I met a guy at a conference I was at recently. After chatting about what we each did, he asked me if he could ask me a few exercise questions. I was excited to be able to share my wisdom with him. He’s a super bright guy, a graduate student at MIT, so I was ready for a great question. He asked: “How can I get six-pack abs?” [Insert the sound of a chorus of disappointing sighs in my mind.] This smart, outgoing, fun guy who seemed like he was in pretty good shape too, was putting his precious energy into wanting to “sculpt” his midsection. I’m thinking, with this guy’s brains and energy, isn’t there something more valuable for him to be doing? I’m not being dramatic, but this guy could be healing diseases, building more efficient infrastructure in our cities and towns, improving our access to clean water, or something like this. And at the end of the day, at a personal-growth conference nonetheless, he’s thinking about great abs.
I could take a holier than though stance, if the conversation wasn’t so horrifyingly like looking in the mirror and having a conversation with a former version of myself. I was convinced that being “ripped” was the key to life. I would get the respect of men and the adoration of women based on how lean I was and how good I looked with my shirt off. I remember one day when I lived near the beach in Avalon, New Jersey and I had just come back from a run, yes with my shirt off. I was milling around our driveway and checking myself out in the reflection from the windows of one of the cars. I went in house, showered and went about my day. Later in the day, one our guests that weekend made fun of me noting that she saw me checking myself out. I was embarrassed because she caught me red-handed. It’s something I did often, check myself out. I was always checking to make sure I looked good.
So what did I tell the guy I met at the conference? I gave him a good summary of all that I’ve learned and have applied in my life regarding wellness and how it relates to looks:
1. Stop obsessing over how you look. Live the life you want to live. Be yourself.
2. Do exercise that you love. Any exercise that you really love. Life is too short to do exercise that you don’t enjoy in the pursuit of a down-the-road goal. You’ll never get this day back. Do what you love today.
3. Drink half of your bodyweight (in pounds) of water (in ounces) per day.
4. Eat lots of vegetables and some protein-rich food (meat or eggs unless you are a vegetarian) at every meal. Eat fruit, nuts, seeds, and other whole, real, natural foods as your appetite and cravings dictate. Yes, eat what you are hungry for (real food not processed food), when you are hungry for it, in amounts that satisfy your hunger. Your body is smart.
5. Get at least eight hours of sleep a night. Get more if you can.
6. Get some rest every day and as much as you can on weekends. Take vacations when you can.
7. Optimize your fulfillment in your work and relationships.
Live this way you and you will be great-looking (while being a person enjoying life, not trying to look good). You will shine radiance from being happy. Plus, all of these steps do, in fact, make you lean. Meaning, you will be on your way to six-pack abs if you live this way. The bonus is you will also be super well in all ways. You’ll have great vitality, you’ll reduce your chances of getting a chronic disease like diabetes or cancer, and you’ll increase your chances of living longer.
Let’s make some of these intangible parts a bit more concrete:
1. When you get good rest and when you minimize stress (you are happy), you minimize your production of the stress-hormone cortisol. When you chronically produce cortisol, you shunt your body’s ability to burn fat. Keeping your stress down and getting lots of rest will, when you are doing any exercise you love and eating well on a consistent basis, set you up for six-pack abs, all without any unhealthy isolated ab exercises or fat-burning supplements.
2. When you get good sleep, you optimize the balance of key appetite hormones leptin and ghrelin. When you don’t get enough sleep, the balance of these hormones gets out of whack and your appetite increases. Yes, in some evolutionary leftover, when you don’t get enough sleep, your body thinks you should eat more probably because it assumes since you are awake more, you are doing more stuff and need more energy and more food for daily cellular repair.
The outdated formula for six-pack abs is do a hundred crunches, starve yourself, and look in the mirror a lot.
The evolved formula for six-pack abs is eat a nourishing diet in line with your appetite, do exercise you love, do great work in this world, love your family and friends like crazy, get some great sleep and rest, and let yourself naturally look great without even thinking about it.
Remember your mantra for today: NOURISHING MOVEMENT, NOURISHING FOOD, NOURISHING LIFE.