After more than a decade of writing about wellness, I’ve come to the realization that not only is there no “one-size-fits-all” approach to health, but that the idea of trying to find one may actually be harmful. I found the things that worked for me to reverse my Hashimotos and gut issues, but those things may not be universally beneficial, and could even be detrimental to some people.
I now strongly believe that the future of health and wellness is in personalization and variation. With unlimited access to information, we each now have the ability and responsibility to find the things that work best for us and apply them.
This means that, unfortunately, there is no silver bullet when it comes to health. Each of us needs to put in the work to find our own optimal factors. That said, there are categories in which some variation is almost universally beneficial, short of a rare and specific genetic issue. Within these categories, we can each play with finding our top needle movers.
There are seven broad categories in which we all need to personalize when it comes to health. This is also the reason I don’t like to answer specific questions about what supplements I take each day or what my day looks like… because my routine is largely irrelevant to what will work best for you, as we’re all so different… and that’s a good thing!
Start with a Minimum Effective Dose Approach
Taking a minimum effective dose (MED) approach to health and wellness can help make the adjustment less overwhelming so that you don’t give up simply because you don’t have enough time.
The basic concept here is finding the minimum amount needed to accomplish the greatest change in each category. This applies in both nutrition and fitness, and in many cases, more is not better! As examples…
Nutrition accounts for about 80% of one’s physique, and that in most cases, 20% of effort creates 80% of the results in fitness. (Mark Sisson and Tim Ferriss have both explained various forms of the Pareto Principle as well).
As Ferris explains, two important MEDs to remember when it comes to fitness and health are:
- To remove stored fat- do the least necessary to trigger a fat loss cascade of specific hormones.
- To add muscle- do the least necessary to trigger local and systemic growth mechanisms.
Put another way: water boils at 212 degrees F. This is the MED needed to boil water. Raising the temperature more will not make the water “more boiled” so it is simply a waste of energy.
For health, this means isolating the most important factors that will create the greatest change. These will vary but I’ve shared a few common ones in each category below. Start with the minimums and build on them as you have motivation and bandwidth.
The definition of a clean diet will vary for each person and can be based on a lot of factors. As an example, green beans are generally considered pretty healthy, but I have an IgE response to them so I avoid them. Michael Pollan’s words ring true here: “Eat real food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.”
Often, the best approach to healthy eating is a balanced one that you can stick to. We know the statistics that those who over diet tend to be less healthy and gain more weight in the long run. A less perfect plan you can stick to will win out over an extreme one you will despise in a week.
I personally find that keeping food simple makes it easier to stick to any version of clean eating. Choose whole, real foods over foods with a lot of ingredients. Focus on foods with beautiful natural flavors (fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices) over ones that are fried or have added sugar and salt to make them more appetizing (and more likely to overeat).
Common Nutrition MEDs
- Getting rid of all processed white foods (grains, sugar, starches)
- Avoiding drinking calories (soda, diet soda, juice, etc.)
- Eating protein first thing in the morning. Ferriss suggests 30 within 30 – eating 30 grams of protein (3-4 eggs) within 30 minutes of waking.
- Consuming a wide variety of veggies at every meal!
- Fasting or intermittent fasting once a week
- Optimizing Vitamin D with the help of a doctor or practitioner
- Drinking 32 ounces of water or lemon water right after waking to rehydrate the body.
The importance of sleep is of the few things all health experts seem to agree. I’ve never heard anyone claim that we can be more healthy by sleeping less or by having poor sleep habits. In fact, many experts claim that sleep is much more important than diet or exercise. We can’t out diet or out exercise poor sleep and this is an important habit to get dialed in.
Just like with nutrition, optimal sleep amount and approach can vary, but we all need good sleep.
I’ve found it helpful to track my sleep using an Oura ring, so I can see the impact different changes have on my sleep. This data helped me understand that getting to bed by 10:30 has a noticeable effect on my deep sleep and REM and that drinking any kind of alcohol reduced both of these. I personally sleep better when I eat enough protein, get sunshine in the morning and get at least an hour of movement.
Common Sleep MEDs
- Sleeping in completely darkness (this post explains how to optimize sleep environment)
- Optimizing temperature- Temperatures in the range of 60-67 degrees appear to be optimal for sleep. This can be achieved by lowering the temperature in the room or using a ChiliPad or Ooler to cool the bed itself (this is my preferred method and has changed my sleep dramatically).
- Try 4-7-8 breathing as recommended by podcast guest Dr. Andrew Weil. Breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7 and exhale for an 8 count.
- Avoiding caffeine after noon.
- Try magnesium. I’ve found that taking magnesium helps me fall asleep and stay asleep.
- Avoid artificial light after dark. After the sun goes down, I avoid looking at screens and switch to orange light bulbs in our home. If we watch a movie or I look at my phone I use the f.lux app or wear blue blocker glasses.
- Put your feet up before bed. I find it most effective to lay on the ground with feet up at a 90 degree angle on a chair or straight up against a wall for 15 minutes.
- If falling or staying asleep is a problem, consider a weighted blanket.
As human animals, we don’t need an hour of specific “working out” in a concrete box each day as much as we need normal and consistent movement. A few years ago, all the research came out about the dangers of sitting so many people switched to standing desks instead. Then, research revealed that standing in one place all day is about as bad as sitting all day.
It appears it isn’t any particular position or movement that is bad. It is being in any one position for too long. Treadmill desks are one solution for those who work in an office situation, but an easier and cheaper option is to make time to move throughout the day. In fact, one study showed that in some tests, smokers are actually healthier than non-smokers in a work environment because they get up and move multiple times per day. I’m definitely not advocating smoking, but what if we all pretended like we had to go outside every hour or two and stand up and walk around for ten minutes…
In other words, working out is important, especially when it comes to things like strength training and high intensity that have long lasting benefits for the heart and brain. But an hour workout a day wont undo the damage of being sedentary the rest of the time.
- Get low-level movement as much as possible throughout the day (walking, hiking or even just changing positions).
- If you have a job that requires sitting consider alternative chairs that allow movement or sitting on a medicine ball. Or take the advice of podcast guest Aaron Alexander and adopt “floor culture” by sitting on the floor, which naturally leads to more movement and better posture.
- Do some high intensity work once or twice a week. This could be 75 consecutive kettlebell swings with max weight done 3 times a week. Work up to 150 continuous reps.
- All out sprints once a week. Tabata’s are best (20 seconds max effort, 10 seconds rest, repeat 8 times) by running or on stationary bike.
This pillar is one of the closest I’ve found to a universally applicable. Close relationships and strong community are absolutely vital to health. In fact, human connection is more statistically important than quitting smoking and twice as important as exercise. It improves longevity up to 50% and lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, poor diet or lack of exercise.
In other words, it probably should be the first and most important factor on this list. If you don’t have this part optimized, it’s worth being your top priority. Yet, in a more socially connected world, we’re reeling from lack of true human connection.
- Find little ways to nurture the most important relationships in your life. Maybe it is date nights with a spouse, or just walks together (see #3).
- Cultivate and strengthen friendships through regular in-person or phone get togethers. Maybe create a moms night or a dinner party rotation.
- Meet your neighbors and see if there are any you enjoy spending time with. If so, make it a regular thing.
Stress is another huge problem in our world and like sleep and community, it can have a bigger impact on health than food or exercise. Yet most of us are not managing it well. It may be mental stress or overwhelm. Yet it could also be stressors our body perceives even if we don’t consciously, like blue light at night or food that is causing inflammation.
Managing stress is a practice, and it will look different for each of us. It includes reducing bad stress and finding sources of good stress. These small good stressors are hormetic, meaning low level stresses that have a beneficial effect on the body in the long term. Think of it as the biological equivalent of “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.”
Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a helpful metric in learning about your body’s response to stress. This is another metric I track using my Oura Ring. HRV is essentially the measure of the variability between your heartbeats and researchers consider it a good predictor of health and longevity. It’s connected to the autonomic nervous system and a higher HRV is typically correlated with lower risk of death and longer life expectancy.
I’ve found that regular breathing, meditation, sauna/cold plunge use, and movement all improve my heart rate variability.
- Find the practice that calms and centers you. It might be meditation, prayer, time outside or something else, but find it and be consistent.
- If you have access and want to try, consider other stress reducers like sauna or cold plunge, or high intensity exercise.
- If working with a doctor of practitioner, consider supplements that are shown to help the body deal with stress. These may include adaptogens like Ashwagandha, healthy fats like Omega-3s, antioxidants like green tea, or herbs like lemon balm.
- Journal. I personally like The Daily Stoic and the corresponding Journal.
- Spend time with those you love. As mentioned above, human connection and strong relationships are the antidote for many sources of stress.
- Track HRV and work on figuring out the things that make a difference for you.
- Try something like Tapping to reduce stress (learn more about it in this post or in this podcast episode)
You can’t get somewhere unless you know where you’re going. Many of us have vague health goals like to “lose weight” or “get healthier” but we haven’t clearly defined them or made a roadmap of how to get there.
Wellness is a long-term journey, and not a short term goal, and having a clear and defined focus can help the process. These also help us move past more vanity based metrics like the number on a scale and toward overall health and balance.
I find that I’m most motivated and consistent when I’m moving toward a specific goal like lifting a certain amount of weight, improving a blood marker or HRV measurement, or improving my sleep. I track most of this using apps (like Oura, My Fitness Pal, or other health apps), and am able to see patterns.
The final aspect of health that is often hardest to nail down is balance. It’s no secret that we have to deal with a lot of stressors daily including less than optimal food, a sedentary lifestyle, high levels of stress, and lack of true human connection. The last thing we need is to add more stress by feeling like we aren’t doing enough or we’re getting these things wrong.
Stress and guilt over these things can be as problematic as the actual things we’re trying to fix, so finding a good mindset and balance in this area is important too.
What are your health goals? Have you found any MEDs related to health or fitness? Share below!