The single most important decisions you’ll ever make in life are how you eat and whether you exercise. And yet most people never actually make these decisions at all. They get made by default. That’s how it was for me. Then I decided to change something. You can too.

Let’s start with exercise. You can get by with regular exercise and an okay diet but without exercise, a good diet almost doesn’t matter.  As my hero Jack LaLanne says, “the single biggest killer in life is inactivity.”  It’s amazing that society has developed to the point we’re at now, where many people work sitting down instead of doing backbreaking labor for a pittance. That’s a good thing but it’s lead to a downward spiral in health and fitness. The side effect of that are various “rich world” diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes.  But I think you’ve got a good chance to beat them.  And it starts with exercise.

When people live to a ripe old age without getting sick, people say, “they must have good genes.” This is an excuse to continue doing nothing in their own lives. Genes do play a factor, but unless you have a genetic disease (statistically highly unlikely) you’re much better off assuming you have genes that work just fine. After all, thousands and thousands of generations lead up to you. Your genes are survivor’s genes or you wouldn’t be here right now. Just assume your genes are fine and begin exercising and eating right. If you’re wrong there was nothing you could do about it anyway. We can’t control for genes. What we can control is our own effort and dedication.

Now you’re probably thinking “I hate the gym” or “exercise equipment is expensive” or some other attempt to stay right where you are now. You don’t need a gym. You don’t need special equipment. Exercise is simple. Just go outside. Walk. Run around. If you live in a warm climate, swim. If you do want to invest in a little equipment, get a heavy bag for the back yard. Hit it repeatedly. Come back the next day and do it again. If you don’t want to go outside, get yourself a gel mat for the floor. It will cost you around $25 bucks.  You can do push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks and a million other exercises. You don’t even have to do it in one block of time. You can do it while watching TV with the spouse, or in five-minute bursts throughout the day like I do when I am busy. You’d be surprised about what you can do with just your body weight. Check out all these body weight exercises at Fitloop. They have videos of every single one.  Of course, there’s a sub-Reddit if you want to learn more.  You don’t need weights or an expensive elliptical machine. You just need your own body and the floor.

To be clear, I’m not slamming the gym. Maybe you like the social aspect of it or it motivates you?  Great.  Go there.  If you have the money and want a machine, get it.  But don’t let money be a barrier.  The universe gave you the great outdoors, as well as gravity.  That’s all you need.

How often should you exercise? Most experts say at least 3 or 4 times a week. If you do that, be proud of yourself. If you’re just starting out, that’s a great goal to set, especially if you’ve stayed sedentary your whole life.  But I challenge you to do it every day. The body works better when we move more often. Again, keep it simple and you can work out every day without injury. Remember, it can be in five-minute bursts, or while watching TV.  Don’t go nuts with this.  You will miss days from time to time, because of special occasions, but keep them to a minimum.  Don’t let “just this one time” become an every day excuse.  Pretty soon “this one time” adds up to weeks or months of inactivity.

Your body needs three types of exercise:

– Cardio
– Resistance or Weight training (body weight absolutely counts here, does not need to be free weights or machines)
– Stretching

All of them are essential as you age. If you’re skipping one in favor of the other, stop it. You want all three.  It won’t help if you’re strong but can’t bend over.  It won’t help if you can reach something off the top shelf if your grip is so weak you drop it.  Use the three to vary your routine, so you don’t get bored. Some days might just be stretching. The next day you might do some jumping squats and push-ups. The next day, you do some cardio. Personally, I like cardio the most. That’s something you can absolutely do every day. Stretch a bit and then go. Lift a bit and then walk.

The point is to get started. No matter how old you are, or how late you started, you can make improvement fast. You’ll be surprised at how fast your body repairs itself. Maybe you’re so used to needing three cups of coffee a day while still dragging through your work, that you don’t even realize this is NOT your natural state. When I drink a single cup of tea now, I am wired. I used to drink three and still feel like my feet were stuck in mud. Our body is a remarkable machine.  After only a month or so, that change happened.

Let’s discuss diet now.  Sometimes it seems like nothing in life is more confusing than a good diet.  Let’s be honest, much of the diet industry is filled with charlatans and fools.  There is no end to insane advice.  You meet some young raw foodie, or someone who claims wheat is poison or that you can cut out some single substance like sugar or saturated fat and voila, perfect health.  This is BS. And I like everyone else fell prey to it. The faster you shake off the delusion the better. First of all, cutting one substance out of your life, such as fat or sugar, or dropping carbs or meat or whatever will not save you.  Your body needs fats.  It needs sugar.  People are omnivores.  They can eat anything and process it.  The key to everything is balance. Balance is the key.

If you become a vegetarian and eat lots of salt, that’s not going to work.  If you eat just meat and vegetables and pile on the red meat every day, good luck.  You can pretend to yourself that you’re healthy but you’re not fooling anyone, but yourself.

Sometimes when people start to figure out how to eat right, they go crazy and stop thinking clearly.  They learn that avocados are “healthy fats” and coconut and cacao are healthy and they start piling it all together and suddenly they have 2000 calories of saturated fat for the day.  You see saturated fat is not the problem, it’s when it gets out of whack with everything else.  When you aren’t working out and eating too much and eating the wrong things, that creates a perfect storm where you body goes crazy trying to deal with the sinking ship.  It’s all these things in combination that is the problem.  Cutting one thing out of your diet and expecting health is ludicrous.  Even worse, so much of the “conventional wisdom” we grow up with like “saturated fat is bad” and “watch out for that sugar” is not so wise after all.  The science doesn’t back it up.  I won’t spend too much time here talking about why, but if you’re interested read Death by Food Pyramid and the author explains it all in exhausting depth.  She goes back to the original studies and looks at the data.  She reads the papers.  She even starts off with a quick one-chapter refresher course on critical thinking, always a good sign.

A little critical thinking goes a long way here.  If you don’t know what critical thinking is, take a class.  It will be the best one you ever took in your life.  My man, Jack LaLanne: lived until 96, was never sick and wrote a book when he was 95.  In it, there’s a picture of Jack doing fingertip push-ups in his eighties. It struck me that a man who lived that long, still doing feats of strength at eighty, probably knows a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t work, when it comes to longevity.  I don’t need to look a heck of a lot further.  And neither do you.  It’s all pretty simple actually, when it comes right down to it.

How simple?  Check out this video of Jack from his show discussing the “secret of happiness.”

Let’s ask ourselves a question here.   Do you even know how you came to eat the way you eat? Have you ever thought about it? Did you receive your diet as a hand me down from your parents? Did it come to you from the fat and grease laden school lunch cafeteria? Did you simply pick whatever tasted good and go with that? Most people learn to eat whatever appears in front of them in life and never think about it at all. They just think, “well this is what I like” never realizing they were trained to like those foods by circumstances and their upbringing.

More often than not, we continue eating what we grew up on, whether our parents knew the slightest thing about healthy food or not. The truth is, unless you’re lucky, your parents probably didn’t know a damn thing about what was good for you. My parents have come a long way in terms of how they eat these days, but growing up they had no idea. How could they? They were kids themselves, only in their early twenties. They fed me powdered mac and cheese, juice boxes, sugar laden jams on white bread, fried chicken, burgers, pizza, cheese steaks. Every once in awhile mom probably fed you a salad but could you even see the leaves under that gallon of thousand-island dressing? Probably not. In other words, even the damn salads you had didn’t amount to much nutrition for your growing body.

I don’t spend much time worrying about the past. It’s gone. The decisions you make now are the most important, starting today. You don’t have to eat the way you were taught. All it takes is a little reflection. The truth is we already know the things we should be eating. If I asked you to name the four most important foods, could you do it?If you said:

  • fruits
  • vegetables
  • lean meats (optional but good)
  • fish

Congrats, you’re right. If I told you name the worst way to prepare food what would you say? Fried, right? You see you already know what you should be eating and how to cook things. So why aren’t you? Let’s take a little time to explore.

I’ve been guilty of poor eating for so long I can’t remember. Every once in awhile I would go on a health kick, but rarely. To a certain degree I got lucky when it came to sugars. Like a bazillion other kids from the sixties and seventies I was diagnosed with “hyperactivity” a bogus disease that amounted to keeping kids under better control. The plus side of this spurious diagnosis was it decreased my processed sugar intake a great deal. My parents didn’t want me bouncing off the walls. But even though I wasn’t gobbling Snickers at a young age, if you grew up in the sixties, seventies and eighties you probably couldn’t escape sugar in almost anything. Bought some crackers? Sugar added. Got some fruit juice? Sugar added. Cereal. Lots of sugar added.

I grew up eating the wrong things. I never thought about it. So what changed for me?

I went to the doctor and was told that my blood pressure had gone “borderline.” I didn’t want to find out what was beyond that border so I changed. It’s really as simple as that. Change is not a gradual thing. All that lead up, hemming and hawing, wishing you were eating better but not actually doing it, is not actually part of the change process. It’s part of our internal denial and procrastination process. When real change happens, it happens all at once. You’ve had enough.

So I started reading, trying to figure out what the best method of eating was. I used an engineer’s approach, looking to eliminate as many diets as possible, without having to read them all.  The key is to figure out who’s telling the truth out there and who has a second agenda.

Life is really simple in many ways. We make it complicated. The truth is always right there in front of us. Jack is an inspiration because he figured it out before anyone else. He was telling people to work out and eat whole foods in the 1930’s. He had to contend with doctors who believed smoking was good for you, that working out could cause heart attacks and that you’d end up muscle bound and lose all of your flexibility. That’s a lot of peer pressure to withstand but he did. He advocated fresh fruits and vegetables, lean meats and fish before anyone even knew what that meant.

Nowadays we’re lucky. Doctors are a lot better informed. There are numerous diets that can feed your body precisely what it needs for peak performance, backed up by science. If you’re curious check out the DASH Diet or the Mayo Clinic diets. They don’t have flashy websites and celebrities endorsing them, they just work. We have so much information available to us and yet we don’t use it. When Jack was starting out, doctors said working out would give you a heart attack or make you muscle bound.  But he kept going, thank God, and doctors got smarter and so did we.  Today, there’s not a doctor on the planet except maybe Dr. Nick from the Simpson’s who thinks that smoking it good for you and that working out will give you a heart attack.

All the info you need is out there. You just need to start “Googling.” Or just save yourself the trouble and read Jack’s book. This doesn’t have to be hard. You don’t need to read everything on the planet and make this a two-year search. The evidence is there. Today we know what’s good for us.

We know all of this but so often we don’t listen? Why is that? For every person it’s slightly different, but it all boils down to one basic pattern: we’re asleep. We are not conscious, not paying attention to what is happening. We are not listening to the warning signs. The body has a remarkable early warning system. You just have to listen to it.

The signs were there for me: mood swings, lack of energy, crashing, feeling tired after I ate, no desire to get out of bed in the morning, escapism, drinking heavily. Probably the biggest warning sign as to whether you ate good food or poison is whether you feel tired after you ate. Think about that for second. How often do you crash after lunch? Listen carefully to this: if you get tired after you eat, then you did not eat right. It really is that simple. So let’s figure out why.

Food is our energy source. It should charge you up and get you ready for the rest of the challenges in your day. Unfortunately, too many people, myself included for a long time, assumed that getting tired after a meal was natural. “My body needs to digest,” I thought. Well yeah, but what’s really happened is your body is working overtime to clear toxins, while struggling to digest what little nutrition it can from the dead and desiccated food you gave it. It’s like a car in the red line. Your body is a machine. It breaks down with wear and tear. When you feed it the wrong foods, it has to work that much harder and it wears down that much faster. Even worse, the food you feed it, is the fuel it needs to do that work, so if you give it foods that have close to zero nutritional value, your body is constantly tired while it does its job, because it’s running on empty, despite you stuffing it with a cheese-steak and gravy slathered fries. Sure you ate a lot and you feel “full” but your body can’t use any of the material you just gave it to work with, so it’s basically starving. You might as well eat the cardboard the pizza came in, because it’s about as nutritious as that slice of greasy pie.

We have a remarkable capacity for denial. We can tell ourselves we’re fat because our father was fat. No, you’re fat because you ate the same unhealthy foods your father ate that made him fat. It’s our own choices that define us.

Until you realize that, you can’t change. It starts with acceptance of the truth. Take off your clothes. Look in the mirror. Let it all hang out, don’t suck in that gut. Are you happy with what you see? Can you do better? What will it take to make that change?

I spent a good deal of my life eating garbage. Not literal garbage from the trashcan, but foods that amount to garbage. Mostly it’s because I didn’t think it was all that important. This is largely due to a trick of the way the body works. Our body is the most advanced machine on the planet, but it has one fatal flaw. On the plus side, it’s self-regulating, largely self-repairing and its user manual is built right into the program. But on the negative side it can survive on terrible food without showing a lot of damage immediately. You might think that’s a good thing but I don’t. I consider it a design flaw. If you program a computer wrong, or set a configuration file incorrectly, it simply doesn’t work. It won’t even start. If you pour mud into your car, then you can’t drive anywhere. And yet if you put McDonalds into your body, you keep right on going. What a remarkable machine that can even manage to find some level of nutrients from poisons, toxins and desiccated unhealthy fuel and manage to live for thirty or forty years.

The good news about your body’s fatal flaw is that life gives us a lot of second chances. For whatever reason we don’t always listen to the truth right away. Like the ancient Indian masters used to say, “first I hear the truth, then I hear it again and then I hear it ten thousands times and then I get it.”

Life gives you second chances, right up until it doesn’t.

After that heart attack or cancer or hip replacement surgery, then it is probably too late. If you’ve already gone through that, you’re still better off making the switch, but with any luck people wake up and realize the warnings before it has to come to that. Like I said life is a perfect feedback loop and that heart attack is part of it. A heart attack says, you weren’t listening before, are you listening now?

The complex machine that is our body will run on McDonalds and 10 cans of Coke a day.

But that doesn’t mean you should run it that way.

The universe gave us all free choice. That means we are free to mistreat our body, eat poorly, never work out for as long as we can.

But we’re also free not to do that.

Once you start listening to your body, the decision is not really that hard at all.