Since founding the Whole9 in 2009, we’ve used “our 9” to address the multi-faceted nature of a healthy lifestyle with our consulting clients. But after developing a great working relationship with Robb Wolf and attending several extraordinary nutrition seminars (including Robb’s), we decided to concentrate our public health focus on nutrition. Since then, we’ve written extensively about nutrition’s role in a healthy lifestyle over the past several years, and conducted more than 70 Foundations of Nutrition workshops, spreading our version of the Good Food Word.
We “zoomed in” on nutrition to meet a need in the community for practical application strategies of various dietary concepts – and we were not alone. Over the last few years as the Paleo/ancestral health movement has grown, we’ve seen hundreds of new Paleo blogs, recipe sites and communities created for the exclusive purpose of focusing on nutrition. But now, we see a new need within our community – and it’s time for us to take a step back and remind our readers that health is a multifaceted concept. Nutrition is, of course, a foundational piece of any good health and fitness program – but it most certainly is not the only piece.
Frank Forencich made an astute observation about this same phenomenon in The State of the Meme, saying, “The problem with this (nutrition-focused) variation (of Paleo) is that it’s a fragment of a much larger story. And because it’s a fragment, it tends to get pigeon-holed with every other diet meme out there. This brings Paleo down to the level of pop health, where it loses its meaning and its power.” He goes on to add that “Paleo” is so much more than either ancestral nutrition or ancestral movement patterns – and we dig his perspective.
So now, for us, it’s time to zoom back out. Of course, we’re not abandoning nutrition as the foundational factor of a healthy life. But our readers need to hear more about The Big Picture. We interact with thousands of people a month via email, workshops, Facebook, and Twitter, and what we’ve realized is that many folks have drilled so far down into nutrition that they can no longer see the big picture at all.
People ask us about the lectins in tree nuts, the fructose content of half a pear, or whether it’s okay to eat the deer they shot if the deer may have been feeding on GMO corn. (True story.) And in many of these instances, what we want to say is, “It really doesn’t matter, since you’re only sleeping 5 hours a night and I can smell the cortisol on you from across the street.” So we encourage you to pull back a bit, do a little introspection, and try to see beyond any one factor (specifically, nutrition) to view the reality of your big-picture health and fitness situation. After all, self-analysis is nearly as critical to genuine progress as dissent (but that’s a topic for another day).
We’re calling this graphical representation of an individual’s overall health “The Whole9 Health Equation” (at least until we have a stroke of genius and come up with something clever-er). Yes, it is simplified – Dallas doesn’t like complex math equations. Yes, there are important factors (such as age and quality social interaction) that are not factored in here. No, we cannot quantify this for you personally, as (again), context matters. Nonetheless, let’s tackle this thing.
We think of each individual’s health status like a “bank account”, to and from which you make deposits and withdrawals. Like a bank account, your Health Balance is a product of Credits minus Debits. If you make more frequent (or larger) deposits than withdrawals, you accumulate “Health Wealth”. And, hopefully not to take this analogy too far, that Wealth pays dividends down the road. Conversely, if you overextend your resources (withdrawing more than you’re depositing), you’ll find yourself in the red – “Health Debt”. Think about overdrafting your bank account – you can continue spending for a while, but at some point, you simply can’t spend any more, because there’s nothing left in the bank. (Needless to say, that scenario stinks.) Are you with us so far? Good. Now here’s where we start talking about specific factors.
Recovery = Nutrition + Sleep + Specific Recovery Practices
Your diet, sleep and general recovery habits are all a part of “General Recovery” (health deposits or credits).
Nutrition is the biggest potential credit. That’s why we call it “foundational”. Eating adequate calories from nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods on a daily basis will deposit huge credits into your health balance. But your Nutrition factor can also be a negative integer, a debit. In other words, eating unhealthy foodstuffs can actually cost you – big. (Think obesity and chronic disease.)
Sleep matters. We make ours a priority – above exercise, reading, socialization, or even housekeeping. Dallas has written about this in Performance Menu, and we continue to emphasize this issue in our workshops and with consulting clients. Nine hours of sleep per night equals big deposits. Chronically under-slept? Equally large withdrawals. Sometimes, prioritizing sleep requires some radical revisions to one’s life. Pay now, or pay later.
Specific Recovery Practices include ice baths, contrast showers, specific mobility work (including foam rolling, lacrosse ball work or self-myofascial release), stretching, yoga, massage and other manual therapies, meditation, recovery (i.e. easy) training sessions, acupuncture, sex, napping, etc. Your commitment to Specific Recovery Practices, to a large degree, dictates how quickly and thoroughly you recover from training, and ultimately can determine whether your training is productive or simply destructive.
In summary, sub-par Nutrition, Sleep, and Specific Recovery Practices have the potential to massively impact your Health. (Duh.) How rapidly this occurs partly depends on how fast you’re “spending” those resources with Physical Stress (PhysStress) and Psychological Stress (PsychStress).
Total Stress = Physical Stress + Psychological Stress
Physical Stress (PhysStress), for most of us, is structured exercise or participation in an actual sport. For some, working a manual labor or highly physical job (construction, firefighting, etc.) would also qualify as physical stress. But for folks whose primary physical effort is deliberate exercise, there are several factors that determine the amount of PhyStress: intensity, frequency, and volume.
Intensity refers to how hard the activity feels to you, and how hard your heart is working. Frequency is how often you are experiencing this physical stress – twice a day, three times a week, etc. Volume means the amount of work you complete in each training session – whether you lift a particular weight ten times during your session, or one hundred times.
Each of these factors work together to determine physical stress – notice they are all multiplied in the equation. That means in increase in one has the potential to dramatically affect the total of your PhysStress. You can do short-ish high intensity stuff sometimes, or long and hard stuff occasionally, or long, low intensity activity daily – but not daily high intensity training, or large volumes of moderate intensity training, or (god forbid) both. Unless you’re a professional athlete, of course, in which case you value performance over health. Most of us don’t fall into this category.
Psychological Stress (PsychStress) can come from a variety of sources, and can be pretty insidious. It could be job-related stress, family/marital stress, anxiety and phobias, unresolved childhood trauma, low self-esteem, guilt, etc. This stuff runs deep. But if you carry things (i.e. “baggage”), it costs – daily, monthly, and annually. The kicker here is that a complete lack of PsychStress doesn’t make a very big deposit into your Health Balance – but its mere existence can make gigantic withdrawals. Do your best to deal with this stuff head-on, even if it sucks. Some things are actually out of your control, and that has to be okay, too.
In summary, how much of your Health Balance you can afford to “spend” (i.e. the total of your PhysStress and PsychStress) depends mostly on the size and frequency of your deposits (i.e., how much effort you’re putting into Recovery – nutrition, sleep, and specific recovery practices).
Note: Before you even ask, no, we cannot quantify this for you. We can’t say an ice bath is worth 10 health dollars, and a two-a-day training session costs you 20. You know why? Because context matters. Your specific lifestyle and health status play a crucial role in how much you deposit or withdraw from your Health Balance with any given factor. For example, an evening of dietary off-roading may cost a lean, insulin-sensitive person 10 health dollars, but it may cost an overweight, autoimmune-suffering person 100. This equation requires you to self-analyze, and determine which factors have the biggest effects on your own individual Health Balance.
Some Health Balance Examples
Some factors detract enormously from your balance. For example, the short-term sleep deprivation that normally accompanies a new baby takes a pretty serious toll on a person. In this example, you are not able to make large deposits to your balance, even if you’ve backed off of hard training, and are still eating well. It’s like taking a big pay cut for a few months – your spending habits have to change. However, what you’ve done up until this point makes a big difference. If you have a large Health Balance “savings”, you can make it through this situation relatively unscathed. However, if you’ve been living paycheck to paycheck, barely covering your withdrawals, an unexpected life situation like a new baby will absolutely break you. Still with us?
A nutritional strategy like intermittent fasting (our favorite example) might be just the right amount of “stress” to drive a positive adaptation in one person’s body, causing the overall effect to be positive. But in someone else, that additional stress only further taxes an already-overstressed system, and may actually detract from their Health Balance. Of course, every person’s scenario is unique, which is why no one can state definitively that IF (as an example) is universally good or bad.
Figuring out your individual context can be tricky, especially when you are both the least qualified person to accurately assess your “stuff”, given how close you are to the subject matter – but also the only person who has all the information about your own context. But with our big-picture approach, some practice (and perhaps some guidance from a professional), you’ll be able to better evaluate your own overall health balance, and create a solid plan to keep you in the black.
Is Your Health Balance Off Balance?
All too often, we see people struggling to figure this stuff out – really struggling, working hard. They’re committed to making changes, to progressing, to improving… but they’re either overvaluing/undervaluing some factors, or completely overlooking one or more pieces of the puzzle. Admittedly, it’s not easy, but we’re hoping that this post will prompt some more honest introspection. Here are some examples of genuine-but-misguided efforts to improve health:
- Looking for a nutritional solution to a lifestyle problem, such as attempting to offset the effects of chronic stress by cutting out fruit or nuts, or trying a new PWO whey protein.
- Being frustrated with your “plateau” (performance, weight loss, whatever) and doing more of what got you this far. “If high-intensity training helped me lose 20 pounds, then more of it will probably help me lose those last 10.” All of those factors (Intensity, Frequency and Volume) multiply to create a potentially astronomical PhysStress product before you even realize it.
- Being so wound up about sticking to the Whole30 guidelines that you actually create more stress for yourself. Folks, the Whole30 is a self-awareness tool, not a hazing.
- Over-exercising to manage your stress. Sometimes you need to suck it up, buttercup, because being an “exercise addict” is not a flag you should proudly fly – and will put you into Health Debt faster than you can say, “I’ll rest when I’m dead.”
- Being over-stressed and under-sleeping, but still cutting calories to try to lose that stubborn belly fat. (One word: cortisol.) Don’t underestimate the power of sleeping more and stressing less on body composition.
- Grappling with “that shoulder thing” and looking to your physical therapist/chiropractor/acupuncturist to magically fix it instead of taking a week (or two!) off from the gym to focus on nutrition, sleep and bumping up your Recovery.
Any of these sound familiar? Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve been working hard in all the wrong areas – the thing that counts is that you’re willing to work hard. Looking at the big picture is difficult, and takes practice – and sometimes, a template (like our equation) to help you figure it all out for yourself.
Taking Care of YOUR Health Balance
We hope our Health Equation has cued some critical and honest self-analysis, and helped you think about factors outside of nutrition as they apply to your health and fitness. Given that each person’s context is different, we’re not able to make blanket statements about how much or how little is appropriate for you, but we bet that if you stop and think about it, you will probably be able to intuit a reasonable direction to head.
In the coming months, we’ll be talking a lot more about context, non-nutrition factors, and (hopefully) a sane way to combine these things into a life that is deeply enriching. If you leave with just one concept, please remember: context matters. Drop feedback, questions or thoughts about your own Health Balance to comments.
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