3 overlooked truths for a stronger body and mind

We all have 3 things in common. No matter where we were born, where we grew up and what we do.

We all have a body, a mind and a lifetime. How you use the first 2 often determines the third.

It sounds logical and to the point. However how many of us actually do take care of our body and mind in a way that maximizes our lifetime?

Look around you and you’ll have the answer. Look especially at your closest friends or relatives. If it is true that you will become the average of the 5 persons you spend the most time with (I believe it is) then for most of us it’s pretty alarming when it comes to the state of our body and mind.

Habits — good and bad — are contagious. Breaking bad ones is difficult. I’ve found that most people struggle because they aren’t aware of their problems, or they aren’t aware of the right solution to take.

Here are 3 non-obvious truths that hopefully will help you for one or the other — hopefully both.

Let’s start with your body.

Most advice I read while I was doing my own research on how to improve my physical fitness was focusing on physical exercise. It’s obvious: work out and you grow muscles, which makes you feel stronger over time.

It seems that people focus more on the visible side of progress rather than on the invisible foundations that leads to progress, namely: nutrition and your inner health.

Your digestive system (stomach, intestine…) is where all the food are broken down for your body to absorb the nutrients it needs. This means the healthier the digestive system, the more you are able to pass on the good nutrients to your cells throughout your body.

But did you know that some food you’re having daily are damaging your digestive tract and might lead to ulcers over time?

One of the worst ingredient seems to be gluten. It’s found in wheat and other grains (barley, rye to name a few) which means every time you eat biscuits, crackers, bread etc. you ingest gluten.

Since the mid 1900s, large companies have used genetically modified forms of wheat for better yield, which contains more gluten because it makes the crop tougher. As time went by, everybody in the whole world started to ingest more and more gluten — unknowingly.

So what does gluten do to your digestive system?

Imagine that your digestive system is a series of pouch. Within and around those pouches live immune system cells, which role is to neutralize any components that aren’t supposed to be there. Immune systems are programmed to kill a certain target. Unfortunately, to your immune system cells, gluten cells looks very similar to the target they’re supposed to eliminate. So they will attack the gluten cells as soon as they spot them.

The problem is that immune system cells are not snipers but more like shotguns. When they fire, everything else around also gets fired at. Oops. More gluten in your digestive system means more “holes” in your stomach and intestine. This leads to inflammation (that burning sensation you have sometimes) and after a long period of time, the layer of your digestive tract erodes so much that it literally leaks (leading to more inflammation and ulcer), and potentially leading to “leaky gut syndrome”.

When that happens, as you ingest more gluten, they “pass through” your leaky guts and go into the bloodstream and other parts of your body, where they get attacked. Again, the “shotgun” effect of your immune system cells kills off healthy cells throughout your body, leading to more and more inflammations and complications.

Doctors would give you pills to alleviate the pain. However, pills don’t sew your digestive system back in order. I’m not a doctor, so all I can do is share with you what worked for me.

Starting a gluten-free diet.

About a year ago I personally did that, using a 3-weeks diet whereby I removed all meat, gluten-prone food, cheese and artificial sugars. The first week, it gave me a terrible headache and I felt weaker than before, which is exactly what you should expect if you do that. In essence, my inner body was used to have a certain diet, and I took it in the opposite direction (I had a specific plan I was following with expected results though. I’m not recommending this to everybody especially if you don’t have a plan).

During that week I pilled on green vegetables and fruits, eating more often but smaller portions. I avoided coffee, tea and wine. Over the next few weeks I gradually reintroduced some meats (say, chicken first) and monitored my body reaction. Does it make me feel hot? Do I feel inflammation inside? Does it make me feel heavy? etc.

The goal is to eliminate all kinds of food that have a negative effect on you. Since it’s different from person to person, you have to try by yourself (if you already know what food allergies you have, it’s a good start).

I’ll skip the details, but after 3 weeks I knew better what to eat and what to avoid. I adjusted my diet since to re-incorporate protein and start my workout plan to gain lean muscle mass. Now that my digestive system and physical body are much more robust, I sometimes eat cheese, wine and bread (ie with some gluten) without having to worry too much.

To summarize, your intake (ie the food / drinks you are having daily) have a much bigger impact on your physical fitness that you think.

If you’re a mess in the inside, it’d be foolish to think you have a healthy body just because you go to the gym. Cleanse your guts first by having a better diet.

Now let’s talk the second overlooked truth: the health of your mind.

How do you even take care of it? It is said that it takes up only 2% of your body weight but eats up to 20% of your energy. If it does take that much of your daily intake, you’d better make sure it works superbly well.

I like breaking down things because it makes it easier to remember and gives a general framework to work with. A framework I found extremely useful is called “the 7 mind platter”.

To work at an optimum level, your brain must spend time in those 7 following areas:

  • #1: Sleep time. Obviously, this is when you sleep, recharge your batteries and clean up the mess in your head.
  • #2: Physical time. This is when you engage in a physical activity, which in turn activates areas of your brain related to focus and motivation/reward.
  • #3: Focus time. This is when you deeply focus on something you’re working on, putting all the other distractions aside.
  • #4: Time in. This is when you focus inwards, reflecting quietly on your feelings, thoughts or sensations. Your brain integrates those things together and “see” new patterns.
  • #5: Down time. This is when you just relax, think of nothing special and let your mind wander.
  • #6: Play time. This is when you let yourself be spontaneously creative, experience new things or just have good fun.
  • #7: Connecting time. This is when you spend time with other people, activating the social areas of your brain.

Here is a nice visual aid that summarizes the 7 platters from the authors that wrote on the subject.

So how do you take care of your mind?

Simply make sure you spend time in those 7 areas day after day. The amount of each varies person to person, and frankly I don’t think there’s a fixed truth for that. I found my proper amount by trial and error. As with anything, excessive time spent in one area will generally lead to bad outcomes (ex: sleeping too much, too much down time, etc.)

In practice here’s how I stick to the 7 platter principles daily, in order of sequence during my day. Feel free to adapt my routine to your own day.

#1. Sleep time

I make it a point to sleep 7 hours. Why 7? Again, trial and error. Less than that and I feel sleepy too early. More than that and I didn’t find any extra benefits. So you have to track your mood, energy level and day along with your sleeping hours. All you need is a pen and a sheet of paper. A whole week would fit on an A5 sheet so anyone can do it easily.

#2. Physical time

After waking up and having a first breakfast, I work out for at least 30 min, preferably 45 min. I suggest you have a range, because some days you’ll be late. You’ll need to cut off time somewhere without feeling bad about it.

#3. Down time and time in

After exercising I’m usually sweating like if I just had had a shower. I relax for 10 minutes, thinking of nothing special and just breathing as my body is calming down. Then I meditate for 20 to 30 min, that’s my “Time in”. Sometimes I meditate before exercising, for variety sake.

#4. Focus time and play time

After my meditation routine and a cool shower, if I have some time ahead I’d read books or flip through the world news within my areas of interest. I browse quite quickly, looking for patterns more than a singular topic. I consider it as play, it’s like hunting for something new.

Sometimes I’d write something instead of reading. It keeps my mind sharp and focused. Then I go to work, where I (try to) spend most of my day focused on my goals.

#5. Connecting time

At work I am lucky enough to work with a wide range of people — CxO, managers, technology people, trainers and other front line employees. Although not all interactions are deep, I try my best to connect with the other person by figuring out how s/he feels today and what’s really on his/her mind (which often is not what they say by the way). Since it varies everyday, this gives me some variety and keeps my mind on the lookout for patterns of feelings/thoughts.

Before sleeping, I try to have some “Time in” again by meditating for at least 10 minutes. I fall asleep much quicker, I sleep better and I wake up earlier without pain when I do that consistently. Try it!

But time is limited. How can I make the most of my day?

We’re all busy. With the rise of social media, Apps and the Internet, as a society we are busier than ever. These things can either become a wonderful leverage for you to have more quality time in your life (as defined in the 7 platters) or a huge drain where your lifetime will sink and disappear forever.

Here are practical tricks to leverage your time more effectively.

During the day, there is a lot of interstitial time: commuting, break time, waiting for somebody to show up, etc. I want to make the most out of these small periods of time which can add up very quickly (do the math for yourself and you’ll see that you spend at least 2 to 3 hours a day doing basically ‘nothing’). Generally I can’t read comfortably during those times, so I have an entire library of interviews, training or seminars on my phone I can listen to at anytime. Listening to CEO and entrepreneur interviews each day is definitely one of the best training you can give to yourself.

Personally I listen to long interviews (30 minutes+) while driving to and from the office. I have some shorter interviews, speech and training sessions (less than 20 minutes) that I use at other times. Some people tell me it’s dangerous to drive and listen to something at the same time. I agree, and I believe that if you do a good job at focusing your mind every day (Time in), you can put your unconscious mind on auto-pilot to drive and pay attention to the road, while your conscious mind is focusing on something else more constructive than cars and motorbikes.

Choose your audios based on your interest of course. At the moment I’m listening to Oprah Winfrey speeches, interviews of Tony Robbins and Mark Cuban, the “View from the top” series from the Stanford Business School for CxO interviews, Y Combinator series (for start up) and Tech in Asia series (for start up in technology in Asia). Drop me a line if you want me to share the audios with you to save you some time searching, downloading, converting etc.

When it comes to browsing the latest news on my areas of interest, I want to have what I’m interested in right away (as opposed to search for it). I mainly use Flipboard and Medium to curate and present relevant information to me. Check them out, it’s wonderful to have everything you’re interested in just by clicking on the App icon on your phone.

When I want to have more deeper thoughts or I need to integrate what I have in my mind with the state of the world or a particular industry, I read through my email newsletters (BCBG, McKinsey) and magazines (HBR, the Economist). I rarely read them as I arrive in my inbox. I only read the subject line and make a mental note that I could use this later (or just delete the email immediately if I think it’s not going to be of any use). I like to keep my inbox clean.

During breaks throughout the day, I might flip through the latest things in design (again using Flipboard or Medium), whether it be in UX, packaging, marketing materials or photography. I’d do that for 10 minutes, as a play time, generally followed by 5 minutes of down time.

Finally, when I know I’m traveling and won’t have Internet, I browse stuff before leaving and put everything I’m interested to read while I’m offline in my Evernote or Pocket. Both Apps allow you to save articles you want to read offline (not sure if the free version of Evernote still allows you to take notes offline though).

As you have probably experienced, time can slip away very quickly if you don’t know how to organize yourself and leverage technology. Before you look at tools, look at your typical day and try to add up the hours you waste. Multiply it by the number of days worth of living you still have ahead. You’ll be amazed and hopefully motivated to take action!

For example, I realized I’d waste at least 2.5 hours a day between driving, breaks, walking from here to there, preparing to go to the office, waking up not early enough, eating mindlessly, etc. Conservatively, let’s say there are 250 working days in a year (adjust for week ends and annual leaves). That’s 250 * 2.5 hours = 625 hours wasted — per year! That’s 26 calendar days. I could live almost another month each year simply by being aware of the time wasted and taking action to make the most of my time.

And for those of you who are into compound interest, 1 month a year is 8% interest, which compounds year on year. It means that after 10 years you actually gain an extra year worth of value. After 15 years, you gain an extra 2 years. After 19 years, an extra 4 years. Interested in having an extra 4 years to live and do interesting stuff?

You know what you have to do now… Just do it. I challenge you to take a sheet of paper and a pen now (you can read the rest of the article later) and write down all the things you do in a typical day and how much time you spend on it. Then identify where your wastage is. That will be your first step to action.

This article wouldn’t be complete without a final truth about the connection between your body and mind. What connects them together?

It is generally understood that body and mind must be connected somehow. Your mind signals a danger and your body receives the right hormone to enable you to run as fast as you can. Or you watch a movie and scare your mind, making your body react by a twitch or by having goosebumps.

If you want to control your body and mind, you need to understand what connects them together.

And the master switch that connects your mind to your body is your breathing.

Think about this: breathing is the only mechanism that you can do both consciously and unconsciously. As you think of it, you can regulate it. And as you regulate it, you calm your mind as well as your heart beat and blood circulation — ie your body.

However, if you don’t think about it at all, you’d still breathe.

Try to regulate your heart beat now just by thinking about it. Any luck?

Now, try to inhale and exhale extremely fast for 30 seconds. Do you feel your blood circulating faster, maybe feeling dizzy in your mind as well?

Now stop breathing altogether. Do you feel a change in your blood circulation? If you were to get up and run right now, you’d fall flat on the floor because your body doesn’t have enough oxygen to do that.

Breathing connects your body and mind.

Master your breathing and you will lower your probability to have a heart attack, have a higher life expectancy, have a more vigorous skin and a higher level of energy that you can tap into every day to make your goals come true.

Sounds too good to be true, right?

Read on.

Deep belly breathing slows your blood circulation down, and also makes the fluid between the cells of your body move around in a smoother way. That fluid is responsible for carrying out all the crap that your cells creates every second. If it stagnates, the crap stays there and infect other cells. It’s like if you never emptied the trash in your house.

What happens when trash is piling up at home? It stinks, bugs and rats come in and it probably enrages your spouse or neighborhood. You feel nauseous just by the smell of it. And yet, you keep doing that to your body.

When that fluid between your cells stagnate, arteries get jammed, heightening your likelihood of seizure. And to push blood around despite the jams, your heart has to pump harder, heightening over time your risk of heart disease/attack.

Ever wondered why yoga teachers have a beautiful skin and an amazing physical strength? They’ve mastered the art of belly breathing, combined with aerobic exercise, which makes that fluid and your blood circulate even better. This brings oxygen to every part of their body and makes sure that all the trash is being carried out effectively, leaving nothing but healthy cells.

And of course, the better your blood circulation and fluid system, the better your mind because it gets the oxygen and nutrients it needs from your blood stream in a timely manner.

So how do you get more “fluidity”? Practice deep breathing from the belly. That will take care of the “inner trash”.

A positive side effect of breathing through your belly is that it calms your mind. We have a nervous system that runs on top of your belly to your brain (dubbed the “little brain”). When you breath from the belly, this system signals to your bigger brain that it should slow down your blood circulation, which slows down your mind. Hence, you build a habit of being calmer. In the last 10 years, people I worked with never saw me get angry once, no matter how bad the circumstances were. This practice alone significantly increased the quality of my life.

So start practicing belly breathing today. If you are keen, I can post a short tutorial on it next time. It will take your energy to levels you never imagined before, which will become the foundations you can build on to take actions and make things happen.

In a nutshell, here are the 3 simple things you can do to enhance our body, mind and lifetime:

  • #1. Eat gluten-free
  • #2. Define daily routines for your 7 mind platter, and do it!
  • #3. Practice deep belly-breathing

This article was aimed at raising your awareness about overlooked truths about your body, mind and hence lifetime. I sincerely hope it did and that you’ll change what needs to be changed starting today.

Awareness is the seed of change.

Change requires action.

The ball is in your camp.

If you’d like me to dive into details on any one of those topics, just let me know. I’m more than happy to share practical experience, stories and frameworks so you can be a “better you”.