Your health is your life.
Well, ok. That may have been a bit melodramatic, but…
Your Health Is Your First Priority
There are many subgenres in the personal development/self-improvement field, such as happiness, productivity, confidence, finances, independence, consciousness, and so on.
It can be tough to decide where to begin.
I know that I can improve in all of these areas, but it’s nearly impossible to tackle them all at once.
What has worked well for me and what I recommend for most people is to focus first on taking care of their health. Here’s why:
- There are many aspects under your control. Sure, in the short term you may not be able to control all the injuries or illnesses that you can get. But you do have the ability to make healthy or unhealthy choices many times throughout each day.
- You can get tested and measure variables. Just about any aspect of your health can be measured nowadays. With a small investment, you can figure out what health-related problem areas you have and then work to correct them.
- It’s very easy to measure progress. If you can measure the variables, you can also measure progress. There are all sorts of areas you might want to progress in (lower cholesterol, increase bench press, etc.), and being able to measure them allows you to see if what you are doing is working and correct course. Most other types of self-improvement don’t have this advantage.
I’ve found that when I take care of my health habits, the rest takes care of itself.
Making healthy choices regularly builds self-improvement momentum. Paying attention to your health makes you much more conscious in other areas.
For example, in order to eat a more nutritious diet, you would be well served to cook your own meals instead of going out to eat. You will end up saving a lot of money this way, and you will become more independent as your cooking skill improves.
Small changes can snowball and have a big impact. A single, simple habit change might have wide-reaching effects in your life while helping you live longer.
Your body is the closest thing to you, and as stated earlier, you have a lot of control over it. If you can’t take care of your body, how can you take care of anything else?
You can’t expect to manage a social life, career, relationships, family, and balance your checkbook if you can’t manage the aspect of life that you have the most control over.
Ultimately, that is why you need to take care of your health first. Healthy habits are the foundation for everything else in your life.
A Healthy Lifestyle Is Important For Your Happiness
Everyone hates being sick. But most people don’t really appreciate their health until it’s gone, so they don’t take care of themselves when they are healthy.
This is a huge mistake, of course.
The most important variable in my mathematical model of happiness is your longevity. By extending your lifespan, you can get significantly more total happiness.
Being ill is one of the biggest factors that lead to depression, or just reduced happiness in general.
On the other hand, having optimum health will improve your happiness beyond what it would be when you are merely not sick.
Neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine that are responsible for the experiences of happiness, pleasure, and motivation will function better when their environment is taken care of.
In other words, a proper diet, physical exercise, good sleep habits, and a lifestyle that includes stress management will vastly improve not just your health but your happiness as well.
The Sub-Categories Of A Healthy Lifestyle
There are three primary areas you can control that effect your health. They are your diet, exercise habits, and lifestyle.
You must be taking care of ALL of them. If you are weak in any one of these areas, your health and by extension, happiness, will suffer greatly.
Luckily, you don’t need to be a superstar in every area in order to have good health (although it certainly doesn’t hurt). The minimum requirements for each of these categories are fairly easy to attain, even though most people don’t.
Since we are talking about personal development here, you should strive for excellence rather than just the minimum.
But the most important thing is simply that you improve.
Wherever you are starting out with regards to health is ok. Accept that you may not be taking good care of yourself now, and do something about it.
People don’t give diet enough credit for its role in their health.
So many people I know, when trying to lose fat or gain muscle, would just think about working out more. Other than some vague notion of “eating less" or “eating more", they almost completely ignored their diets.
I guess many people seem to think that adding a couple extra hours of working out into their schedule is easier than completely changing something as fundamental to them as their diets.
Luckily, healthy eating doesn’t have to be challenging. And like most things in life, it gets easier with practice.
Unfortunately, the study of nutrition is highly politicized and not well understood. But even with the million and one different dietary philosophies that exist, there are just a few principles of a healthy diet that you should keep in mind.
If you want to go on some sort of intense diet, count calories, measure your food, and so on, be my guest. But for most people, keeping these four principles in mind will be more than enough to do wonders for their health.
1. Eat Whole, Unprocessed Foods
If you were to apply just one thing from this entire post, eating whole foods would be it.
When you go to the supermarket, most of the food that you see is prepackaged and has undergone extensive chemical processing. It hardly even resembles anything natural.
Don’t eat this crap.
Yes, it’s almost impossible to avoid all chemicals and harmful processing in your diet. But you should do whatever you can to minimize it.
Eat whole foods. Most of what you eat should only have one ingredient. This means things like nuts, fruits, vegetables, some meats (check the label, preferably grass-fed), eggs, etc.
Pay particular attention to reducing the “white" carbohydrates and sugars in your diet. Unless the ingredients list says “100% whole grain" or something along those lines, it is a white carbohydrate and you should do your best not to consume it.
Reduce your consumption of breads, pastas, cookies, cereals, fries, pastries, and so on.
Again, it is very challenging to eliminate these foods entirely. If you can pull it off, good for you! But if not, just try your best to minimize them.
2. Introduce Variety Into Your Diet
Our bodies are very complex and require many different nutrients in order to function properly.
Different foods contain different nutrients and in multiple forms, so it’s best to consume a wide variety of foods to ensure you are getting what you need.
Here is where many fad diets fail, and where most nutrition science gets complicated.
The three main macronutrients are carbohydrates, fat, and protein. You need all three.
But in what proportion?
Based on my own personal experience as well as extensive research I’ve done, a high fat and low carb diet seems most healthy. I’ve looked and felt my best when over 40% of the calories I was consuming came from fat.
That being said, the science is convoluted and everyone is different, so I can’t in good conscience make a blanket recommendation.
If you stick to eating whole foods, almost any proportion should work, so long as you get some of each.
Of special mention here are the omega 3 fatty acids. These can be found in fatty fish such as salmon as well as walnuts, flax seeds, and a bunch of other foods. Eat more of these.
And then there are micronutrients. These are all the vitamins and minerals that your body needs so that it can undergo the various chemical reactions that are necessary to keep you alive.
It would be an absolute mess for you to try and keep track of all of them.
By eating a variety of whole foods (including animal products, vegetables, nuts, fruits, etc.), you will most likely get what you need.
3. Eat Loads Of Vegetables
Seriously, loads. Aim for at least seven servings per day, which has been linked with happiness and mental well-being1.
Your diet can always use more veggies.
Most vegetables are nearly devoid of calories, they are very filling, and they contain tons and tons of health-sustaining micronutrients.
And even though you may not have believed it as a kid, vegetables can also be delicious. Just learn how to prepare them well.
The principle of variety is important here.
Try to consume as many different kinds of vegetables as possible, paying particular attention to their color. Different colors mean different nutrients.
Focus on leafy green vegetables such as spinach and kale, as well as cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage.
I should point out that while fruits are also important in your diet and contain a ton of antioxidants and nutrients, they do not get a blank check for consumption. Because they have so much sugar, fruits should be consumed in moderation.
Eat. More. Vegetables.
4. Practice Mindful Eating
The final dietary principle is not about what you eat, but how you eat it.
To eat mindfully is to be aware of what you are eating. It would be unrealistic to recommend that you practice mindful eating at every meal, but you should make it a part of your lifestyle.
Sadly, most of us scarf food down while watching TV, on the way to work, or while doing something else. This makes eating less enjoyable and causes you to eat a lot more.
To learn everything you need to know about mindful eating, check out this post: A Primer On Mindful Eating.
I also want to mention two other dietary methods or concepts that are optional, but very relevant to mindful eating: Caloric Restriction (CR) and Intermittent Fasting (IF).
People who practice CR deliberately reduce their calorie intake by 15-40% every day. While there are many different ways of fasting, those who practice IF all integrate into their weekly schedule significant lengths of time (usually 24 hrs) without consuming any calories, and then eat normally the rest of the time.
Both of these practices have been shown to drastically improve longevity. Feel free to give them a try if you want (I personally have enjoyed the occasional fast).
If not, just be mindful of how much you eat and try to keep your calorie intake in check unless you are deliberately trying to gain muscle.
For more info:
If you are inactive (like most Americans), you will die a lot sooner and you will suffer serious health problems before then.
There. I said it.
You absolutely must incorporate physical activity into your life if you want to be healthy. Luckily, there are many ways you can do so.
The types of exercise you should include will vary depending on what your intentions and your individual circumstances are. A fitness model trying to lose the last 4 pounds before a contest will exercise differently than an obese individual who needs to lose 150 pounds.
To make this simpler, I will start with the most necessary aspect of physical activity and move towards the more optional types.
1. Moving Around
The most important part of physical activity is to have a generally active lifestyle.
Even if you regularly work out, you cannot just spend the rest of your time sitting on the couch. The human body isn’t meant for that.
Instead, make sure you move around a lot. Nothing intense. Just spend more time standing up or walking around.
Here’s a simple habit to get into: make a point to get up from your chair every half hour, for one full minute. Either keep checking the clock or set a reminder. This is very easy and can go a long way for your health.
If you can walk somewhere instead of driving, do it. If you can park further away from where you must drive to, do it. If you can take the stairs instead of the elevator, do it.
All these things add up. There are so many ways to be more active and move around more.
It may not seem that important, but I can assure you that the simple act of moving around more will do wonders for your health.
2. Resistance Training
So many people are hesitant to try resistance training.
It tends to be women and people who are trying to lose weight that most often refuse to lift up a barbell, because they think it will make them gain weight or look too muscular.
I can assure you, these fears are unfounded.
Resistance training is the most important type of exercise you can do if you are trying to lose weight (or gain weight), and it takes time before you start looking freakishly muscular.
If you aren’t doing resistance training, you should be. Start slowly, once or twice per week, and build up to 3-4 times weekly.
You can use free weights, bodyweight exercises, kettlebells, resistance bands, etc. Try to avoid using machines, because they can build muscular imbalances and lead to injuries in the long run.
Stick to compound exercises, or ones that utilize multiple muscle groups. These are the healthiest and most effective. For example, bench press, deadlifts, squats, push ups, pull ups, and dips are all compound movements.
Unfortunately, the most common type of exercise is also the least important.
When people decide they want to “get in shape", the first thing they think to do is to start jogging. This is a mistake. Resistance training is more important.
That being said, cardio can still play a role in your healthy lifestyle.
Just as there are many types of resistance training, there are also many types of cardiovascular exercises. Jogging, sprinting, swimming, cycling, and interval training all fall into the cardio category.
They type of cardio you should do depends on your goals.
I don’t recommend long distance running as a means of improving your health. If you enjoy running marathons as sport, fine. But it can wreak havoc on your joints and reduces muscle mass.
If you want to gain weight/muscle, you should limit your total cardio time. It won’t help with that goal, even if it could benefit your general fitness.
If you want to lose weight/fat, you should sprint or do interval training, which has the greatest metabolic effect.
For everyone else, you should do whatever cardio you enjoy, and do it in moderation.
Other Lifestyle Factors
Besides diet and exercise, there are a number of other lifestyle factors that impact your health.
Here I will only focus on the three most important ones: getting quality sleep, managing your stress, and moderation.
1. Get Enough Sleep
I know, this is so much easier said than done.
There aren’t enough hours in the day, and it can seem impossible to find the time to get the extra hour or two of sleep that you probably need.
The reality is, not getting enough sleep drains your energy and productivity. So getting an extra hour of sleep means that the time you spend awake will be more effective.
While there are many different techniques that help you get more sleep, I’ve found one to be far and away the most useful.
Wake up at the same time every day, even weekends (a morning routine can help with this). Then go to bed whenever you are tired.
After a few days your body will adjust, and you will wake up feeling more energized.
You don’t need to worry about when you go to sleep, just the time you wake up. This makes it easier to stick to it.
Need to stay up late one night to get work done, party, or for no reason at all? No problem! Just know that when your alarm goes off in the morning, you have to get up.
This schedule is both flexible and will help train you to get the optimal level of sleep for yourself.
If your coffee drinking makes this challenging, learn how to break your caffeine addiction.
2. Manage Your Stress
Chronic stress doesn’t just suck. It’s also very bad for your health.
There are all sorts of ways to manage your stress, from yoga and meditation to playing sports and taking a nap.
It doesn’t matter what method you use, as long as you find it effective and you actually use it.
I suggest you find a productive activity that you enjoy in order to manage stress in the long term. But when you experience acute stress, try closing your eyes and taking ten deep breaths.
Stress in small amounts is normal and healthy, but most people let stress become a regular part of their lives, and that can lead to all sorts of disease later on. Not to mention it just sucks to feel stressed out all the time.
Don’t let this happen to you.
3. Everything In Moderation
The final principle of a healthy lifestyle is moderation.
Find balance in your life. Almost anything you do is acceptable, so long as it is in moderation.
The classic example here is with alcohol consumption. Enjoying a drink or two is fine, but when you are drinking a six pack every night you have a problem.
But moderation doesn’t just apply to drugs, alcohol, and vices.
Spending too much time working out, obsessing over what you eat, and working 80 hour weeks are all unhealthy.
Too much moderation itself is also a problem. If you go out and binge drink on a Friday night, or you go a week without working out, or you eat a full bar of dark chocolate (mmmm….), don’t beat yourself up.
It’s ok to let yourself go…occasionally.
Everything in moderation, even moderation.
A healthy lifestyle need not be complicated.
The ten principles above are both simple and a very workable guide to being healthy.
You are more than welcome to do more than this if you want, but these principles will go a long way towards keeping you healthy.
Before ending this article, there is one point that absolutely must be mentioned.
While you may have goals that include looking better by gaining muscle or losing fat, what is truly important is your health.
Be at peace with how you look. Nobody is perfect, and that is ok. What really matters is living a healthy lifestyle, and looking better is just a side benefit of good health.
I will soon be compiling a list of simple healthy habits and behaviors that you can adopt. Do you have any suggestions?