I got the idea for this week’s post after scrolling through Dan John’s online forum. Someone posted their five game changers that have given them the biggest boost towards a better health.
As I’ve written in the past I don’t always see health and fitness part of the same goal. You can be very fit but in poor health. On the other hand, you can’t be healthy without being at least somewhat fit.
Here are five game changers I’ve done that have made me a healthier human.
1. Stopping soft drink and reducing sugar
Maybe I haven’t mentioned this before but I was a bartender for close to a decade (although the last 3-4 years I was only doing it casually while kickstarting my personal training career). The first few years I’d drink soft drinks during most shifts and I’d also occasionally buy soft drinks to have at home. This horrible for the teeth but it was also a sure way to keep extra softness around the belly area that just never seemed to go away. Maybe the higher booze consumption had something do with that too.
Stopping soft drinks and simultaneously reducing sugar intake is still the best thing I’ve ever done for not only my health, but also for a better body. It’s not that I think sugar is bad, but when eating and drinking stuff with high sugar it’s way too easy to sneak in extra calories that have absolutely no value.
Stopping soft drinks and reducing sugar laden foods allowed me to eat more real food, meaning that I was eating food with more nutrients and all the other good stuff that helps to improve health.
2. Shifting to more unilateral lower body training
To say that Mike Boyle has had a huge influence on how I train myself and my clients would be an understatement. After I shifted away from heavy bilateral lifting my joints and back have been so much better. And every time I go back to heavy barbell squats or deadlifts I eventually regret it.
Now the lower body lifting consists mostly rear foot elevated split squats, single leg squats, single leg deadlifts, skater squats. As well as goblet squats, double kettlebell front squats, swings and other kettlebell work. If my back is feeling good I might dabble with trapbar.
Sure, I still have most clients work up to trapbar deadlifts if they can do it without issues. And few still do barbell lifting because they enjoy it and feel good about it, but for myself and my goals unilateral is where it is at. It’s just what feels good for my body.
3. Using hand portions to gauge portion sizes
This is from Precision Nutrition and so simple that most people initially ignore it. It does take a bit of getting used to and to adjust depending on individual’s goals and bodytype , but once mastered it takes the guessing out of each meal time. No more “how much should I eat”.
I use the following measures to get each meal right for myself. However this is not set in stone. Some meals might be higher in carbs and lower in protein. Other meals might be the opposite. What matters is the averages over a longer period of time. I usually do four of the following meals. Sometimes on non-weight training days I do three or four, depending on if I am hungry or not.
– 1-2 heaped cupped handfuls of protein. PN says palm sizes for protein but I find it easier to measure beans etc as cups than palm sizes. If you’re a carnivore palm size (thickness x width x height) probably works better.
– 2 heaped cupped handfuls of carbs.
– At least 2 heaped cupped handfuls of non-starchy vegetables. There’s not really an upper limit with veg. Rather, it’s how much can I eat.
– PN recommends measuring fat with a thumb size but I find it too vague. Thumb of oil is different than thumb of almonds. I aim to eat eat 60-80 grams of fat per day, on average. Sometimes it’s across all meals, or one meal might be high in fat while the other is low. To complicate things a bit, I might also have days of much higher fat than 80 grams. Usually it evens out over longer term. It’s more eyeballing than strictly measuring.
If the fat part sounds confusing and vague it’s because I spent a long time measuring stuff, reading labels and obsessing over things when I was a fitness addict. One positive that came out of it was that I can now quite confidently eyeball foods and know what’s in it without putting much thought to it. If you are just starting out, don’t let this dishearten you.
Ask yourself, how would this look if it’d be easy?
Lately I’ve been adding a greens smoothie four days a week (work better with my schedule than seven, and I don’t get sick of it) with frozen broccoli, frozen spinach, some form of fruit or berries. I make it drinkable by adding water with a tiny bit of olive oil (apparently it helps the nutrition absorption). And no, I don’t drink it because of the flavor but to boost the immune system. But, it’s actually better than it sounds after it’s been destroyed by Vitamix.
And yes, I am using this with the same success now that I am eating mostly plant based as I did when I was eating meat with each meal. The biggest difference being that I was eating a bit less carbs with each meal.
Last thing, those measurements are the right for me. Don’t take them and expect the same results. However, you can start with 1-2 palms of protein, 1-2 cupped hand of carbs, 2 cupped hands of veg, 15 grams of fat per meal when having three or four meals per day. Keep doing the same and after two to four weeks adjust based on your results.
4. Eating 90% wholefood
This sort of ties in with reducing sugar consumption. Focusing on foods in their natural state and avoiding buying too much of highly processed stuff just works. A lot of people hate this advice because it’s so basic, so simple. But it works so well that most people stop using it!
In it’s simplicity for me it’s legumes, beans, nuts and nut butters, whole grains and white rice, starchy vegetables, and a bucket load of greens and fruit. Then I make these into meals with spices and herbs (southeast Asians and Indians really know how to make simple stuff taste great!), condiments (most things in life get better by adding IKEA mustard), passata, tin tomatoes, coconut milk or cream. Occasionally I eat fish and very rarely I eat meat.
As a side note, if I want to get leaner I go from eating 90% of wholefoods to 95% and see if that works. Usually it does. Not to toot my own horn and pump my own tires, but when you are in tune with your body it actually becomes quite simple.
Again, what works for me doesn’t work for everyone else. I am just a one man’s experiment. I recommend you become an experiment of one too. You’ll eventually know exactly what works for you. This allows you to ignore every single diet fad that comes your way.
5. Not chasing tiredness with training
This is the hardest one for me to do and I ebb and flow with it with less or more success. It’s a fine line of knowing whether I am not doing something because I feel like shit or because I just don’t feel like doing it. It’s also knowing when I have done enough and it’s ok to walk away despite what the program says.
I, like most people, used to tie the success with training to how tired I felt after. Slowly I’ve learned to qualify it with did I get better? It’s hard and I still occasionally just chase tiredness. But as each year of training passes by I feel like I am getting better. 16 or 17 years of training and I am somewhat starting to get a grasp of it.
Just missing out on Top 5
Either of these could’ve been in the Top 5 but I wanted to include both training and nutrition parts to keep things balanced.
Learning to cook
Becoming a decent cook makes you realize that there is not a single food (that I’ve tried anyways) that can’t be made tasty by cooking it right to suit your taste. Another part is that you can make a meal out of almost anything that’s left in the fridge. And at most times you can do it quite effortlessly.
If you understand how to build a solid meal using the hand portions it allows you to cook a well balanced meal that’s good for you and tastes good too. And you know exactly what you put in it.
But for me learning to cook goes beyond the nutrition part. Health can be more than that. When I have more time on the weekends I can use cooking as a time to relax. Cooking is a way to make something nice for others. Even to get them to try something they haven’t before, which makes you a provider of new experiences. It’s a way to show to people that you care about them.
Cooking also allows you to save a shitton of money compared to eating out. Since I eat mostly plant based I can make a breakfast and lunch for about a buck fifty each. Now, full disclosure, these meals are super basic and usually always the same to just get me through the day without dying of hunger. But they are not awful by any means.
As a side note, I think I’ve always been an average cook but the past 10 years that I’ve been together/married to an ex-chef has really forced me to learn to not make shit food.
Reading nutrition labels and ingredient lists
Knowledge is power. I believe that if people would read nutrition labels and understand what each ingredient means half the stuff they buy would stay on the shelf.
By the way, if you eat mostly wholefoods reading nutrition labels becomes unnecessary after a while. Eventually potato is a potato is a potato. Just ignore the IKEA mustard’s ingredient list, it’s too good to be left on the shelf.