workout near bedtime
- Write a “grateful” log before bed
- Avoid bright lights, particularly LEDs and strong blue lights (you can use orange glasses and install F.lux on your computer – ie. You want to create a “sunset” or “fireside” feeling)
- Sleep in a pitch black room
6th Piece of Advice: Eat well, move well and sleep well. Your body is the only place you have to live, so treat it accordingly.
Want to learn more?
Here are a few resources you can check out if you want to explore this idea further:
- Book: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
- Book: Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World by Kelly Starrett
- Book: The One-Minute Workout by Martin Gibala
- Book: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker