whole9 health equation

The Whole9 Health Equation

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.

Context Matters

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).

Analyze This

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.

We can help you live the Whole9 life.

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  1. says

    Very well-written article. I would like to read more about training for health vs. performance; it seems many people often confuse the two.

    Perhaps this is Frank Forencich’s domain, but the section on Psychological Stress seems a bit underdeveloped. Maybe we can flesh this out in terms of specific practices and things to avoid, just as we do with diet and exercise.

    Thanks so much for writing!


  2. says

    I’m going to read this, like, 5 times today. As you know, my most frequent — thought least favorite — withdrawal is stress. But I’ve finally gotten to the point that 8 hours of a sleep is my norm and sometimes, like last night, I manage more. TEN hours last night! What?! I’m a new person today.

    Thanks, again, for laying it all out for us.

  3. Matthew Muller says

    Thanks for another great post!

    This reminds me of a book called Toughness Training for Daily Life by Jame Loehr. He has lots of good things about managing stress, getting tougher, avoiding over training and under training. One of my favorite things he talks about is how champion tennis players utilize the few seconds between points to recover and collect themselves and how that makes a huge difference over the course of an extended match.

    I like your bank balance analogy. My big challenge seems to be that I love to fill up my account and then go out and blow it all, then start all over.

  4. Nick says

    Slightly confusing that there is a superscript 1 and 2 in the formula. Makes it look like its squared and taking the importance of physical stress to the quadratic power!

  5. says

    Fantastic article! Thank you for laying this out so clearly. I’m in the middle of my first Whole30 right now, and I’ve already learned so much from you and seen great results. Please keep this thoughtful content coming! It is much appreciated.

  6. Brittany says

    You guys are awesome. The timing on this post is wonderfully serendipitous – lately, when I listen very carefully, my intuition has been saying, “Hey, remember yoga? Remember how good it felt to proactively manage your anxiety? Remember just letting go?”

    While I’ve been making huge strides in increasing my recovery abilities (8+ hours of sleep, regular massages, good nutrition) and have focused in on the right balance of physical stress (Thanks, CrossFit Portland), I’ve unknowingly been taking some decent-sized psychological stress debits out of the ol’ health account. So when something scary arises (new demands at work, a first date, free-floating anxiety), I probably don’t have enough credit to handle the challenge. And I have been ignoring that shoulder thing…

    So, thank you for zooming out for the overanalytical and goal-focused in me. I’m grateful and thankful for your ability to paint a clearer picture with broad (and graceful) brush strokes.

  7. says

    I LOVE this. Equations make my inner accounting-nerd happy, and it’s really timely for me and my messed up neck that I made worse by trying to get back in the gym too soon!

  8. says

    @Tom: Thanks for the support. Sleeping longer just feels SO good… and Fall is the perfect time to transition back into earlier bedtimes, too.

    @Chris: We’re working on an article right now about stress, in fact (and based on your feedback, I just revised our equation graphic to more accurately represent that one factor). Thanks for the idea – our stress article should be up within the next few weeks.

    @Mel: We got 10 hours of sleep the last TWO nights – and it felt freakin’ awesome. In addition, today I did a “restore” yoga class instead of my usual power vinyasa. While the slow pace challenged my brain in a major way, I left feeling totally recharged and much more sane. Good times.

    @Matthew: I hear you on the “save, then blow it all” mentality. Think about always leaving a little something extra for those emergencies and you’ll be better equipped to handle the road blocks life throws at you from time to time.

    @Nick; You’re totally right – thanks for pointing that out. We’ve revised the graphic to make things a bit more clear. Hope that helps!

    @Carrie: These “big picture” posts are going to be a theme of ours going forward – glad you enjoy!

    @Brittany: Very astute observation. Running our health balance account to the near-bottom means that tiny little stress (like a flat tire, or waiting in line at the DMV) turns into a major catastrophe. We just don’t have the resources to cope – it’s like the stress-straw that broke your health-camel’s back. Start making bigger, more frequent deposits and those little stressors will simply roll right off your back!

    @Julia: You know how much we love a good equation, spreadsheet or formula. ;)


  9. says

    Nice work, guys. Another factor to consider in this equation that can help reduce some of those Psychological Stress deposits is active and passive relaxation. Being cognizant of when you need to meditate, draw a hot bath, or just soak up some rays and play has huge benefits to your Health Balance.

  10. Tami (Tamra) says

    This is great! Thanks so much for posting this and for answering my questions on Facebook, too. I definitely have been craving “big picture” thoughts from you all. It helps to hear that there are actually real people out there who get 10 hours of sleep! Now can you post your schedule so I can see how you do that? (not really…) I just keep trying to figure out how to work everything into my day. This post definitely gives me something to think about! But right now I’m going to bed!

  11. says

    This is a great article. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of training and diet, and miss the big picture.

    It also makes me feel slightly better about the 3 very un-paleo weeks I spent in France, eating whatever I liked. I figure the debits (gluten and grains) were matched by the psychological benefits of an amazing, relaxing holiday!

  12. says

    I haven’t read this whole thing yet — I slept in this morning so I don’t have much time to lounge before work ;) — but I wanted to say that it might be great if you could make this a PDF for download. Maybe the article prints fine, I haven’t tried yet.

    I know WordPress has plugins available that will make things become printable in a nice format that you can manipulate to ensure it stays Whole9y and lovely in your identifiable design. That could apply to all articles and might be easier than making PDFs of all the longer manifesto-type ones. Just my unsolicited $.02!

    But I am excited to read it! My psychstress is out of control lately. A lot of stuff over the past few years that I haven’t dealt with that is coming back to bite me. I’m seeing a counselor! Just doing that is a huge achievement, I think, and a good step toward becoming healthier and managing my stress better. I’m really proud of me! :D

    I might also give up caffeine again. But this Americano from my home-roasted beans tastes so good. I have it on good authority that the new cafe by my library has some quality swiss-water process decaf, so I might give that a shot.

  13. says

    “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.” [emphasis mine]

    This struck a nerve, so much so that it inspired a blog post. :) See http://pizsez.blogspot.com/2011/09/something-in-my-head-goes-boom.html

  14. MJ says

    Last night, after putting the girls to bed, I thought about this post and decided to forego catching up with my dvr and instead hit the hot tub for 45 mins (not too hot). When I woke up this morning, I had so much energy, I was able to skip my morning coffee and still feel peppy. Thanks for the reminder!

  15. Sarena says

    Geat stuff and how true. S any clues or ideas on how to sleep more duri tmes of peri meopause where sleep more often than not eludes me?

  16. ElizabethJ says

    Thank you for touching on unresolved childhood trauma. This is something that is so often ignored. I’ve been in counseling since February and have seen major improvements in all parts of my life. It got worse, much worse, before it got better but I learned that my thinking was dysfunctional, causing me lots of stress and unnecessary problems.

    I urge people out there reading this to seek professional help if they have experienced childhood trauma . By sharing this with some friends it encouraged them to seek help for their own problems.

    Since November 2010 I’ve totally cleaned up my diet (thanks M&D for that workshop), got engaged (Yay sex!) and moved closer to work (more time for sleep and less stress). I’m also in yoga school for the next 12 months. It has improved my flexibility and mental health (it’s the only time my brain will stop.and.rest.ahhhhh). Just this week I started doing 5 minutes of meditation daily. I think if more people understood the benefits more(many more) people would do it. I LOVE IT!

    It’s amazing how much you can change when you put your mind to it and stay determined.

    Thank you guys for caring about us so much to write articles like this. I love you guys.

  17. says

    What a great blog post. It’s wonderful to see someone stressing context and balance. There are already so many messages championing a balls-to-the-wall, give-it-all-you’ve-got approach to exercise and fitness, without addressing the need for rest and recovery. No body can keep up with what often becomes a punishing workout routine. Kudos to you and thank you for your great work and writing!

  18. david says

    i think i need to go back to the tools you’ve taught me over the summer..i have strayed a little bit although my food choices have been pretty sound (except for those “special ocassions) and my sleep time has improved..i still need to get more sleep..so far i have been getting only 7 to 71/2 hrs..(pretty hard to get when u have a little tike runnin around)..overall good post.

  19. says

    based on your advice i’ve replaced one of my workouts by staying i bed an extra day a week. Not just for rest, but some active recovery with the other half if you catch my drift. Everyone wins!

  20. Anita says

    I really needed to read this today. This is my 3rd Whole30 in a year (one was actually a Whole60). While I get some of the magic, I don’t lose much weight. I have been trying to change the way I exercise. Letting go of 2 high intensity heated indoor cycling classes isn’t easy for me and I’m already freaking out that I’m getting fat and flabby. I have added a heavy weight workout. But it takes time for changes to show results. I keep reminding myself of that. The two things I know I need to change most are psych stress (job-related) and getting more sleep. I’m departing for a vacation on May 1 and when I return these two items will become more of a priority (getting ready for a trip shouldn’t require so much scrambling!). I know I need a new job, and now is the time! Thanks for all the fabulous information and support you provide!

  21. Jennifer says

    I’ve lost close to 60 lbs over the past few years. Running, weightlifting circuits and eating (what I thought was) healthy is what helped me lose weight. I went on to get certifications in group exercise instruction and personal training. I found that group instruction is my passion. I went on to get certifications in formats like INSANITY, Kickboxing, Bootcamp instruction and PiYo. I teach a wide variety of cardio, strength and even foam rolling classes. I love to exercise but have always fallen short with nutrition. With all that said…my body is tired and i have an ongoing hip issue that chiroprctor nor orthopedic doctors can help with. Not bursitis or tendonitis or arthritis…but here I am with a 4 year hip pain issue. I blamed it on the running. Ive gone thru so many different kinds of shoes and finally stopped running 2 yrs ago. I continued to teach all my classes including INSANITY, cardio Tabata and kickboxing. After trying to stretch more and foam roll more, I still had to take over the counter pain meds several times a week for hip pain. Finally I told the fitness coordinator I needed a whole month of July off to rest and recover. The first week into my rest, I remembered this book I bought but never read! Dont get mad….it was It Starts With Food. Reading ISWF has opened my eyes! I have two children who make it difficult to read anything for an extended period so it is taking me longer than I would like. I am convinced that my food is causing my problem and not allowing my body to heal itself. Reading how all the fake foods wreak havoc once in the gut makes so much sense and as I continue to read, I gain a stronger desire to change what goes on my plate. Finding this article today about balance also hits home with me big time! I hope to find more articles like this one here…maybe its even in one of the final chapters of the book! I’ll keep reading to find out! :) I am hoping my hip issue is resolved with rest (its torture to not teach classes) and doing Whole30. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge and time with us…these articles and your book are changing lives for so many! As I dig through your article archives, I hope to find more info on overuse nutrition and recovery. Or maybe you could post a few links for me to make my life easier. Haha. ;) …or again, maybe I’ll find more on that topic as I finish your book.

  22. Tracey says

    Reading this article was very timely for me. I am off work at present for an allergic reaction I had and have been given Prednisone (thankfully for only a week) and larger amounts of antihistamines to settle down the reaction.
    In the mean time comfort eating has crept in and the Prednisone turned the *sugar switch* on at full power. Doctors orders are no work outs, no coffee (so sad) and plenty of rest. So comfort eating…sugar cravings through the roof and the scale says something nasty when I stupidly stepped on it a few days ago.
    My health balance is definitely off balance at present and I think a big thing I have taken away from reading this particular article is that I need to be gentle with myself. Allow the process and know that I will be back on track sooner then I realize. Oh, and to throw out the damn scale too!! ;)