Dr. Wall Says

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Your approach to health is all backwards…

Health Unplugged a brief recap:


Most people apporach health backwards! I have been wanting address this for quite some time, and my recent talks at Health Unplugged  have given me the just right opportunity. Health Unplugged, which took place last Saturday in London, was the first Paleo conference to be held in the UK. Diet was not the only topic, we discussed grief, sustainability, movement, eating within one’s means and much more. A host of specialists and professionals in the field of health and lifestyle were present, including Primal Play specialist and organizer Darryl Edwards,Robb Wolf, Dr. Terry Whals, cardiologist Dr. Aseem Malholtra, Dr. Naeem Akram movement expert,Owen Raybould nutrition specialist and forager extraordinaire, strongman CJ Swaby and Sam Feltham fitness trainer and founder of Smash the Fat bootcamps among others.

I was asked to speak there as someone who both specializes in mental health and primal living. My presentation on the importance of embracing stress and addressing it head on was warmly welcomed by presenters and delegates alike, and the questions brought-up during the mental health panel that was held later that day were a clear indication of this group’s understanding of health as a lifestyle, rather than a single variable concept.

“If someone were to ask me what factors contribute most to being [… healthy …] I would say rest, recovery, stress management form the base of the pyramid, then nutrition, and finally exercise.”

You’ve got it backwards and the problem is with how you define health:

There is a tendency in different disciplines for people to promote a single pathway to health, ignoring the fact that to be healthy requires a broad lifestyle-based a approach In the Primal and Paleo communities, and especially among newcomers, there is often an assumption that proper nutrition is the key to good health. This same kind of thinking is present in the fitness industry, where exercise and physical fitness are too often highlighted as the single most important factor to consider. The truth is that health is multifactorial. Exercising and having strong, flexible bodies while eating poorly doesn’t make you healthy, and eating a great diet while living a sedentary life is not the answer either.

How do you define health?

The World Health Organization defines health as : “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” What does this mean in real words? That health is not about avoiding illness or infirmity, it is about thriving physically, biologically and mentally. If someone were to ask me what they factors contribute most to being fit  my answer would be nutrition first, rest and recovery second, and exercise last. When answering this question about health the answer changes a bit and I would say that rest, recover and stress management form the base of the pyramid, followed by nutrition and finally exercise.  Notice that in both definitions exercise is at the apex of the pyramid; it is important, but it is not the most important factor. The problem is that when most people decide to jump on the health train they approach things backwards using exercise alone.

Putting the pyramid on it’s head:

fcade2_3f3b97409c5b47d6bd6d306c667cd305.jpg_srb_p_324_216_75_22_0.50_1.20_0 Sunshine, laughter and human connections: pretty good recipe for stress reduction!

People who want to be healthy often start by going to gym or getting on an exercise regimen. Sweating for health is okay, but they want their cake and to eat it too; most will change little to nothing about their dietary habits or stress management. If they do eventually decided to learn about and adopt healthy eating, they usually won’t do much about sleep, stress management or recovery. Staying up late to watch the latest episode of a favorite show, or relaxing by zoning out in front of a computer, the television or a glass of alcohol are what most people do to take care of themselves and reduce stress. It is unfortunate, because it is nearly the opposite of what one should be doing to improve that part of life. Getting more sleep, focusing on stress management techniques, eliminating mindless, passive distractors in favor of active problem solving and human connections are a far better prescription to reduce stress and improve overall mental health. Another type of problem crops up with the smaller segment of super-focused folks who, having found a path to health that they adore, can may be actively promoting stress and poor recovery by overdoing doing it (whether at the gym or by excessively worrying about the nitty gritty of diet and nutrition).

Bottom line, if your goal is to be healthy you need to focus on all three elements of health: rest & recovery, nutrition and exercise.

So what’s a girl to do?

At the end of the day, one has to know what their goals are. If your goal is to be the biggest lifter in your gym in the shortest amount of time, you might choose to focus on exercise, bulk up fast without concern for the quality of your nutrition and work the rest and recovery piece to avoid injury. If your goal is to be as light as possible, you might focus on the food, eschew w working out to avoid building heavy muscle and be minimally active. I don’t recommend either of these goals by the way. If your goal is to be healthy, however, you really need to understand that a single factor approach is sub-optimal at best; bottom line, you need to focus on all three elements of health: rest & recovery, nutrition and exercise. You cannot simply work out and eat like crap and hope that will be enough. Chances are if you have been going to the gym regularly, sweating it out intelligently and not seeing the kind of results you would expect you need to change your diet and make some nutritional adjustments. Likewise, if you are eating healthily, but not moving you are ignoring a huge component of health which is about being physically ready, able and competent to face your environment. Finally, I often come across athletes who are working out hard and trying to dial in their diet, yet complain about fatigue, lack of weight loss or high injury rates, these individuals need to improve rest and stress management.

The Pareto Principle and maximizing your efforts:

This might be the right moment to introduce the Pareto Principle. Articulated in the 1940’s by Dr. Joseph Juran in his study of Quality Management, the Pareto Principle basically states that a vital few are often responsible for the largest amount of results.  In other words 20% of something is usually responsible for 80% of the result (the percentages might vary but the gist is that a small fraction of effort usually yields the largest portion of return). This principle is used in a wide variety of industries, in marketing, for example, it is said that 80% of revenue will come form 20% of customers. In management, that 20% of em employees ill provide 80% of the productivity and 20% will create 80% of the problems. This post from Mind Muscle Greatness give some other simple, but great examples of this principle. If you want to apply this to health and fitness, you might consider focusing your efforts on what matters most, rather than throwing yourself nearly entirely (80%) into a single approach that will likely yield a smaller return (20%). You might consider that a small fraction of what you actually do yields the biggest return on your health. This means that you don’t have to be at the gym six days a week for two hours at a time, eat perfectly, and remove all stress from your life to optimize health, but that by addressing all three areas effectively and with a focus on the relative importance of each, you can really maximize your health gains. This is a fascinating principle and I have added some links to exercise and life-hack sites that describe it both more broadly and more specifically.

Chime in, do you approach health backwards? What parts of the pyramid have you been ignoring and what do you plan on doing about it? Need a plan, need some guidance? You know where to find me.

T-Nation on the Pareto Principle

Psycholocrazy on the Pareto Principle

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Hi! I'm Dr. Alessandra Wall

I help smart driven women and forward-thinking companies bridge the gap & build real conversations.

Here on the ‘Dr. Wall Says’, I share tools, tips, and insights about speaking up, getting heard and how women can take up space and thrive in the 21st century.



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