It was a September night in San Francisco and more than a hundred young, curious and ambitious minds were crammed into a makeshift startup office. I was at the front of the room with two others to talk about all things biohacking. I talked about my experiments with rapid strength gain, physique transformations, and expanding willpower. In addition to creative nutrition and supplement hacks, the two other people on the panel went into detail about their experiments with psychedelics and how they used them to overcome personal limitations—ah, San Francisco.
After 15 minutes of reality-shattering anecdotes, most of the room was visibly stunned. A hand shot up. “What is the first thing I should do to improve my health? What will have the greatest impact?”
A direct answer would have missed the mark for such a motley group. Instead, I provided a model that anyone can use to answer those questions based on their unique situation. The model serves as a prioritized list you can fall back on, whether you’re frozen and don’t know where to start, or you’re in the opposite situation, frantically trying every tip you come across.
This model ranks the major health-related areas that affect your performance and sense of well-being. If you feel satisfied and strong in the first area, look to make changes in the second area, moving down the list in order. As life moves on and things change, revisit the top of the list and make adjustments.
For one reason or another, most beginners flip this model around, working from the bottom up. It’s easy to get seduced by shortcuts or hooked on the social validation of exercise. The idea is to start with big wins and then gravitate toward the fringes to get the extra edge. Don’t sidestep the critical groundwork.
1. Emotional Health
Most health advice begins with nutrition and exercise, but those things don’t really begin to matter until you have a full cup of emotional health. I use this term to talk about factors in our personal life that aren’t normally discussed in health and fitness circles.
Emotional health could realistically be split into dozens of subtopics, but it is useful to think of just two—Purpose and Connection. Purpose is your relationship with yourself. It’s your self-esteem, your attitude, and your aspirations. Connection is your relationship with others, especially your immediate family and friends.
How well do you treat yourself? Are you pursuing what matters to you? Do you believe you are capable of achieving it? If you feel like you are lacking in this area, start working here first. Then think about connection in your life. Are your relationships meaningful, honest, and supportive? You can eat like a king, but if you are consistently disappointed with the answer to these questions, you will be performing far below your potential.
Emotional health aside, sleep is going to be the biggest win for most people. This is especially true in the United States where many of us brag about how poorly we sleep. The quality of your sleep doesn’t correlate exactly with the quantity of sleep, but most people are not allocating enough time in bed, so this is where you should start. A good exercise is going to bed without an alarm, allowing your body wake up naturally. If you have somewhere to be in the morning, plan to hit the hay earlier than usual. Do this for a few nights to get a rough idea how long your body needs to rest. If you spend most of your days unrested, simply sleeping more could be life-changing.
Nutrition is critical, but the important thing to remember is where it ranks in the stack. Food alone can’t satisfy your emotional needs or substitute the need for sleep. But once those things are taken care of, good nutrition can totally change the way you feel on a daily basis. For most people, proper nutrition will be the driving force behind physique transformations (not exercise or supplements).
Exercise is over-prescribed. It’s not the first thing you should add to your lifestyle, especially if you’re the hard-working, overachiever type. Once you have addressed emotional health, sleep, and nutrition, start refining your exercise routine and find the minimum effective dose—the smallest amount of effort and resources you need to get the intended result.
I really enjoy working out and I do it more than most people need to. We have an exercise culture that encourages far more training volume than most people need to meet their goals. A good rule of thumb is to train at high intensity for short periods of time, instead of low to moderate intensity for longer periods.
5. Supplements and Other Tools
Once you have covered the bases, the next step is to explore what you can gain from supplements and health-related technology. Supplements can give you a significant advantage, but they should be considered in addition to, not as substitutes for working on the areas above.
This model is intentionally oversimplified. The important thing is to remember the order of operations and use it to work on the right things at the right time. In certain scenarios, working further down the list may be the most effective way to make changes at the top. For example, if you are 100 pounds overweight, the benefits of changing your diet and losing fat will likely cascade upward, improving emotional health. A dramatic change in body composition has the power to fundamentally alter the way we relate to ourselves and to others.
What is one change that made a big difference for you?