Upgrade Your Human: XPT’s 5 Pillars for Health and Wellness
There’s a lot to be said for detailed programming from an experienced coach that directs your training in a purposeful way. But all too often, we get caught up in complexity and bogged down in details and in doing so, lose both momentum and enthusiasm. If there’s a seemingly endless list of little things to do and they’re constantly changing, it’s easy to feel intimidated and overawed, and end up doing none of them. We need to get back to the pillars of health.
While I relish the challenge of creating in-depth plans for my athletes when the situation calls for it, I’m also cognizant of the need to get back to basics. This has come to the fore in the presentations I’ve been giving while traveling the world for XPT seminars and experiences this past year, and in attending conferences and other educational events. Creating and refining my session notes and seeing some of the best in the business firsthand has challenged me to distill my coaching philosophy into its most basic essence.
What are the Five Pillars of Health and Wellness?
In the age of “bio-hacking,” we are fascinated by the esoteric, reading and consuming the latest information on the new supplement, technology, or lifehack that will circumvent consistent hard work. Everybody is looking for the shortcut and the magic pill, but the truth is that these shortcuts never get you to where you want to be.
The more I learn and explore, the more I see that it’s really a few key pillars that create 90% of the growth people are seeking. We aim to bring that information back from the esoteric nonsense that clouds blog headlines and clogs Instagram feeds, and returning to the simple elements that create real, lasting change. As Apple’s first marketing brochure declared, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
In this article, I’m going to walk you through five elemental areas, then conclude with a check-in exercise that I use regularly to assess where I’m at physically, cognitively, emotionally, and spiritually. If you can check these few boxes, you’ll not only perform and recover better, but also live a healthier, fuller, more rewarding life.
Pillar #1: Breathing
If you get stuck majoring in the minors, you can start to lose your basic, in-built self-awareness. One of the ways we can be more aware of ourselves is through our breath. Though the average person takes between 15,000 and 30,000 breaths each day, it’s easy to do so unconsciously because it’s an automatic process that occurs whether or not we’re paying attention to it. Yet, by failing to be mindful of how we’re breathing, we’re missing out on the potential to change our physical, cognitive, and emotional state to match our desired outcome—and losing out on the ability to alter such a state if we get stuck in one that’s counterproductive to our health, performance, or recovery.
One of the easiest ways to monitor how you’re doing physically and mentally throughout the day is to periodically appraise how you’re breathing. Doing so couldn’t be any easier. Simply set a timer on your phone or recurring reminder on your computer’s calendar and when it goes off, pause what you’re doing and see how you’re breathing. Chances are, you’re most likely breathing through your mouth and primarily into your upper chest. Instead, make a point to transition to slow, controlled nasal breaths focusing on expanding the belly and ribs during the inhale.
Going one step further, set aside three to five minutes to breathe with this focus periodically, like during your morning commute, or while transitioning between different activities as a reset, such as in the driveway after work.
Make sure you’re taking nasal breaths as much as possible. Every time you’re aware of your breathing—whether through the timer tip I just gave or at any other point during your day—focus on going back to nose breathing.
Slow down each breath, as studies show that taking five to seven nasal breaths per minute is
and parasympathetic nervous system tone (i.e. being calm and relaxed).
Try to breathe horizontally from your belly, rather than vertically in your upper chest. Want to go even further
might also prove helpful in matching your breathing pattern to the results you’re seeking.
Pillar #2: Movement
Simply put, movement is medicine. There are so many different physical practices out there, and it’s easy to pick one and become dogmatic or tribal about it. But the real key is that you’re moving regularly throughout the day, every day.
There is no single cure-all for everything that ails us as human beings, but from improving physical capability to reducing pain to elevating cognitive function, research suggests frequent movement is about as close as we can get. If we look at just about any health and wellness-related marker, physical exercise will help move the needle in a positive way.
At XPT, we follow the lead of our co-founders Gabby Reece and Laird Hamilton in trying to be as versatile as possible. This is why we move in a wide variety of ways in different environments and on changing surfaces—whether it’s pool training, working out in the gym, or doing some exercises on the beach before going out for an SUP session. At least once a week, we engage the major movement patterns—squat, hinge, upper body push and pull, and twist, carry, run, jump, crawl, skip, and shuffle, too. Good enough for kids at recess; good enough for us as adults!
Resistance training has been proven repeatedly to be absolutely crucial to your health, longevity, and quality of life. To emphasize the importance of resistance training for every training goal and background, I regularly share in group talks that, “If you are not resistance training a minimum of two times per week, you are not prioritizing your health, period.” If you want to be the most versatile human being that you can, don’t just focus on one activity that you enjoy or are naturally good at. Challenge yourself to switch between a broad range of things and learn new skills.
Make it a top priority to move more. This doesn’t just mean hitting the gym, though that’s part of it. Also walk, run, or cycle rather than getting in your car anytime you can.
Build regular movement breaks into your daily routine while at your desk.
Be active outdoors as much as possible like XPT advisor Dr. Andy Galpin advises in his book
Frequent immersion in nature is so powerful that, as
doctors are starting to actually prescribe it.
Once to twice a week, do an endurance session and use the same frequency for higher-intensity training. Twice a week do some kind of resistance training.
Pillar #3: Nutrition
This is one of the pillars for wellness that’s often over-complicated. It’s common for people to become confused with all the contradictory information out there (fat is good, no wait, fat is bad, etc.), or to use such contradictions as an excuse to let their eating choices devolve into simply gratifying their impulses in the moment. The real secret isn’t found in a fad diet or in a super-restrictive approach, but rather in consistency. As nutrition expert and XPT Ambassador Dan Garner likes to say, “Long term consistency always beats short term intensity.”
You intuitively know which foods are good and bad for you. And yet, we often silence such impulses in favor of the easiest choice. This was reinforced when I recently flew through Denver International Airport. While the line for all the usual fast food suspects were extremely long, the one natural food place was completely empty. The majority had decided that flying was an excuse to gorge themselves on junk food, even though if you surveyed everyone, most would say they wanted to be 20 pounds lighter or healthier in general. If you just add a level of conscious thought to your consumption, you can mitigate most of the mindless eating that’s taking you away from your optimal health and performance.
Laird often summarizes his approach to food as “eat plants and some animals” and I couldn’t agree more. If you can eat right 90 percent of the time, try to vary the color palette of what you’re choosing from the fruit and vegetable section of the supermarket, and favor simple foods without any added chemicals. You’ll be doing yourself a nutritional favor.
Follow a simple rule while grocery shopping: Stick to the outside of the store and avoid the ones in the middle. This will ensure you’re filling your cart or basket primarily with fruit, vegetables, lean meat, whole grains, seafood, and a little dairy.
Avoid the lab-engineered, processed foods in the snack section.
Hydration is a key part of nutrition, so try to drink half your bodyweight in ounces—it’ll be easier if you carry a metal water bottle with you wherever you go.
Eat mindfully to avoid random snacking that can easily derail you. Try asking yourself, “why am I choosing this food right now?” Do you really need that mid-afternoon treat, or are you just bored?
Pillar #4: Sleep
Like the first of the pillars for health (breathing), sleep is one of the most elemental things every human does daily. Just like our breath, we often neglect how we’re sleeping in the mistaken belief that it isn’t important—so much so that nearly a third of Americans routinely get less than six hours a night. But it does matter, because how long and well we sleep impacts every aspect of our physiology. As sleep and chronobiology expert Dr. Michael Breus told one interviewer, “Literally everything you do, you do better with a good night’s sleep.”
From a health perspective, getting more quality sleep can improve hormonal balance, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, regulate cellular function, stabilize appetite and blood sugar, and more. From a psychological perspective, getting consistent, solid sleep is correlated with improved emotional stability and a reduction in depression and anxiety.
If you’re targeting improved physical performance, sleeping more can reduce your risk of injury by up to 65 percent, speed muscle repair by elevating growth hormone levels, boost endurance, and improve reaction speed. The verdict is in: if you want to be healthy and perform well, you have to get sufficient slumber. It’s time to stop making excuses and start sorting out your sleep habits.
Prioritize sleep so you’re not starting from a deficit every day—aim for seven to nine uninterrupted hours a night. The first step to achieving this is going to bed and setting your alarms for times that will allow such a duration—if you have to be up at 6 a.m., going to bed at 1 a.m. won’t give you sufficient time.
Logging off all electronics at least two hours before bedtime, and keeping them out of your bedroom will also help. Instead of cramming in more screen time, read a real book instead.
Going back to one of our earlier pillars, you could also try doing five minutes of slow, nasal breathing from your belly. You can also journal, meditate, or pray.
Pillar #5: Connection
The modern world often encourages us to build a bubble around ourselves—whether it’s on social media, keeping our headphones on all day, or pursuing activities alone. While the deliberate practice of solitude is beneficial from time to time, we do not exist in isolation, but are fundamentally connected to the people and environment around us.
In our natural state, we’re also supposed to be highly aware of ourselves. This is why nurturing connection is crucial. We can break connection down into three main areas:
1. Connection to other people
As a species, we’ve perpetuated ourselves by thriving in groups, from the time that humans first formed tribes onward. This is why at XPT, our community is what helps us embrace new challenges and pushes us to do more than we think we’re capable of. We were not made to do life alone.
Rather than trying to build up your online following, make a concerted effort to invest more time and energy with your family and close friends.
Try training with a friend or joining a running club instead of just pumping iron in your garage or pounding the pavement solo.
Try making more time for deep face-to-face connections rather than superficial virtual ones, and fully engage in conversation with your phone off and put aside.
2. Connection to ourselves
Being connected to ourselves ensures we’re getting the self-care we need to thrive. If we can treat ourselves with greater love and compassion, we’ll be better able to handle day-to-day problems and bigger adverse events. I recently heard someone say, “Treat yourself like someone you love.” Imagine what it would look like if you put that into action and started treating yourself like your significant other, your children, or your best friend.
Another consideration is how our self-talk largely influences our attitudes, behaviors, and habits. Without training, we can allow ourselves (often unwittingly) to become fixated on the negative and to develop a cynical view of the world. Becoming more aware of what you’re saying to yourself is the first step to remedying this.
Starting a meditation/mindfulness practice is a great way to get back in touch with your true self. You can use an app to guide you or simply sit quietly, breathe through your nose, and observe both your thoughts and feelings and what’s going on around you.
Try to become aware of every time your inner narrative turns negative. Then consider if you’re viewing the situation objectively or simply emotionally, and try to turn your self-talk in a positive direction.
3. Connection to everybody/everything
The third component is fostering connection to all. If this sounds a little “woo-woo” to you, I get it. But consider that out of the 263 centenarians (people who live to be 100 or older) surveyed by Dan Buettner for his Blue Zones book, all but five belonged to some kind of faith community.
If you’re not religious, then you might still experience connection to something greater than yourself when you’re out in nature. We’re hardwired to need to belong to and believe in something, so explore what that might mean to you.
Bookend your day with a few minutes of studying your sacred text or praying, spend time in nature feeling the connection to the earth, trees, water, or animals, or pursue any other activity you view as connecting you to the greater world.
I’m confident if you cut out complexity and instead concentrate on the five pillars we’ve just covered, you will be healthier, happier, and more fulfilled. This is going to get you 90 percent of the way to where you want to be in your life. We can then start to work on the remainder. Like a Jenga tower, if you can carefully place each block, you will have a strong and sturdy foundation and will have brought balance to every area.
You don’t have to be perfect in everything at all times. That said, if you find yourself struggling in a specific area and can’t seem to make positive change, seek an expert to help you. Also recognize that when you’re excelling in something, you might be better off focusing your attention on other things—you don’t need to fill a cup that’s already close to overflowing. If you’re feeling fit and strong, then take a look at your sleep, connections, nutrition, or breathing.
While I’ve described the building blocks as basic, the good news is that you have the rest of your life to experiment and improve in all five areas!
PERMS Balance Check-In
I’ve come up with an acronym that encapsulates the five areas included in the check-in I use at least weekly to assess how I’m doing in different parts of my life. When I’m weighing difficult decisions or have something going on that requires more introspection, I find myself going through these even more often.
Hopefully, asking and answering the questions in this check-in can help you, too. For simplicity’s sake, you could start by rating each area on a one to 10 scale, with one being the lowest and 10 the highest:
· Physical: How does your body feel? What are your pain and energy levels like? What have you done this past week to move your physicality in a positive direction?
· Emotional: Beyond the basic emotions of happy or sad, what’s going on with your deeper feelings? Are you fulfilled or frustrated, joyful or mournful, purposeful or apathetic? What happened to trigger these feelings?
· Relational: How well are you connected to others and yourself? Do you feel like you’re building stronger relationships or have they become stagnant? How well are you taking care of yourself?
· Mental (Psychological): Are you feeling alert, focused, and motivated, or sluggish, distracted, and lazy? Are you driving steadily forward or stuck in park? Are you challenging yourself or just settling?
· Spiritual: Are you being consistent with a daily practice like prayer or meditation? How connected or disconnected do you feel to a higher power or the natural world? What are you doing to serve your community?