We typically only think of “diet and exercise” when it comes to the factors involved in building a lean, strong, healthy body.
While what we eat and how we move are important, they only make up a part of the equation when it comes to improving how we look, feel, and perform.
If we’re going to truly unlock our potential, develop killer bods, and get the most out of our short time on this rock, there are actually six areas to which we’re going to have to pay attention.
I like to call these areas “the six pillars of health and fitness”.
Food is one of the most powerful tools we have for maintaining or disrupting homeostasis, as well as promoting or preventing positive adaptations.
Our bodies don’t live on calories alone, and not only need energy but also water, and essential nutrients like amino and fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals that can only be obtained through food.
Not all foods are created equal in this regard, and if much of what’s available in our modern food environment is energy rich and nutrient poor – an equation that leads to obesity and disease.
Prioritizing minimally processed, nutrient rich foods doesn’t only contribute to the nebulous concept of “health” that requires placing future outcomes over immediate satisfaction, but also impacts hunger and satiety signals – impacting not only our health but our waistlines.
Many of us view movement as “exercise” that we have to perform in order to manipulate energy balance in an effort to maintain a “healthy” weight, or “training” to prepare for certain aesthetic or athletic outcomes.
However, physical activity also promotes circulation and detoxification, improves sleep, enhances mood, helps manage depression and anxiety, and can help maintain cognitive function as we age.
Further, since we no longer use our bodies regularly throughout the day to gather food and shelter, instead sitting at desks or performing repetitive tasks, we can develop movement pathologies that lead to loss of function and injury.
We don’t only need to move frequent from an energy balance perspective, but also to keep our internal systems running properly and maintain an ability to move without pain to a ripe old age.
Some of us, on the other hand, take movement to the extreme, engaging in activities of a quality and at a frequency that breaks our bodies down, necessitating diversion of physiological resources away from normal homeostatic processes just to maintain our physical efforts.
Rest and recovery play a role in the movement part of this equation as well.
For decades the average amount of sleep we’re all getting has been declining, and it’s taking a toll on our health.
We sacrifice sleep for work, social functions, and electronic entertainment, thinking that we’ll “sleep when we’re dead”.
Without adequate high quality sleep, though, our bodies aren’t able to recover physically from our training or other physical activities, put whatever nutritious foods we’ve eaten to good use, or flush out and rewire our brains and nervous systems after the demands of a day of modern life.
How we sleep impacts our moods, our energy levels, what we do with the food we eat, and neglecting this factor can derail even the most appropriate diets and well-implemented training programs.
I know I’ve used the term “stress” in previous posts as a more general term to describe deviations from homeostasis, but in this context I’m talking about mental and emotional stress.
Not only does our physical health affect our mental and emotional wellbeing, but also our mental and emotional wellbeing affects our physical health.
While short-term stress can be beneficial in terms of driving motivation and serving as a reference for times of joy and smooth-sailing, long-term chronic stress can have detrimental impacts on our health and well being.
Just as overtraining or under-recovery prevents adaptation from training, mental and emotional stress can be just as powerful in terms of preventing us from seeing the physical changes we’re working so hard to achieve.
Finally, if we neglect what’s happening in our heads and in our hearts, it doesn’t matter how lean or strong we become.
What’s the point in achieving our aesthetic and performance goals if mental and emotional stress are preventing us from enjoying the lives our bodies allow us to live?
We didn’t evolve to live in isolation, and until recently living in solitude presented many challenges in terms of food, shelter, and protection from predation and competition.
While we may feel that we’re more connected now that we have cell phones, email, and social media, we’re actually more isolated – physically, mentally, and emotionally – from our friends and family than we’ve ever been in the past.
The conveniences of modern life give the perception of less interdependence, but really we’ve only traded personal relationships with those who provide us food, shelter, and fulfillment for dependence on technological systems that mimic these relationships over greater distances.
The rise of social and familial isolation and disconnection from our communities is now being understood to be a major contributor to disease, and some of the longest living individuals and populations in the world have strong social ties that are thought to be paramount to their higher-than-average lifespan and health-span.
While the oft vague term, “environment”, could be applied to aspects of the other areas described above, I’m going to explore some factors that warrant attention on their own.
We live indoors like caged animals most of the day, breathing recycled under artificial light in unnatural body positions.
We’re missing out on sunlight, fresh air, sounds of nature, and contact with the ground, all of which can have a profound impact on our overall stress balance and immune systems.
We also live in relatively sterile environments, free of contact with bacteria and other living beings that play an integral role in our wellbeing.
Not only does our tendency to live indoors isolate us from nature, but we’re also bombarded with toxic substances that screw with our health in a variety of ways.
Plastics, food production chemicals, building materials, toxic vices like alcohol and tobacco smoke, and a host of other environmental pollutants can affect our bodies in ways that promote disease and dysfunction if we aren’t aware of and managing our exposure to them.
This is one area over which we sometimes have a bit less control, and which requires a bit more vigilance to address, but should not be discounted in our efforts to maintain lean, strong, healthy bodies.
What you can do
After covering all of these factors, you might be thinking, “Being healthy shouldn’t be this complicated.”
You’d be right – it shouldn’t.
Unfortunately, our modern lifestyles and environments are so far removed from those to which we’ve adapted for millions of years that much effort might be required live our lives to the fullest.
Don’t fret, though.
We’ll cover each of these aspects as well as specific actions you can take in future posts.
For now, though you might consider paying attention to each of these pillars, and determine in which areas you’re doing pretty well and in which areas you might need a little work.
Until next time, have a most excellent day!