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Nailing the Basics is Simple Not Easy—The Growth Equation Manifesto

If you are overwhelmed and exhausted by competing information, claims, purported secrets, and so-called biohacks in health, fitness, and performance, you are not alone. We are tired too. In this post, we are going to go deep on debunking myths, explaining why they are pervasive, and then getting to what actually works for sustainable excellence and well-being.

We are tired of people being told to hold their breath underwater, ride a bike in a sauna, or any other number of fads that activate your mTOR pathway, heat shock proteins, AMPK, or whatever buzzword is in-vogue this month. We are tired of people obsessing over infrared saunas, ritualistic cold plunges, hyperbaric oxygen chambers for recovery, magic green smoothies, special supplements, tracking sleep, and monitoring blood glucose all day, even if your blood sugar is perfectly normal. We are tired of people focusing more on breathing through their noses than on the consistency and quality of their physical activity and nutrition. And, speaking of nutrition, we are tired of people proclaiming that intermittent fasting is the cure for everything that ails you, instead of recognizing that, like every other diet, it can be effective if it limits calories and improves nutrient density, and it can be lethal if it leads to an eating disorder.

We are tired of people who send the message that it isn’t the miles you run, the weights you lift, or the laps you swim every morning that matters, but whether or not you did it on an empty stomach, took a cold shower beforehand, sat in a hot shower afterward, or consumed just the right protein super supplement at just the right time. Newsflash! The consistent workouts are what actually makes a difference. Not the other stuff. 

We are tired of straw-man arguments, of sciencey-sounding lingo, and of charlatans complicating the hell out of an otherwise simple concept just to fool the consumer into thinking, this guy knows what he’s talking about; this guy must be onto something. We are tired of bro-science pseudo intellectuals statingduring a pandemic, no less—that we should be wary of vaccines that have gone through multiple trials, while, at the same time, proclaiming that before we resort to taking vaccines, “let’s [first] make the best supplements and practices of the biohackers and health gurus available to all.”

We try hard not to be provocative for the sake of being provocative, yet we can’t help but take a moment to call bullshit.

There is real harm being done by the purveyors of scientific misinformation, diet cults, hack culture, anti-vaxxers, and those who are convinced that there is one optimal way to workout, lift weights, be productive, find God, whatever. It’s all the same heist: create doubt on the tried and true; oversell the small and inconsequential; sprinkle in some “data”; speak from authority; create a tribe; and then sell the magic pill, lotion, potion, or program. Or, perhaps even more powerful, sell the idea that if you just do [insert fad or conspiracy here], then your existence will have meaning, and you might even avoid death.

At best, this stuff distracts well-meaning people from what could actually help them. At worst, this stuff destroys people’s lives (see: eating disorders, insomnia, ruined marriages, and COVID-19 deaths in unvaccinated populations).

It is important to note that we are not faulting you if you use any of the above. It’s human nature to go for this stuff; we are all susceptible. Complex-sounding, neatly packaged, easy solutions to our problems seduce our prehistoricand quite powerfullizard brain. It’s why a bunch of really smart investors fell for a lady in a black turtleneck with a deep voice selling a house of cards. Or, why every single year, professional sports teams fall for expensive pseudoscientific junk. Everyone wants an edge. No one wants to miss out on finding the secret. In today’s world where anyone can have a platform, you must actively work against the urge to fall for magical sounding stuff that in reality is straight bunk.

Meanwhile, the stuff that actually works is, well, boring. As a colleague in book publishing once warned us, “Telling people to sleep at night, lift weights, get to know their neighbors, and go on walks doesn’t sell. Readers would rather hear about how some vitamin cures their disease, or how if they take cold showers they’ll ‘activate their brown fat.'”

In the 5th century BC, Herodotus wrote of searching for the fountain of youth, the eternal wellspring of health. Over two thousand years later, in the 1500s, legend has it that Ponce de Leon searched for it in Florida (of all placesc’mon, man!). Today, the fountain of youth resides in the tracker on our wrist, in the mTOR pathway, or in an intermittent fasting routine or drinking the latest wonder fruit from the rainforest.

Yet here’s the thing: every quest for the magic elixir has been rebuffed for over 2,500 years. Maybe it’s time we start doing what actually works.

The basics aren’t sexy. They don’t sell. They aren’t a quick fix. They are simple to understand but difficult to do consistently. It’s why so many people buy supplements to improve their strength, but so few squat two times a week for months, if not years, on end; why so many people skim blinkist book summaries but don’t read actual books.

If you, too, are tired of the nonsenseif you don’t want to be tricked into activating your cold shock proteins when in reality you have no clue what that means or what it does—that’s okay. Follow along as we lay out the stuff that actually works. At this point, we are often met with some version of okay — if this is so simple, then why read your newsletter or books, why even read this post? It’s a valid question. Our answer is because simple is not easy, and gettinglet alone stayingon the path to more sustainable health, well-being, and performance requires loads of motivation, reinforcement, and, at times, hand-holding. That’s the whole game we are playing. We are not trying to create something new and wild to sell you. We are trying to help you understand and practice, to know and do, what actually works.

Principles For Physical Health, Fitness, And Nutrition

1. Move Your Body Often, Sometimes Hard, Every Bit Counts

If exercise could be bottled up and sold as a drug, it would be a billion-dollar blockbuster. Decades of studies show that just 30 minutes of moderate to intense daily physical activity lowers your risk for physiological diseases, like heart disease and cancer, as well as psychological ones, like depression and anxiety. When it comes to physical activity, more is betterbut it is also true that you can be quite healthy taking brisk walks daily or doing a minimalist at-home strength and conditioning routine, while also incorporating little movement breaks into your routine, stuff as simple as taking the stairs and tying your shoes standing up. 

There are, however, unique benefits to intensity, or the kind of activity that makes you uncomfortable while you are doing it. But you don’t have to go to the well every day. Even just 10 to 20 minutes of intensity per week goes a long way

The irony is that many of the newfangled longevity elixirs and fads purport to prevent mitochondrial dysfunction, or the breakdown of a cell’s ability to properly use energy, which is a normal part of aging. But the easiest, best, and most reliable way to support mitochondrial health is to follow the exercise guidelines we’ve just listed. It truly is as simple (and, for some, as hard) as that.

Also worth mentioning: If you are training a lot and training HARD (you’ll know it if you are) then it is beneficial to take at least one rest day per week, so that your body can adapt to the gradually increasing stress you are placing on it.

Want to exercise to maximize health?

  • Think: consistent work, mostly easy, occasionally hard.
  • Easy: 4-5x times a week. ~40+ minutes. Able to have full conversation as you go.
  • Hard: 1-2x a week: About a 7 out of 10. Mix up what “hard” is.

2. Avoid Foods Wrapped in Plastic

Foods that undergo heavy processing lose much of their nutritional value. The result is not-so-great energy combined with lots of calories. Over time, this is a recipe for ill health. But what about all the diets, you may be wondering? Research shows that whatever “diet” you choose, the only real indicator as to whether or not you’ll lose weight is if you stick to it. That’s right. The so-called success of a diet has less to do with fat, carbs, or ketones than it does with one’s adherence, which basically disproves the magic and single-nutrient theories that are the stuff of mega best selling diet books. Carbs are not bad. Fats are not bad. Proteins are not bad. They are all just nutrients. Mind blowing, right? 

An important point about comparative diets: be wary of more extreme ones, such as intermittent fastingthey can be slippery slopes to eating disorders, which are lethal. If you are going to go on a more extreme diet it ought to be done under medical supervision with a board certified obesity physician. And, for those interested in longevity (aren’t we all!) who are searching for a single diet or supplement, two interesting facts:

  1. Studies of centenarians (people who live over 100) show they have diverse diets with really only one thing in common: they hardly eat any processed foods and they move their bodies often. But none of these Centenarians are tracking their ketones or blood sugar. 
  2. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reviewed data from hundreds of clinical trials involving nearly a million people and found that 16 of the most popular supplements and eight of the most popular diets have virtually no benefit—and some even cause harm.

3. Sleep At Night: Aim for Seven to Nine Hours

Regardless of what the biohackers may tell you, you simply cannot nap or intermittently sleep your way to optimal health and functioning. It’s only after you’ve been sleeping for at least an hour that natural anabolic chemicals like testosterone and human growth hormone—both of which are critical to health and physical function—are released. What’s more, a study published in the journal Sleep shows that with each additional 90-minute cycle of deep sleep, you receive even more of these hormones. In other words, there are increasing marginal benefits to sleep, and hours seven through nine—the hours most people don’t get—may actually be the most powerful. Deep sleep is also beneficial to mental health. Researchers from Harvard found that it’s only during deep sleep when your brain combs through, consolidates, and stores all the information you came across during the day. 

You may be thinking these are all great reasons to track your sleep, but proceed with caution. A new phenomenon that has coincided with the boom of sleep trackers and other wearables is people developing anxiety about their sleep duration and sleep quality, which, paradoxically, makes it harder for them to get sleep! The two most general rules of sleep: try hard to get sleep, and don’t freak out too much if you can’t. The evidence-based stuff on sleep, in a nutshell, is as follows:

  • Morning: Go outside or open the blinds. Natural light triggers a cascade of hormones that help to maintain a balanced circadian rhythm, the body’s natural clock.
  • Afternoon: If you need it, enjoy your last coffee of the day. The effects of caffeine can last up to eight hours.
  • Evening: Eat dinner. While the timing here is very individual, a hyperactive digestive system can get in the way of falling asleep, so aim for at least two hours between your last meal and bedtime. If you’re going to drink alcohol, limit yourself to one drink, as alcohol can interfere with deep sleep.
  • Dusk: Turn off screens. Research shows that staring at blue light before bed makes it harder to fall asleep. Put work and—even worse—the news away, as it can cause stress and set your mind racing.
  • Nighttime: Before hitting the sack, use curtains or blinds to make your bedroom as dark as possible, and lower the thermostat so your room is a little cooler than the rest of the house. Decreased body temperature is associated with deeper slumber.

4. Don’t Smoke, And Seek Help Quitting If You Do

Smoking is associated with dozens of types of cancer, as well as heart disease, dementia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. According to the American Cancer Association, smoking causes one out of every five deaths in the United States, killing more people than alcohol, car accidents, HIV, guns, and illegal drugs combined. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, your body literally starts repairing the damage caused by smoking within days of stopping.

5. Don’t Drink (At Least Not Too Much)

Like smoking, excessive alcohol use is associated with a number of chronic diseases, such as liver cirrhosis, throat cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Drinking too much also impairs sleep and daily function. If you enjoy alcohol, drinking reasonably—one drink per day for women and up to two for men—seems to carry minimal risk when it comes to health. But for peak performance and long-term ability to crush it, when it comes to drinking less is more. This doesn’t mean a single drink of bourbon with your friends will ruin your week (unless you are in recovery), so don’t obsess. But it’s a good general rule to err on the side of minimalism here. For instance, Steve rarely drinks and Brad maybe has two drinks a week, at most.

Principles For Mental Health and Cognitive Performance

1. Build Community

The people with whom you surround yourself shape you. Nothing can replace the value of an in-real-life community. Research shows that social media is helpful only if it is used as a way-station to meet people and then take those relationships offline for deepening. Yet here is the modern-day trap: Our incessant drive to be productive, efficient, and optimizing always may help us to get ahead in the short run, but it is detrimental to our social, spiritual and psychological well-being in the long run. It crowds out time and energy that we could devote to forging closer bonds to family and friends and to experiences and traditions that give us a deeper sense of belonging. As the psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm put it in Escape from Freedom, his influential 1941 book, “To feel completely alone and isolated leads to mental disintegration just as physical starvation leads to death.”

A large body of research conducted by the late University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo shows that loneliness is associated with anxiety, depression, burnout and feelings of being unmoored. As Cacioppo emphasized, our species evolved in close-knit groups, and finding a place in a deep community is one of our abiding needs. 

On our deathbeds we are likely to dwell not on that big promotion, glittering award, or other outward achievement but on the bonds we forged with other people along the way. Deep community provides us with spaces in which we can support each other through ups and downs. It’s where we find the relationships and ties that keep us grounded.

2. Don’t Expect Things to Feel Good all the Time

Conventional wisdom holds that motivation leads to action: The better you feel and the more energized you are, the more likely you are to take your desired step. Though this can certainly be true, what about when motivation dwindles or when you simply aren’t feeling motivated at all? In those instances, the best thing you can do to change your mental state is to change your physical state.

In short: oftentimes, you don’t need to feel good to get going, you need to get going to give yourself a chance at feeling good.

It’s not always easy, so sometimes you’ve got to force yourself to take action. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps individuals through a range of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression, places an immense focus on the “behavior” part of the equation. That’s because it’s hard, if not impossible, to control your thoughts and the subsequent feelings they generate. Longstanding research, first published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in the 1980’s, has found that the more you try to suppress a certain thought (for example, “I really don’t want to exercise today”), the stronger that thought becomes. Another study, published in the journal Cognition and Emotion found that the same thing holds true for emotions: The more you try to change the way you feel, the more stuck in your current mood you’re liable to be.

What you can control, however, is your behavior—that is, your actions.

Consider, for example, a period during which you find yourself in a rut. Your thoughts and feelings are pummeling you with some flavor of “you suck, you’re going to fail, it’s cold outside, stay in bed.” It’s really hard to talk or think your way out of that jam. But if you force yourself to accept your thoughts and feelings and simply take action, bringing those thoughts and feelings along with you but not being a slave to them, then you give yourself the best chance of changing your thoughts and feelings! This is one reason exercise has been proven so effective at diminishing or even reversing mild depression.

3. Seek Professional Help If You Need It

Self-help has its limits. If you are feeling completely overwhelmed by negative thoughts and emotions, or if you are thinking of harming yourself or someone else, get professional help. Finding help doesn’t mean you are weak—it means you’re strong. If you feel like you need help right now, you can call the national suicide-prevention lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. Hang in there. When you’re in the thick of it, mental illness seems everlasting and impossible to overcome, but it can, and often does, get better. Professional help—therapy, medication, some combination of the two—goes a long way.

4. Get Off Your Phone and Do Real Things In The World

Doing something that is hard and real—examples include weightlifting, running, gardening, sculpting, and woodworking—humbles you. You have to earn the successes. And when you experience failures, you can’t just talk them away. When the barbell drops, it drops. When you want to run under three hours for the marathon but go 3:04, the result is right in your face. It is hard to get out of touch with the world—or to become full of yourself—when you are working hard on something that is concrete, and when your successes are earned and your failures cannot be rationalized by corporate mumbo jumbo or social media hot takes. Doing real things in the world provides gravity, both literally and figuratively. It helps keep you grounded and deeply fulfilled.

Throwing yourself into real activities not only helps keep you grounded, but it is also good for your brain. Pursuing mastery, a kind of gradual progress where tangible results can be traced back to oneself, increases self-reliance and self-confidence. Decades of research in a field called self-determination theory demonstrates that mastery is a core input to mental health, overall well-being, and life satisfaction.

Doing real things also affords you the experience of living in a smaller and simpler world, if only for a few hours. Compared to the complex, frantic, frenetic, and interconnected digital environment that occupies so much of a knowledge worker’s life these days, a squat workout, mountain-bike ride, or trail run are a lot more manageable. In these pursuits, you are the main factor that determines the outcome, and whatever obstacles you face are directly in front of you. This is a lot closer to how our species evolved. It’s no wonder these sorts of activities, though often objectively harder than sitting at a desk, in many ways feel so much easier.

5. Read Books

Deep reading, or full engagement in a book, is an absolute joy. It is good for mind and spirit, and it is also a competitive advantage in today’s knowledge-based economy. Increasingly, people struggle to pay attention to just about anything, let alone a book. Yet deep reading confers many benefits above and beyond watching a YouTube video or skimming an article or summary. These benefits include developing a richer understanding of a topic, increasing your ability to pay attention itself, and enhanced creative thinking.

Here are seven principles for developing a nonfiction deep reading habit. All are based on the latest research and real-world practice. (Details on each principle are here.)

1) Use a hardcopy book if possible.

2) Have no digital devices in the room.

3) Read with a pen and a highlighter

4) Keep a notebook nearby to unload distracting thoughts

5) Read for at least 30 minutes per sitting of intentional, deep reading.

6) Think of deep reading as a muscle: you’ve got to train it

7) Read as much as you can

6. Work in Intervals

Regardless of the task at hand, it seems that highly focused, single-task intervals allow you to exert and sustain the physical, cognitive, and emotional energy required to get the most out of what you’re doing. This intense, deep-focus work ought to be followed by some rest. This ebb and flow — time on, time off — runs counter to the most common strategies we adopt to get through the workday: either perpetually working in an “in-between zone” of moderately hard work rife with multitasking, or working at the utmost intensity nonstop. Neither of these more traditional approaches is ideal. The former leads to under performance, the latter to burnout. A far better way to manage — and get the most out of — your time is to take a decades-old lesson from athletics and work in intervals, alternating between blocks of hard, deep-focus work and brief periods of rest.

This finding has been replicated in studies examining employees in a meat-processing plant (on average, 51 minutes on followed by 9 minutes off), agricultural workers (75 minutes on followed by 15 minutes off), and computer programmers (50 minutes on followed by 7 minutes off). Across these studies, researchers agree that the reason such work cycles are effective is the same reason why they work in sports: Intervals stave off both physical and mental fatigue, allowing people to work better for longer over the course of a day. This same strategy of on and off, stress and rest, can be applied over weeks, months, and even years. As we wrote in Peak Performance, stress + rest = growth.

7. Spend Time in Nature

Here’s a modern paradox: People report that they feel significantly happier outdoors than they do indoors, yet we spend less than 5 percent of our waking hours in nature. Such were the findings of a recent study published in the journal Global Environmental Change, which used an iPhone app called Mappiness to track the location and corresponding emotional state of over 20,000 participants. These results are troubling yet unsurprising; Nature is becoming increasingly foreign to our culture. Researchers from the London Business School and University of Wisconsin found that even references to nature have been decreasing steadily in English-language novels, song lyrics, and films since the 1950s. The great irony, of course, is that while we’re hardly experiencing nature, we need it now perhaps more than ever.

Research shows that time spent in nature helps with mood, focus, creativity, fulfillment, perspective, problem-solving, blood-pressure, and sleep. Aim for at least a few minutes every day, knowing that more is better. And when you have more time, perhaps on the weekends, there is nothing like a day hike to regain perspective and reset your mood.

So What? From Principles to Practice and Action

Too many of us are becoming the person every coach knows. The one who shows up to practice with the newest shoes, the expensive energy drink, and the tracking gadget to optimize their recovery, but then doesn’t put in the miles, or lift the weight, or show up consistently, or read the playbook. The former stuff is exciting. The latter stuff is boring. And yet it is the latter stuff that makes 99.9 percent of the difference. The rest is just window dressing.

The world’s best performers don’t mess with bullshit. We know this because we have the privilege of working with them. What they do is stack good, consistent, and solid work for months and years on end. As Olympic Gold Medalist Frank Shorter says, “Two hard interval sessions a week and one long run; everything else is easy and aerobic; do as much of that for volume as you can handle. Do this for two or three years, and you’ll get good.” 

Ditch the bro-science and be more like Frank Shorter in whatever area of your life you are trying to improve. Here at The Growth Equation—in our books, newsletter, and podcastyou’ll never find any of the crap. What you’ll find are resources to help you to stay on the path, to help you to do the simple but not easy stuff over and over and over again, to help you cultivate the motivation, community, and reassurance to keep pounding the stone. To give you language for the stuff you sense and feel but can’t articulate. That’s our promise to you.

Brad and Steve

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1 Comment

  1. […] None of this is rocket science. It’s precisely what I’ve been telling my coaching clients forever: to make progress, less is more; have a few priorities, ideally none competing. Yet, as is becoming one of our taglines here at The Growth Eq: this is simple—but simple does not mean easy. […]

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