What are the 5 healthy habits that matter most in life and why we should care about them

What are the 5 healthy habits and why should we give a shit about them? This question led me to a 34-year study of over 123,000 persons from the Harvard T.C Chan School of Public Health. In that study, researchers found consistency amongst 5 healthy things that can add years to your life (1)

The results will not blow your mind:

  • Get 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each day
  • Limit alcohol to 1 serving per day for women and 2 servings per day for men
  • Eat a healthy diet of mostly whole foods and limit processed ones. They used the Alternative healthy eating index as a reference (2) (3)
  • Don’t smoke
  • Keep a healthy body weight

Men and women that did these things by age 50 increased their years living free of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Women that applied these lifestyle factors lived 34 more years compared to 23 years of those that did not. Men lived an extra 31 years compared to 23 years of those that did not.

I know, big surprise 🤯, right?

But I’m not here to talk about life expectancy and to tell you stuff you already know. The study simply got me thinking. What are the 5 healthy habits that matter most to me? Habits that can improve my energy, my look good nakedness, and how I think and feel every day and forever? 

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5 healthy habits: #1 – Take up more meaningful movement

stick figures exercising

Too many people are busy looking for the perfect workout or the best way to train. The best way is right under your nose. Get started by doing more of what you already like and this starts by finding meaningful movement.

Meaningful movement is exploring ways to move your body that you enjoy. It makes you feel good, proud and accomplished. Fitness built around doing more meaningful movement is great because it doesn’t take much willpower or motivation. You do these things because you love doing them.

If you like Crossfit do Crossfit. If you like Yoga, double down on Yoga. Enjoy Beat Saber, dancing, rock climbing, hiking, bike rides, or another way to move your body, do more of that.

We usually don’t enjoy things because they’re uncomfortable, hurt, or because we suck at them. Meaningful movement acts as a keystone habit that can unlock the door to challenging ourselves in the future with those things.

The key is to find the exercise that you enjoy and fits into your life. You don’t have to spend hours in a gym to get and you don’t have to go completely out of your way to do it either. Keep it simple, fun, and enjoyable 

Start by adding in some meaningful movement one day per week. Level up from there.

5 healthy habits: #2 – Eat balanced plates most of the time (mostly whole foods)

Most diets agree on the same exact set of principles.

  • Create calorie awareness and learn about energy balance
  • Eat lean protein with most meals. Animal or plant-based depending on your personal preference
  • Eat veggies with most of your meals
  • Eating fewer processed foods is a good idea. Let’s just say 80/20.
  • Understanding physical hunger, emotional hunger, and when you’re full is awesome too

While it’s nice to tell ourselves that we’re going to eat 100% clean, is that realistic? Are you never going to have pizza, ice cream, beer, or wine ever again? Probably not. Those things are delicious and hard to resist.

And a little secret – you don’t need to give those things up to be successful. A diet that is made up of MOSTLY whole foods that are minimally processed is good enough.

A balanced plate may look like this:

  • Protein: 1-2 palms or about 20-60 grams of protein per meal
  • Veggies: 1-2 fists or about half a plate
  • Carbs: 1-2 cupped handfuls or about 20-60 grams of carbs per meal
  • Healthy fats: 1-2 thumbs or about 7-24 grams of fat per meal
  • Drinks: Mostly zero calorie
  • Adherence: 80-90% of the time, YOLO the other 10-20%

nutrition plate for men and women with portions

Start with one meal a day and level up from there. Also, keep track of your balanced plates versus YOLO plates. It’s easy to beat yourself up and think you messed up your entire diet with one trip through a fast-food window. Oh well, I blew my diet today. I might as well YOLO, eat my face off, and start all over again on Monday.

But check it out. If you eat 3 meals per day or 21 per week and 3 of those are your plates. You’re looking at a score of 85%. That’s pretty damn good.

A YOLO plate is a pretty simple concept. Let half your plate be YOLO food (pizza, ice cream, Korean BBQ 🤤), and the other half be something a little bit healthier and less calorie-dense. Like veggies.

 

Yolo plate

In the real world maybe this the double cheeseburger, skip the fries and add a side salad. Or maybe it’s eating a piece of fruit to fill up a bit before you go out for pizza.

5 healthy habits: #3 – Build some sort of sleep routine

Yes, I know. You’ve been sleeping less than 7 hours for years and you get by just fine. I won’t argue that. Most of us can power through our days and be fairly productive. I mean shit. It’s why we have this. Am I right?sketch of hand reaching for coffee

But we’ve become so used to not getting good sleep that we forgot what it’s like to be well-rested. 

According to Dr. Matthew Walker, in his book “Why We Sleep,” the shorter you sleep the shorter your life. But sleep deprivation may also be linked to increased hunger and appetite, compromised impulse control, and an increase in consumption of calorie-dense processed foods.

Dr. Walker also goes on to tell us that by sacrificing sleep we can also sacrifice creativity, problem-solving skills, decision-making, ability to learn and retain information, heart health, brain health, and emotional well-being.

I get it. We live in a society that promotes hustle and grind. If we’re sleeping we can’t be getting shit done. And yes, I’m dropping cliche bombs on you. Sometimes burning the midnight oil is necessary and inevitable. If you have kids, own dogs, or have a demanding career you know what I’m talking about.

But my argument is that most of those hours of poorly rested “getting shit done” are not the most productive. If we were well-rested, had more energy, and were thinning clearly we could get done in 3 hours what is taking use 8 to 12.

Here are some of the simplest ways to build a better sleep routine.

  • Temperature: Keep your bedroom temperature to 65-68 degrees. As we go to be melatonin is released and assists the body in losing heat. This cooler body temperature helps us get and stay asleep.
  • Sleep in a pitch-black room and avoid screens before bed: Light exposure can alter the body’s internal clock and disrupt its circadian rhythm. 
  • Reduce alcohol and caffeine consumption: While you might be able to go to sleep with both in your system, alcohol, and caffeine can inhibit you from catching deep sleep. 
  • Sleep and wake routine: A consistent sleep and wake time can train your body to fall asleep quicker and stay asleep. 
  • Brain dump: If your mind races in the evening spend a few minutes journaling or just writing out whatever is on your mind. 

There’s a theme here. Start with one night a week and level up from there.

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5 healthy habits: #4 – Take time to de-stress daily

Stress affects our everyday lives. How we make decisions, the way we interact with others, and even our energy.
Stress can be helpful and harmful, depending on how we choose to view it and respond to it. In her book “The Upside of Stress,” Kelly McGonigal explains to us that stress can make us stronger, smarter, and happier – if we learn how to open our minds to it. 

Years ago I had a conversation about stress eating with coach Ryan Andrews who I was assistant coaching within Precision Nutritions Level 2 program. 

The first step may be to really figure out what is meant when we use the word “stress”. “Stress” is a vague word., and because it doesn’t pinpoint any concrete problems, it doesn’t suggest any solutions.

With that being said, framing realistic expectations around “stress” in general is important. Do we really want to eliminate all stress in our lives? Probably not. Life would be pretty boring.

Sometimes we create this fantasy in our heads that if we didn’t have a job, had a personal trainer, and chef – every day would be seamless, effortless, and we would have the body of a supermodel.

Ummmm, no. That lifestyle creates its own set of challenges.

Emotional eating only becomes destructive when it’s the primary way a person deals with feelings such as loneliness, boredom, anger, stress, or depression. Food doesn’t fix anything. It just makes problems feel a little further away – like any other drug.

Finally, some of this might be rooted in reward/entitlement. In other words, some people are never good at themselves except with food. Others are never indulgent except with food. Some people are never irresponsible except for food. If food is the only way to accomplish some of these, they will run into health problems.

Granted you may not struggle with stress or emotional eating but the principles hold true. Creating more awareness around your stress is valuable.

Spend some time with your thoughts and practice gaining a little distance from them

This can be done through meditation, undistracted walks, breathwork, or simply sitting still and doing nothing.

Make sure to take some time to slow down and breathe

Even 5 deep breaths can go a long way.  This gives you an opportunity to slow down and chose a response in a stressful situation rather than reacting. 

Use stress to get better at stress

There’s something called hormesis. The philosophy has been developed further by scientific research detailed by Todd Becker, as well as many others, and embraces the concept that bouts of brief, intermittent, and progressive stress can actually help us to grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Research has been conducted in the fields of endocrinology, neural plasticity, exercise physiology, immunology, and even economics.

Things like intermittent fasting, cold showers, running barefoot, and strength training are all forms of hormesis.

5 healthy habits: #5 – Play more. Play a lot more

When I was a kid I used to play this game with my brother and sister called “don’t touch the rug.” It’s where you fill up a balloon with a little bit of air and try to keep it from hitting the rug. 

To level up we let more air out of the balloon. Or would only allow ourselves to use our feet.

We had so much fun driving around the house, getting rug burn, and laughing. We were simply playing and having the time of our lives.

Play like this is an antidote for a lot of things. But for some reason as we’ve become adults, play has made its way down the totem pole of importance.

Embracing play allows us to spend more time with friends, de-stress, exercise, and express emotion.

What did you do as a child that excited you? How can you re-create that more often?

Play, draw, color, whatever you did as a kid. 

Conclusion

Take a good look at your day today. What are the 5 healthy habits you’re most lacking? Can you spend the next few weeks practicing one of them?

Yes, just one. There’s plenty of time to level up.

Hell, maybe the healthy habits I outlined don’t mean all that much to you. What are the 5 healthy habits you would find most valuable? 

Justin

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Resources and references
Stephanie E. Chiuve, Teresa T. Fung, Eric B. Rimm, Frank B. Hu, Marjorie L. McCullough, Molin Wang, Meir J. Stampfer, Walter C. Willett, Alternative Dietary Indices Both Strongly Predict Risk of Chronic Disease, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 142, Issue 6, June 2012, Pages 1009–1018, https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.111.157222
McCullough ML, Willett WC. Evaluating adherence to recommended diets in adults: the Alternate Healthy Eating Index. Public Health Nutr. 2006;9(1A):152-157. doi:10.1079/phn2005938

Photo by Jason Briscoe on Unsplash

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