My journey through the murky waters of diet and exercise is best described as a long string of fads. I hopped from one thing to the next, trying to figure out how to look good and have peak performance while eating whatever I wanted and only hitting the gym when convenient.
I was looking for the proverbial silver bullet.
After about a decade, I had refined my approach to a fairly standard “healthy diet” composed largely of whole grains, low-fat dairy, and whatever meat was on sale. My workouts consisted of basic bodybuilding and running, with very little variety. To say the least, it was monotonous. I wanted to look like the guys in the magazines (this was pre-Instagram) and perform well, even though I didn’t really know what that meant. My energy levels fluctuated wildly, and if I missed a meal, my mood would sour. I was a real joy to be around. The worst part was I didn’t look, feel, or perform all that well.
But all that was about to change.
In the early 2000s, I found CrossFit accompanied by the Zone Diet and subsequently paleo/Zone, then eventually strict paleo. I had found the silver bullet! For the next 2 years, I trained and ate religiously. I did everything “right,” only to wind up overtrained, food-obsessed, and burned out. All this perfection and intensity took me from being a supercharged Paleo CrossFit Games competitor to a guy who couldn’t sleep and got winded during a warm-up (classic signs of overtraining).
Back to the drawing board…
I’m sharing my story to highlight what, in retrospect, was missing all along: sustainability. You see, my priorities were a bit off. From the beginning, all the way through the CrossFit years, I chased short-term goals with little to no thought of the future. I didn’t consider if what I was doing was sustainable, and to be frank, even if I had considered it, I’m not sure I would have been able to tell the difference.
It has taken decades of gaining knowledge and experience to get to this point, and the journey is far from over. What I know now, and what I want you to know, is that consistency over time is the key, and mastery of the fundamentals leads to consistency.
Every person is indeed different, but there are common denominators that underpin those who have found the happy balance of looking good, feeling good, and performing well. Those common denominators are the fundamentals you need to master.
Let’s break them down.
Lifestyle is a broad term, but in this context, I’m talking about sleep, interpersonal relationships, meaningful work, and time spent in nature.
An adequate amount of quality sleep will change your life. During the 22 years I worked for the fire department, my sleep suffered a lot, and it went on so long that I didn’t even notice how it was affecting me anymore. I thought life was just full of yawns, coffee, and dark under-eye circles. It wasn’t until I had been away from the job for about 3 months that I realised what it felt like to be truly rested. All that time I was chasing my health and performance goals, I was missing a critical piece of the puzzle.
I’ve never been to prison, but everyone knows that when you screw up in there, they throw you into solitary confinement. Imagine being in a tiny cell where you can’t hear, let alone talk, to another human being. For those who are a little burned out with work and family, that might sound like a vacation, but after awhile I bet it would wear on you. After all, humans are social creatures; we crave interaction and need to see ourselves in those around us to feel like we belong, to feel like we are part of something. Our interpersonal relationships, both good and bad, shape who we are in the world. You probably know the saying that you are a reflection of the 5 people with whom you spend the most time. I believe this is true, and experience has taught me that our social circles have way more to do with our long-term success than we might want to admit.
I’m a fan of Cal Newport, and his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World crystalised a notion that I have had for quite awhile about finding meaning in my work. In it, he describes a blacksmith who makes a specific kind of sword in a specific way. Now you can probably imagine that this is a niche market, to say the least, and you may even say it’s not much of a contribution to the world. But here this blacksmith is making a living and feeling very good about what he does. Here is the punch line: What you do matters less than how you do it. You see, this guy derives deep meaning from his work because it requires every neuron in his brain and every fibre of his being to do it right. Once the iron is hot, he can’t stop until he is finished for fear the metal he is carefully shaping won’t adequately bond, leaving the blade weak and unusable. Deriving meaning from your work requires deep focus. This doesn’t mean you should quit your job and buy a forge. It simply means you need to find the aspect(s) of your job that you take the most pride in and go all in—all your neurons, every fibre of your being.
Have you ever spent so much time in a busy city that the tranquility of nature seems uncomfortable? It’s too quiet to sleep, and the lack of constant distraction leaves your mind grasping for things to pay attention to. It’s awful, or so I’ve heard. I had the great fortune to grow up in the country and spend my formative years living close to the land. For me, spending time in nature is the ultimate recharge, and hosting adventure retreats in some of the most abundant wilderness in the world tells me I’m not alone. We are animals after all, and as such we are connected to the earth. Look no further than the circadian rhythm of our sleep cycles for proof. We are literally hard wired to boot up when the sun rises and power down when it sets. All this civilisation we call home is affecting our health in ways we are only now starting to realise. Our primal selves crave the warm glow of a crackling fire under the stars with nothing but animal skin between our bodies and mother earth.
We were born to walk, run, sprint, jump, lift, throw, and dance. We were not born to sit or stand in poor positions for hours on end. Our bodies break down, change shape, and ache when we don’t move them. Unfortunately, in modern times, just using our body for everyday life often does not give it the stimulus it needs. This isn’t news, and in fact, a multi-billion dollar industry exists just to get us moving. But don’t let the headlines fool you: Very few people need a custom strength and conditioning plan with periodised wave loading and muscle confusion. We just need to move often at a slow to moderate pace, sprint a few times per month, and lift heavy things a few times per week.
Similar to movement, we were born to eat. But, we were also born to not eat for periods of time and adapt to a wide variety of foods. We are consummate omnivores and can indeed thrive on just about any whole unprocessed grub. Unfortunately, modern agriculture and the industrial revolution combined to make our food cheap and eternally available. This availability is novel, and modern humans struggle with our primal drive to pack on fat for fear that winter is coming. What we eat plays a massive role in determining our overall health and wellbeing. Diets like paleo and primal have gone a long way to improving our overall nutrition status, but what I, and millions more, missed along the way is how we eat.
Similar to the deep meaningful work discussed above, how we eat our food matters just as much as what we eat. We are wired to overeat, and the food industry has capitalised on that by creating nutrient-poor, hyperpalatable morsels we can’t ignore. Now more than ever, practices like eating slowly, chewing our food sufficiently, and paying attention to our hunger and fullness cues are paramount. These are the fundamental skills of eating. Macronutrient splits, meal timing, intermittent fasting, and all the rest must take a back seat to the basics in order to create a sustainable long-term diet.