How to Improve Your Health in a Way That’s Easy to Execute and Sustainable
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We all only have one life. We better try and live that one as happily as possible as often as possible. A key part of happiness is health. If you are sick or unwell, nothing else can be enjoyed.
In this article I want to share some ideas about how to improve your health in a way that’s easy to execute and sustainable. I cover the key ingredients for good health and how to achieve it. I introduce the four areas of fitness that you should address (following the 4 Legs of Fitness model) and nine principles that will help you achieve your health goals. I conclude with a list of practical habits of health.
But first let’s figure out why happiness is such a tricky thing.
Why Most People Focus On the Wrong Things for Happiness
Many people have a totally wrong understanding of happiness.
As a consequence, they chase the wrong things because they think they make them happy. And they are not to blame for. It is mostly down to education and how many of our families and cultural systems, especially in Europe work. Mostly when we grow up we are influenced to chase material things or “external” factors in pursuit of happiness: a good job with a good salary, a big house with a garden, a family, cars etc. Rarely, we question how happy these things really make us. How much passion do I have for my good job that earns me a good salary? Do I really love my partner? Do I really need those expensive cars?
I discussed this topic in detail in my article How To Live a Happy Life. So, I only summarise it here. On my ride to maximize happiness, I focus on health and freedom. Both are the quintessential top-level concepts for happiness. One without the other would not lead to real happiness. Both are internal factors -- as opposed to the external factors we typically chase for happiness -- and both include various further ingredients, which I discuss later in this article. I decided that my purpose in life is to constantly maximize happiness of me and the people around me. Generally, that’s typically a lot less about having -- I appreciate the minimalistic lifestyle -- but more about being, very much along the lines of what Erich Fromm described in his book “Haben oder Sein” (English title: “To Have Or To Be”).
I have covered freedom in several articles already. The focus of this article is on health and how we can create a lifestyle for ourselves that makes it easy to live in a healthy way forever.
The Key Ingredients for Good Health
Good health is a very broad concept that is determined by a range of different ingredients. In this section, I cover the most important ones.
It is established knowledge that the brain influences the body and vice versa. Positive thinking can have a remarkable influence on health. Cultivating general positivity can strengthen the immune system and counter depression. Studies have shown links between positivity and improved health in areas like lower blood pressure, less heart disease, better weight control, and healthier blood sugar levels.
Food, Sleep, Sun, Sex
We are animals. So satisfying basic needs such as regular and good food, sleep, sun, and sex have a substantial influence on our health and wellbeing. Food and sleep I cover in later sections. Regarding the power of sufficient sun exposure, I’d like to refer to my article How Much Vitamin D Do You Need?
And then sex.
Obviously, we need that for reproduction but also for health and happiness. But it’s more than just having an orgasm. It’s about creating a deep connection with someone who you trust and care about. Sex brings physical and emotional benefits like reduced risk of heart disease, or improved self-esteem. It’s like a virtuous circle: The more sex you have the healthier you’ll be, and the healthier you are the more sex you want.
Move Your Body
We all have a body, so let’s use it.
We know very well that a sedentary lifestyle is very bad for our health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), sedentary lifestyles double the risk of cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and obesity, and increase the risks of colon cancer, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, lipid disorders, depression and anxiety. On the contrary, an active lifestyle and a lot of movement have a lot of health benefits for body and mind. Physical exercise releases endorphins, which are the chemicals that make you happy.
So, exercising makes you fitter, which makes you happier. Your body will be more toned and look better, which is good for your self-esteem. This will encourage you to exercise more, which is a positive feedback cycle. It was also shown that more exercise has knock-on effects on other areas like you will most likely also make better nutrition choices.
You “just” need to start. Let’s use our bodies. Let’s be fit and healthy.
A healthy mind is of course an important aspect of health. Don’t let your brain degrade. Keep working your brain too. Same as with your body, your brain needs to be exercised too and needs constant stimulus to develop.
This is very easy. Today we have access to almost any information at our fingertips. Whatever interests you, you can read (I use Blinkist a lot for effective book summaries) and learn about it online. We have platforms available that present content in a structured and consumable way like Teachable, Skillshare, or Udemy.
Continuously working on your personal development and growth is the best way to keep your brain active and healthy. Just do interesting things and the habit of constant development will form by itself.
Have Good People Around You
Jim Rohn, entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker, once famously said: “You're the average of the people you spend the most time with.” So, if you wanna grow, be positive, and happy then better surround yourself with people who are positive, smart, active, and who challenge you. This will have an effect on your decisions, life, health, and happiness.
Of course, this is a give and take, and not everybody is positive always. But on balance make sure that the people around you are more positive than negative and give you more energy than they drain you of.
This is obviously true for the people with who you personally interact directly in real life like your closest circle of friends or colleagues. But that also expands to the virtual world, ie people you follow on social media, blogs you read, or Youtube channels you consume. These people will influence and ideally inspire you too.
Pick good people to have around you.
Focus On What You Can Influence
There is a lot of stuff going on in the world at the moment -- lockdown anyone? Or the threat of reduction of personal freedom. A lot of that is concerning and can be quite stressful if you let it impact you too much. Ongoing negative stress (distress) has severe consequences on our health.
My approach to this is to be aware but to focus my energy on what I can influence. I achieve this by reading a lot about certain topics from credible sources (which is often hard to really know). I consume almost no mass media as they follow certain agendas too much for my taste. I prefer to question things, think critically, and form my own opinion based on my own research.
I’d refer to this approach as being awake and for the best of your health, I recommend you too to be as awake as possible.
But then, I don’t stress about it. I do focus on the things that I can influence, which is my own health, which is exactly what this article is about. There is no point in crying around and no one else can do this for you. You build your health, a strong immune system, and a healthy environment around you by yourself.
Balance the Wellness Wheel
The term wellness is often used to describe optimal health. But that is quite abstract and not really actionable. So, let’s break it down.
For that, I love the Wellness Wheel. It was developed by Dr. Bill Hettler, co-founder of the National Wellness Institute. The wheel integrates six areas of your life that are important for wellness: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, social, and occupational. For optimal health, you need to address all of them.
Not all of the areas are equally important at the same time. It may well be that at some times some areas get more focus than others. Sometimes some areas can even compensate for others. Maybe you just went through a painful breakup (emotional), then going to the gym more (physical) and doing stuff with friends (social) can temporarily compensate.
However, on average in the long run, you should try to balance the six areas to achieve a good level of wellness.
The 4 Pillars of Fitness
Like I described in the previous section, a good level of fitness is an essential part of good health. Based on my decade-long research and experience I created my own approach to fitness, which I call the 4 Legs of Fitness Model. I published this model as a best-selling book called “From Healthy to Athletic: How to Master the 4 Ingredients to Superior Fitness” and as an online course. I also monetize that model via my semi-automated business over at 4legsfitness.com. Everything I do with 4legsfitness.com is based on that model.
Why 4 legs?
I figured out that the foundation of a good level of general fitness is based on four pillars: strength, endurance, nutrition, and recovery. Just like a chair gets unstable if a leg is shorter or missing, we also need to keep the four pillars (or legs) of fitness balanced. Below I share my thoughts about each.
First Leg: Strength
Strength is not only important for sports and athletic performance but also for everyday life such as lifting up your child, opening a jar of pickles, or simply improving posture. Training strength can be executed in many different ways where repeatedly you work against some form of resistance. This resistance can be created by using your own body weight (like pushups, pullups, planks, air squats, or situps) or by using tools such as barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, or bands. Based on your goals (eg, losing weight, becoming stronger, toning, or gaining muscle mass) you decide on which type of strength training is most appropriate, which weight, frequency, and scheme of sets and repetitions.
Second Leg: Endurance
Endurance is the capability of your cardiovascular system, or in other words how quickly and easily you are out of breath. This is also a very important capability for life and impacts everyday life tasks such as walking up stairs or carrying home your shopping. The condition of your cardiovascular system correlates strongly with your body’s ability to resist illness -- or in other words: your health. So you better make sure you train endurance.
Typical ways to train endurance include running, cycling, swimming, or walking. Two very typical protocols are low-intensity steady state (LISS) and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT typically means short intervals of very high-intensity exercises like sprinting or burpees with short breaks in between. On the other hand, you execute a LISS session at a low heart rate for an extended amount of time like a 30-minute brisk walk.
Third Leg: Nutrition
The right nutrition is probably the most effective of the four legs. Nutrition is so powerful. And it is clear: What you put into your body is what you will get out. Your nutrition has to be aligned with your goals. That’s why it is so important to first have your goals clear for yourself. Do you want to lose fat? Do you want to gain muscle? Do you want to run a marathon? Or do you simply want to become healthier? All of those goals have different nutrition requirements.
If you take this really seriously and wanna see results you’d first start by determining your total daily energy expenditure (TDEE). This sets your average daily caloric limit. Within that limit, you then set the split between the three macronutrients proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. The macro split looks very different for different goals.
Apart from this rather advanced but effective approach to nutrition, there are some basic recommendations that are true for general health and whatever goal you have:
- Reduce sugar as much as possible.
- In general, reduce simple carbs as much as possible. Next to sugar, that’s also pasta, white bread, white rice, candy, most breakfast cereals, or soft drinks.
- Reduce processed foods as much as possible. Try to get the least processed options and cook for yourself.
- Eliminate trans fat. They substantially increase your risk of heart disease. A lot of processed foods, microwave foods, fast food, fried stuff, margarine, coffee creamers
- Consume three servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit daily (see Harvard School of Public Health study).
- Stay hydrated. Drink a lot of water.
- Eliminate (or at least reduce) alcohol. (That’s a difficult one for me, too.)
Fourth Leg: Recovery
Recovery is often overlooked in health and fitness programs or is not actively addressed. It is also not a free pass for slouching on the sofa the whole day long binging Netflix. Cells are repaired and health is created during recovery.
The most effective mechanism to achieve this is sleep. Sleep is known to reduce cortisol (the hormone that is responsible for our stress levels) and improves protein synthesis (the repairing of muscle tissue that we broke during exercise). In other words, getting the right quantity and especially quality of sleep is paramount for good health.
Other recovery techniques include: meditation, yoga (or any other form of mobility work), massages, sauna, cold exposure like cold showers, or breathing exercises. Recovery is essential for athletic performance and general health. It needs to be actively planned and executed according to your goal and in sync with the other three legs.
You can of course find a way to balance the 4 Legs of Fitness yourself, or you could work together with me leveraging my Build Bullet-Proof Health program. Either way, please actively work on your fitness and health.
9 Proven Principles to Achieve Your Health Goals
In addition to the four legs, I also put together nine principles that will help you achieve your fitness and health goals. I originally published them in my article How To Create a Health and Fitness Plan That Delivers Results. Here I only summarise them briefly.
1. There Are No Secrets
Too often “magic” or “secret” exercises or supplements are advertised. That's not working. We cannot trick nature. Just stick to the basics and be consistent.
2. Know Your Goal
First step: Know what you want to achieve. Your lifestyle will look very different if you aim for weight loss, better overall health, more strength, or more muscle mass.
3. Stay Consistent
Great health, well-being, and happiness will not come overnight. You need to stick to your plan. Your results (ie, better health) will compound over time.
4. Understand Your Nutritional Needs
You need to understand the importance of the calories-in vs. calories-out (CICO) concept relative to your goal. Related to that determine your macro split and stick to it.
5. Progress by Overloading
Our minds and bodies continuously adapt. So, we need to give them new stimuli continuously, too. We achieve this by constantly increasing our body or mind training intensity.
6. Increase Your Daily Energy Expenditure
We can easily increase the amount of calories we burn by changing some habits like taking the stairs instead of the lift or using your bicycle instead of your car.
7. Work Hard And Prioritize Your Health And Fitness
In case of doubt, prioritize your health, exercise, and nutrition over other activities — at least most of the time.
8. Measure Your Progress
You can only manage what you measure -- as Peter Drucker said. Make sure that you have some sort of mechanism for controlling your activities and results.
9. Make It Work For You
There is so much stuff out there. But health and fitness are individual. The best health program is the one you can consistently stick to and it feels easy because you like it.
Habits that you can adopt easily and forever are exactly what we need for that. So, let’s talk about this next.
Practical Tips to Improve Your Health: Habit-Forming
Habits are incredibly powerful for health.
They help automate daily actions and reduce the energy we need for decision-making. James Clear describes it excellently in his book “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones”: We are what we repeatedly do. How in shape or out of shape you are? A result of your habits. How knowledgeable or unknowledgeable you are? A result of your habits. How healthy or unhealthy you are? A result of your habits.
The good news is that habits can be formed. I have planned to publish another article in which I will go into detail about how this can be achieved. In the meantime, I refer to James Clear’s book.
To help you get started I put together a list of 16 practical habits of health grouped according to my 4 Legs of Fitness model.
1. Lift heavy (you can do more than you think)
2. Learn to lift with correct form
3. Constantly progress your workouts
4. Get yourself an accountability buddy
5. Run your errands (literally)
6. Walk or bike your commute
7. Don't outsource house or yard work
8. Find a type of cardio you enjoy
9. Eat a healthy breakfast
10. Drink plenty of water
11. Make simple, healthy eating swaps
12. Avoid empty calories
13. Make recovery work preventive, not reactive
14. Reduce your stress levels
15. Create a great sleep hygiene
16. Don't skip rest days
You may already follow some of those habits. Include even more of those into your daily life. But one at a time to increase the chances of really adopting the habit. It’s all for your health. Your future You will thank you.
If You Only Wanna Do 1 Thing, Do This:
Stop seeking validation from external sources.
Instead, focus on your inner factors that really make you happy. In this regard, I love a quote from Vicki Robin’s book “Your Money or Your Life:”
“People don’t need enormous cars, they need respect. They don’t need closets full of clothes, they need to feel attractive and they need excitement and variety and beauty. [...] People need identity, community, challenge, acknowledgment, love, and joy. To try to fill these needs with material things is to set up an unquenchable appetite for false solutions to real and never-satisfied problems. The resulting psychological emptiness is one of the major forces behind the desire for material growth.”
Depending on your level of self-awareness, finding your inner factors may require a bit of searching. But it’s totally worth it. I guarantee you that good health will appear in some shape or form on your list of inner factors. The intention of my article was to give some ideas and directions about how to improve your health in a way that’s easy to execute and sustainable.
What’s the value of everything you have if you don’t have good health to actually use and enjoy what you have? At the end of the day, we all will recognize that health is our most important good.
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