What comes to mind when you hear “healthy person”?  What do you think a day in their life looks like?

I ask my clients this because I want to understand their thought process. I hear all kinds of answers: “someone who eats right”, is “at the right weight” and “works out a lot”.  Women often say “thin” or “skinny”, and men envision “cut with a six-pack”.  Others tell me, “I want to lose thirty pounds in six weeks!”.  Clearly, many of the answers I get are non-specific (or unrealistic!) and involve physical appearance only.  Physicality is a significant part of fitness and wellness, because you essentially ARE your body and I want you to feel good in it—yet, you are SO much more than a sum of its parts.  There are much deeper factors at play determining how you look and feel than simply eating certain foods (“dieting”) and doing cardio and weights a few times a week (“exercising”).  We’ll be defining—and redefining—what these two terms mean.  Food and activity are important.  But we’ve got to start somewhere else, and that’s in your mind.

In your mind, is healthy living a burden?  Is it a short-term project?  Is it about a number on the scale?  Is it an undertaking in which you’re set up to fail, committing yourself to live up to an impossible set of ideals?  Is it something you haven’t cared about until now?  Whatever the case, you might be asking yourself, “What are the most important things I need to know right now?

In my experience, the following five principles are the basic behavioral pillars that define healthy people:

  • Healthy choices are their default priority.  The mindset is: “Don’t think about it, just do it.” – This is key and one of the first things I share with clients.  Avoid arguing with yourself and sapping mental energy – “will I go to the gym today?  Will I park my car further from the store and walk an extra two minutes?  Will I skip the drive through and stop by the grocery store for a rotisserie chicken and salad greens instead?”  Your future self wants you to say YES!!! Do what you can, and start with what I call a “bite-size behavior”, like working the stairs instead of riding the elevator.  We’ll be going into great detail later on this blog about changing the environment around you to engineer better choices.  For now, onto the most important healthy defaults.
  • Unprocessed food makes up most of what they eat. Vegetables, fruits, high quality meats, eggs, beans, and nuts are a few examples.  Generally, “Food” that comes in a bag or a box and has changed form in some way is avoided.  The reason is simple: unprocessed food tends to have many more nutrients, which actually help you feel and function better, not worse.  Unprocessed food = healthy body that feels great.  Crap in a box = feeling like crap.  Does that mean no splurging on stuff that tastes delicious but isn’t so nutritious?  Of course splurging is part of the plan!  More on that later.
  • Physical activity is part of their routine. Again, they just do it.  Whether it’s going for a walk, a swim or a hike, or cranking out some bodyweight exercises, or lifting weights at the gym, the healthy-living crowd finds a way to stay active.  Some people naturally love to break a sweat, and others don’t.  That’s completely okay.  Either way, the truth is that you will function better with regular physical activity.  It’s a fact of human life, and once you make it a habit to move more, it becomes an intense reward in itself : better mood, less stress, more energy, higher quality sleep…the list is a long one.
  • They find as much social support as possible. If you prefer more social activities, ask a friend to come with you to try a walking Meetup or Fitmob group workout in your area.  Join a local fitness class inside or outside of a gym and get to know the people.  Have your partner go grocery shopping with you and help you pick out some health-promoting options that you’ll both eat.  Ask a friend who’s into cooking to share their favorite “light” recipe with you, or use the power of the Internet to Google something delicious and highly-rated (or try here).  Make your healthy living goals public and know that while some people may not understand, it’s important for you to take care of yourself, and you might influence them to make better choices while reinforcing with yourself what makes you feel your best.
  • They sleep enough! Most people need at least seven to eight hours per night, according to my primary care doctor.  Most of my clients get between five and seven, just short of what’s needed for prime functioning.  The best tip I have is to turn off the TV, laptop, tablet, and phone at least one hour before you go to bed.  Ideally, keep electronics out of the bedroom.  They’ll be there tomorrow, and with adequate refreshing sleep, you’ll be ready.

Taking care of yourself is a responsibility, an exploration, a source of true joy when you make a choice and recognize that your future self will thank you for it.  It’s a personal journey, one in which you’re naturally searching for what works best for you.

These pillars support a process, played out over time.  It doesn’t happen at all once, but in some natural stops and starts.  Bookmark this list and come back to it often to refresh when needed.   Master the basics and do them consistently.  Healthy habits equal results!  We’ll talk more soon about keeping the motivational fire burning.

[Photo: Autumn tree @ dusk; Sunnyvale, California]