Mastering the fundamentals is critical.
Lucky for us, when it comes to health and fitness the fundamentals are supported by science, clear to understand, and effective when executed.
It’s also good news that to execute on the fundamentals doesn’t need to be a tedious, time consuming, life draining exercise in perfection.
While these pillars are universal to all humans, the order and speed at which we implement these into our life are not.
So, in no particular order, here are our 4 pillars of health:
1. Sleep – Without adequate sleep your body produces cortisol which will send signals to the brain to retain fat tissue – “in case there is an emergency”. A good target is 6.5-7.5 hours per night depending on ability.
2. Food quantity – Studies show that eating in a calorie deficit EVEN when at ideal levels of body fat promotes longevity. You can estimate your daily calorie needs by multiplying your body weight by 9 for females and 10 for males. If you’re not already doing so, track your calories using a free app such as MyFitnessPal or LoseIt.
3. Food quality – avoid processed foods, limit sugars, focus on vegetables, lean meats, nuts, seeds, basically foods that grow in nature. A good way to accomplish this is to actually make a rule that you will eat the food on your plate in the following order: eat 100% of your vegetables first, then eat 100% of your protein second, then eat whatever remains on the plate until satisfied. Stop eating when full. Make sure ALL meals have fruit or vegetable in them and eat those first.
4. Exercise – Strength training builds muscle mass which will make your body resilient, strong, and less prone to injury. Cardio training will make your heart strong and promote blood flow. Notice that nowhere does it say that either of these activities will result in weight loss. Lift weights 2-3 hours per week. Perform cardio 2-3 hours per week. Shift hours from cardio to weight lifting if you’d like to add muscle mass. Shift hours from weight lifting to cardio if you’d like to lose body weight.
When it comes to prescribing the right order of operations in which to approach these, its important to remember this key principle
“Something is better then nothing.”
In other words – you’re more likely to get results from a VERY SIMPLE plan that you can STICK TO rather than the “perfect plan” that you give up on.
Meal plans are a good example of the “perfect plan”. They require a tremendous amount of skill to execute: You must be able to grocery shop, cook, weigh and measure food, understand how to substitute foods, understand how to operate in social situations. The list goes on.
Here are some examples of how to approach each of the above:
1. Sleep – Let’s say you track your sleep for a week using a simple FitBit. You’re getting 5.5 hours of sleep. If you’re able, shoot for 6 hours a night for the next week. Success would be hitting that target 4 out of the next 7 nights. Then you can move to 5 out of 7, and 6 out of 7, and eventually 7 out of seven. In a month you’d be earning yourself an extra 3.5 hours of sleep per week off that simple change.
2. Food quantity – As of now, you probably have no idea how many calories you’re ACTUALLY eating each day. So you could start this one by simply using My Fitness Pal to track calories for the next week. Make it a goal to succesfully track 4 out of 7 days. Then 5 out of 7. Then 6 and eventually 7 out of 7 days. I guarantee you that by that point simply by becoming aware of how many calories you’re actually eating you will make adjustments and end up eating fewer calories by weeks 3 and 4.
3. Food quality – If you don’t eat ANY fruits/vegetables daily, make it a goal to eat fruit or vegetables with 1 meal per day EVERY day. Then the next week make it a goal to do 2 meals a day. Then in week 3 – 3 meals per day. You’ll see your body composition change and your digestion improve. On top of that you’ll be fuller at meals and less likely to eat the stuff you know you shouldn’t.
4. Exercise – Not exercising at all at the moment? Go for a 30 minute walk 3x a week. That’s too much? Go for a 15 minute walk 6 times a week. In week 2 add a 30 minute strength training session in. In week 3 go to two 30 minute strength sessions or one 60 minute strength session. Track your success rate and each week work up to the objective of getting the right training blend and frequency rather than worrying about how hard or intense the workout is.
Again, the simple principle is that something is better than nothing. So begin where you can and you have infinite simple possibilities that you can adjust in order to work towards optimal health. If you think of accomplishing all of these things over a 52 week period by adding in 1 thing per week, it doesn’t seem so bad after all. But at the end of that year you are a radically different person.