If our goal is to improve humans’ health, we need first to define what ‘health’ is and then build a framework of how we will get there. My idea of health is multi-faceted, including 1) sleeping well and waking energized 2) meeting my day’s physical demands and energy demands, 3) having the mental clarity to make decisions that will serve me well in the future, and 4) accomplishing 1-3 without the use of pharmaceuticals. My 5 Pillars of health are the road map to achieving this health definition.
My 5 Pillars of health are; Sleep, Movement, Nutrition, Breathing, and Mindset. Each pillar is essential independently but will also influence the other four pillars. Some require action, and others require understanding. Our goal should be to manage a majority of our health independently. We can accomplish this by understanding how humans move, basic physiology, and how our nervous system interacts with our environment. A better understanding of these systems will lead to better decisions and, ultimately, better outcomes.
Sleep is an essential part of our body’s recovery process. No matter how physically or mentally taxing your day was, multiple body systems need some time to power down to function correctly the next day. In the six to nine hours we sleep, our bodies and brains move through various sleep stages to allow different aspects of our physiology to recover. If we come up short on the sleep our body needs, we will experience brain fog, lack of energy, cravings for sub-optimal food, and a myriad of other ill effects. With metabolic testing, genetic testing, and an evaluation of breathing mechanics, we can make specific diet and exercise changes that directly impact sleep quality. Training hard is great, but you will only reap the rewards of that training if you recover well. Sleep is one of the most critical aspects of recovery, so dialing in this aspect of your life/health is imperative.
Movement entails both the movement practice you prefer and the metabolic processes that give you the energy to move. If we were to look at one metric to determine someone’s likelihood of suffering a musculoskeletal injury or pain, it would be movement variability. Movement variability is how many positions someone can safely and competently achieve - more variability means more strength in more ranges of motion which will ultimately allow us to load more tissues. We can accomplish movement variability through individualized mobility and flexibility training and various training modalities. Metabolic variability is just as crucial as movement variability. Our body can use carbs or fat to fuel our movement - we should be efficient at utilizing both fuel sources. The exercise mode and intensity will determine what metabolic system we are training. Metabolism affects more than weight; it can impact state anxiety, breathing mechanics/frequency, and handling stressful situations. With metabolic testing, we can determine the intensity levels we need to train to increase our metabolic variability. Movement analysis and strength and conditioning testing will guide exercise selection to reduce the likelihood of injury.
Nutrition is joining the ranks of politics and religion as one of the most emotionally charged topics we discuss publicly - we’re going to use data, science, and individual preference to drive our nutrition decisions. Let’s use a car analogy to discuss nutrition and the three macronutrients. We can think of fat as our diesel fuel. Fat is a great low-end fuel, meaning we may not create a lot of power, but we can work for long durations. Carbohydrates are more like gasoline. Carbs burn a lot faster and can produce energy much quicker than fat, but the duration is limited. Protein is like oil for your car. Protein is crucial in keeping the engine (muscles) functioning correctly, but if we find ourselves burning protein as a fuel source, that is a clear indication something is going wrong. Vitamins and minerals are the fuses, fluids, wires, and hoses of the engine compartment. They are not the major moving pieces of keeping the car running, but you’ll see dramatic changes in performance/health if you lose too many of them. Metabolic testing gives us a clear understanding of the fuel you are using to create energy, which will provide us with an idea of what vitamins and minerals you may be using. Understanding what your body needs is half the battle; building a sustainable program is the other half.
“Is psychology just misunderstood physiology?” -Fergus Connoly-
We take 20,000 breaths every day. Our autonomic nervous system controls breathing, which means that this process can proceed without conscious thought. Unlike other autonomic functions (digestion, heart rate, blood pressure regulation), we can take agency over our breathing and use it to impact other aspects of our physiology. Breathing is closely related to our metabolism and ‘state.’ State is an aggregate of arousal and affect; arousal is the physiologic and psychological degree of alertness, and affect is our mood (happy, sad, angry, etc.). Breathing requires action from numerous muscles and dozens of joint complexes. Inefficient breathing mechanics can contribute to musculoskeletal pain or injury and lead to metabolic and state changes. There are several metrics to consider when determining if addressing breathing will be beneficial, from lung volume to how many breaths we take per minute while exercising and finally to how long we can stretch out an exhale. These metrics and a few others give us plenty of information to determine if it is necessary to address breathing mechanics or the rib cage’s mobility if breath control should be a part of the training regime, and what exercise intensities will be most beneficial.
Mindset is a hard one to put your finger on. Our state can make dramatic swings with hard-to-determine causes; looking through a physiology lens can sometimes help make sense. Emily Hightower uses the ‘window of tolerance’ as a visual to demonstrate how our physiology can allow us to handle greater loads of stress or hinder us in approaching stressful situations with grace. In Emily’s model, she explains that we should be able to swing from levels of high arousal to levels of low arousal throughout the day without consequence. The trouble arises when we are ‘stuck’ in one phase of arousal or do not have the capacity (window in Emily’s analogy) to handle the low or high arousal levels. Increasing our ‘window of tolerance’ will require care in the other four pillars; this is truly a pillar that cannot be cared for in isolation. Building nimble physiology is the first step. Understanding how our brain perceives our environment and predicts what will happen next can be a powerful tool in influencing your mindset. Our brain is a prediction machine. Our brain receives a stimulus and, based on previous experience, will predict what is going to happen next. If we were to react to every trigger, our response would be too slow, and we humans would have gone extinct long ago. The prediction pathway has been crucial for our survival as a species, but chronic prediction error can wreak havoc on our physiology and psychology. Reflection on past experiences and determining your brain’s prediction tendencies can be a powerful practice making it easier to stay within your ‘window of tolerance.’
Maintaining or improving our health can seem like a daunting task, and outlining these Five Pillars may seem overwhelming. As I mentioned, each pillar impacts and feeds into the others. We can build an efficient and effective program that addresses each pillar by analyzing specific physiologic metrics. Success in any program will boil down to awareness, intention, and consistency. We start by defining your intention or goal, which will be the source of motivation and discipline. We can build awareness about how your body functions through testing and data collection. Consistency becomes more attainable when the program is designed from and for your particular physiology, movement capacities, and goals. The Healthy Human Project intends to take the guessing out of program design by making evidence-based decisions. The Healthy Human Project will go live in April of 2021.