It’s a tale as old as time: A family event is coming up, or a vacation, or a class reunion — whatever the reason, you’re feeling a surge of motivation to get your health back on track. You go online for guidance and are immediately bombarded with urgent calls to action. Start this crash diet! Go all in on this fitness apparatus! As you click “buy” or “subscribe,” you feel a rush of certainty that this time, you’re ready to work harder, eat less, and get “real” results.
We all know how this ends: in disappointment, because these programs are designed for marketing success, not health and longevity. Extreme “health” programs require everything to go right all the time; yet, in the real world, ongoing responsibilities and surprise stressors inevitably throw life out of balance. Intensive regimens involving restrictive diets and fanatical exercise are already unbalanced and, as a result, unsustainable because they cannot weather the fluctuations of regular life.
If your goal is to live better, longer, then you need to develop balanced health habits that stand the test of time.
What Is Balanced Health?
“Balance,” by definition, involves keeping something upright and stable. Unbalanced health is akin to a bicycle: When riding, if you’re not attentive, it falls over, and you tumble to the ground. Likewise, unbalanced health habits remain upright and in motion only when you’re intently focused on keeping them that way.
Balanced health, on the other hand, is a state in which your diverse lifestyle habits are evenly distributed between stress and rest. Ideally, you’ll regularly include habits from each of the Four Pillars of Health in the ways you eat, move, sleep, and restore. Returning to our bicycle metaphor, balanced health is similar to a quadricycle or even an automobile, both of which are stable and remain upright with or without your direct focus. By distributing your time, attention, and effort among the Four Pillars of Health, you form a sturdy foundation that supports better health and a longer life.
How to Achieve Balanced Health
Balanced nutrition gives your body the nutrients it needs, when it needs them, to function optimally. Of course, since no two people are alike, nutritional needs vary from person to person, and they can — and will! — change depending on your age, health, body composition, and fitness goals. For instance, a middle-aged male weightlifter with high cholesterol will have far different needs than a female collegiate cross-country runner, who will also have different needs from a recreationally active postmenopausal woman.
The good news is, you don’t have to count macros or calories or load up on the entire alphabet of vitamins to have balanced nutrition. Following a few simple principles can put you on the road to optimal nutrition — no calculator, food scale, or VIP membership to GNC required.
- Aim for 80% of your diet to comprise minimally-processed whole foods that include a wide range of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and quality fats. If you keep a high-quality diet most days, you have wiggle room to enjoy the occasional treat without worrying it might sabotage your health goals.
- Prioritize protein. This is important for everyone, but especially if you are active, elderly, or if weight loss is your goal.
- Condense your eating window to 12 hours or less per day. If possible, align this window with your natural circadian rhythm so that most of your eating happens during daylight hours.
- Practice mindful eating by slowing down, removing distractions, and attending to your body’s hunger cues.
Signs Your Nutrition Is Balanced
You know you’re achieving balanced nutrition when you regularly feel sated (not ravenous or overfull) and you rarely experience cravings. You’ll also have steady energy levels throughout the day on most days. (Of course, other factors affect your energy levels, too, like stress and sleep!)
In terms of more measurable signs, your weight or BMI will usually remain stable and within a healthy range, and your clothes fit normally when your nutrition is balanced. A more subtle indication is healthy hair and nails (because they grow quickly and have high nutrient requirements, deficits often show up here first). Ultimately, when your nutrition is balanced, you’re able to provide your body with the energy it needs to move, sleep, restore, and live a healthy life.
Achieving balanced movement requires a mix of two types of movement: (1) unstructured physical activity and (2) structured exercise.
The research is clear that you can and should do as much unstructured physical activity as possible each day. Those extra steps to get your mail or refill your water glass are not an inconvenience; they’re a free, easy way to maintain a healthy body weight and improve longevity. Structured exercise, meanwhile, falls into three broad categories: moderate-intensity (zone 2), high-intensity (HIIT), and resistance (strength). Each is important and provides unique longevity benefits, so if you’re striving for a balanced approach, try your best to include all three. Fortunately, there are plenty of options for every category, which means you can choose the ones you like, and you don’t need to adhere to a rigid schedule! Your personal preferences and lifestyle should dictate how and when you incorporate structured exercise into your daily or weekly routine.
Signs Your Movement Is Balanced
Balanced movement is most clearly seen in physiological markers such as a lower resting heart rate, greater endurance, and/or increased strength. The most basic way to observe this is noticing that activities that were once challenging become easier for you.
Balanced movement also keeps you from feeling worn out because you’re distributing your effort across complementary forms of physical activity. By approaching movement in this varied way, you’ll avoid overuse and overtraining injuries that are common among athletes who specialize or keep their training focus too narrow. Improvements won’t be rapid, but if you stick with this approach you’ll notice incremental progress over time, which will ultimately help you build and sustain long-term health.
Balanced sleep is more than just being in bed for a specific number of hours. If your sleep cycles, brain activity, or metabolism are not properly aligned while you’re asleep, you may still feel tired in the morning — even after spending 7–9 hours in bed.
To achieve balanced sleep, start by eliminating exposure to bright artificial light for at least 1 hour prior to bed. (This includes bright lamps, but also screens of all types. Use blue-light-blocking glasses if you must!) You may also want to get room-darkening or blackout curtains to limit light if you live in a more urban area. Finally, keeping your bedroom quiet and slightly cooler than the active living areas of your home will help lessen sleep-cycle disturbances. (Research suggests cooler temperature may contribute to maintaining a healthy body weight, too!)
Signs Your Sleep Is Balanced
One clear sign that your sleep is balanced is that you are not fighting the urge to hit the snooze button every morning. Everyone has poor sleep occasionally, but if you are getting enough high-quality sleep most of the time, your body is repairing, recovering, and growing the way it needs to in order to metabolic health and longevity — which means it’s not spending your waking hours trying to get back into that sleep state!
Restoration is a crucial but oft-neglected component of balanced health. Throughout your day you accumulate physical, psychological, and emotional stress signals. Now, not all of these stressors are bad! Short-term stress actually helps your body to grow and become healthier. Nutrition and movement habits like intermittent fasting and exercise are examples that promote metabolic health and physical fitness. However, chronic stress associated with work, money, or dysfunctional relationships without adequate recovery becomes a health liability that contributes to disease risk and burnout.
As we just discussed, sleep is one important way your body recovers and rebuilds after a stressful day. But sleep alone is rarely enough! Prioritize taking a break from the daily grind to narrow your focus, rest your mind, and relax your body. Restoration practices like meditation, leisurely activity, socialization, and community involvement are all ways to counteract stress and create balance.
Signs Your Restoration Is Balanced
When you successfully balance your restoration by offsetting chronic stress with leisure and relaxation, you’ll often see improved biometrics like lower resting heart rate and higher heart-rate variability. Balanced restoration also contributes to higher motivation and stress resilience. When you’re balancing your health with restoration habits, you’re likely to feel more positive, happy, and hopeful, even when confronted with stressful situations.
Your #1 Sign of Balanced Health: Multi-Pillar/Balanced Days
Perhaps the most important sign you’re achieving balanced health is closing your Loop on a “balanced day” with Zero. This is the polar opposite of putting your eggs in one basket — when you close your Loop, you’ve diversified your health habits in the key areas of Nutrition, Activity, Sleep, and Restoration for that day.
Achieving balanced health also unlocks synergistic effects in which your habits compound for even greater benefits. Research shows investing in a daily lifestyle that includes all four Pillars of Health can reverse biological age by 3+ years in just 8 weeks! When you integrate multi-pillar, balanced health habits into your daily routine, you materially enhance quality and length of your life.
3 MORE Signs You’re Achieving Balanced Health
#1. Ample Energy
When your health is balanced, your energy levels are a clear indicator. Nutrition, sleep, and restoration are key contributors to your energy reserves, so when you’re successfully balancing these areas of health, you’ll feel consistently energetic and ready to tackle the day, every day (which can be a big help in getting in a daily dose of balanced movement!).
#2. Stable Mood
Balanced health keeps your spirits up! Thanks to more stable energy levels, your mood also stays more consistently pleasant. (No hangry episodes or exhaustion-related mentdowns!) Of course, everybody has bad days here and there, but when your lifestyle includes a variety of healthy balanced habits, your ability to counter stress, relax, and recharge means that you can bounce back and restabilize more quickly in spite of the ups and downs life throws at you.
#3. Habits That Fit Fluctuating Needs
Life is constantly changing, which means your needs and your lifestyle change regularly, too. This is one reason “perfect” health is not within reach — but balanced health certainly is. Even when you hit a plateau or need to pause certain habits, you have a range of complementary options to counterbalance your health in almost any scenario. If life gets hectic and stress levels spike, you can easily adjust health habits like exercise or fasting to reduce stress input while you dial up sleep and restoration practices. A balanced health approach is a dynamic approach that allows you to consistently pursue health and longevity in spite of life’s unknowns.
Balanced health is the firm foundation on which you can build metabolic health and longevity. Investing in any one of the Pillars of Health will pay longevity dividends down the road, but distributing your investments ensures you are building a balanced lifestyle that will not be easily shaken or toppled. By choosing balanced habits that fit your lifestyle, you give yourself the best chance at making incremental, sustainable progress that ultimately increases your healthspan and lifespan.
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