More than a decade ago, I faced digestive system problems and IBS issues, running to the ER at 3am kind of issues. Traditional medical approaches didn’t seem to work for me. Even when I asked my GI doctor if I should make any dietary changes, I was told it wasn’t necessary. Unfortunately, the antibiotics didn’t solve my problems, either. They actually made them worse.
That’s when I decided to take matters into my own hands. I researched and tested various solutions, including seeking advice from functional medicine doctors and exploring unconventional approaches.
Through it all, I found that a holistic lifestyle change was the only thing that worked. By focusing on my food, movement, mindset, sleep, supplements, and a few other things, I was able to regain control of my health, for the most part.
DISCLAIMER (kind of)
Physical and mental fitness is a personalized formula. It’s based on you. It revolves around your specific personality, body, problems, and needs. So this post is not generalized advice for everybody; this is me sharing the following:
- It all starts with physical and mental fitness, so it should be one of our core Principle 5 topics.
- These are the routines and practices that worked for me. I hope to motivate you to find yours.
- This post includes a curated list of expert advice I have researched and tested over the years. Once I came up with the things that worked for me and did them consistently, is when I saw the most significant changes in my health and life.
- Per usual, don’t just take my word for it; talk to your doctor about any major changes.
a couple of ground rules
Let’s start with the basics – the 80/20 rule. This is where we see 80% of the benefits by applying the core 20% of the ideas. Before diving into fancy optimization techniques, we must focus on building a solid foundation. Simple things like a healthier diet and simple movement changes.
And then there’s the mindset. Meaningful and lasting change comes from small, consistent actions. That means making physical and mental fitness part of your daily lifestyle rather than a one-time effort. There’s no end goal here, just an ongoing journey of improvement.Meaningful and lasting change comes from small, consistent actions. Click To Tweet
This was the hardest part. I did not like working out; it was too dull and boring for me. And it was hard to do it every day. Starting CrossFit and meeting a fantastic group of people helped a lot. Seeing results and noticing an improvement in my stomach pain and digestive system motivated me to optimize my diet. Now, I try to work out (or at least move) daily.
Fitness is a lifestyle, not a chore. Habits and routines help make it a lifestyle.
So here are the physical and mental fitness approaches that have helped me.
Here’s a Table of Contents because I feel guilty about the length of this post:
Some of the changes in this category might be or seem extreme, but I had extreme circumstances before I started making these changes. If I had to choose this blog post’s most impactful category, it would be this one.
Gut health plays a significant role in our physical wellness and mental fitness. I learned a ton about our gut and the microbiome from Dr. Hyman; I eventually started going to his Ultrawellness Center in Massachusetts when I didn’t get relief from my traditional doctors and treatments. More on that in the Functional Medicine section below.
Myths I stopped believing
You can outrun a bad diet: I thought I could eat almost anything as long as I was working out that day. Here’s what I learned from Dr. Robert Lustig: There are 8 symptoms stemming from metabolic dysfunction that doctors treat, such as diabetes and high cholesterol or blood pressure. These diseases are actually symptoms of 8 sub-cellular pathologies, and exercise can not cure all of them; only diet can help.
The most popular diet is the best: I tried Paleo while doing Crossfit, and then Keto. Then I was eating gluten-free and increased my fermented food for gut health. But nothing worked for my stomach pain. Fermented food hurt me, and I lost muscle mass because I wasn’t absorbing protein and nutrients. When I went through rigorous testing, I discovered that it didn’t matter how popular these diets were; they just didn’t work for me.
Food is Food: There are so many fun experiments of people online, eating nothing but McDonald’s hamburgers for X days to lose weight. I learned that different foods have different effects on our gut and bodies; the weight and external fat are only one aspect, the least important one probably.
In Dr Robert Lustig’s excellent book, Fat Chance, he mentions how 40% of skinny people have insulin resistance and 20% demonstrate fatty livers.
I love my GI doctor; he’s a nice and good guy. But after everything I’ve learned about the effect of food and sugars and wheat and grains and alcohol on my gut and health in general, I don’t understand how he kept insisting that what I eat does not have an effect on my persisting stomach pain and issues.
Foods I’ve eliminated
Here are the foods I’ve eliminated these last 10 years:
High FODMAP foods: One of my issues is SIBO, basically, bacteria in the wrong location in the gut. I eliminated all high-FODMAP foods for 4-6 weeks, which should eliminate these bacteria. I also eliminated fermented food and high-fiber foods. After the 6 weeks, I re-introduced fiber and fermented food slowly. I cannot recommend this strategy enough! If you have IBS, SIBO, or other gut issues, read up on the Monash University Low Fodmap diet. This was the change that had the most effect on my health overall.
Most grains, gluten or no gluten: I started by eliminating Gluten only, but that didn’t do it. I ended up eliminating most if not all, grains. Every now and then, I eat some oatmeal and maybe some rice. I also eliminated corn in all its forms.
Sugars – Food and drinks: All processed food, fructose, juices, soda, chocolate (except for dark chocolate), sugar substitutes… Dr. Lustig’s talks played a significant role in this decision. This meant eliminating sugars in all forms including honey, corn syrup, and stevia. Never felt better. These sugars go straight to the liver, which is the most dangerous effect on our health.
Alcohol: I love my single malt scotch and red wine. I used to drink 2-3 times a week, always in small amounts. So I thought, that’s not much, why worry about it. After I stopped for a few months, I felt the difference.
I now drink only if there’s an experience as well. If I’m out with my best friends or on vacation with my wife and family. I’m also considering not drinking at all.
Foods I’ve introduced
Higher protein and fiber: I increased my protein intake to maintain and add muscle. I try to stick to organic and grass-fed sources and eat red meat in moderation. Multiple resources and studies link muscle mass to fat loss, energy, and longevity… Dr. Attia is one of my favorite resources on this topic.
As for fiber, it plays a major role in helping and fixing my SIBO and other IBS issues. Good sources of fiber provide food for the healthy bacteria in our gut. I get my fiber from fruit, vegetables, nuts and seeds. I also add a prebiotic supplement to my shake.
One cool trick I learned is to eat fiber-rich food first, so start with your salad, for example, before eating anything else. This is because the fiber creates a lining in the intestines, which prevents your body from absorbing too much sugar too quickly. Eat protein and fat second and starches at the end.
Feed the Gut, Protect the LiverDr. Robert Lustig
This is one of my favorite quotes by Dr. Lustig related to eating more fiber and avoiding sugar.
Low FODMAP vegetables and fruit, as well as fats: it turned out I cannot eat all fruit and vegetables, so I follow the low FODMAP diet to choose the ones that don’t hurt me, like spinach, kale, carrots, cucumbers, kiwi and berries. For example, I can’t eat bananas or asparagus, to name a few. If you have persistent digestive issues and think you are eating a healthy diet but still not seeing good results, I would consider looking into this Low FODMAP diet information.
As for fat, I like avocados, olive oil and olives, and nuts and seeds. One of my favorite seeds I add to my food and shake is Chia seed, which is high in saturated fat, protein, and fiber. Extremely nutritious.
I have a bland diet but try to eat whole foods and diversify every meal.
Fasting: The last thing I’ve introduced is intermittent fasting. I have been fasting for around 5 years now. I go without food for 16-19 hours, usually after an early dinner. This feels amazing: it gives my digestive system a break; I feel lighter and more energetic in the morning, which helps my workouts. It also increases my focus when working.
Regarding movement and exercise, I try to move most days, if not every day. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean working out every day.
The physical benefits of exercise have been documented and well-known for years. The main benefits I enjoy from working out are more mental than physical. I love the discipline required to push myself to work out because I’m only motivated to work out 20% of the time 😊. That push to do a hard thing makes me happier. Also, workouts, especially tough ones, can get you a little more tired throughout the day. A little less wired. This allows you to focus on the essential things only and not the nonsense or every teeny tiny thing.
My weekly workout routine:
- Strength training 3-4 times a week.
- I started by doing CrossFit around 10 years ago, and it completely changed my view on fitness. I found a community and structure that kept me accountable and motivated, and I learned the proper form for all movements, which is essential. I’ve since switched to regular strength training 5 times a week.
- Zone 2 training 2-3 times a week. Sometimes it’s zero times a week because I hate it 😊
- Zone 2 training (a concept I learned from Dr. Peter Attia) refers to aerobic exercise performed at a low to moderate intensity, where the heart rate is kept within a specific range. This range is typically between 60-70% of an individual’s maximum heart rate. I usually do 30-45 mins on the treadmill with a 10-15% incline at a 3-3.5 miles per hour speed.
- Zone 5 training 1-2 times a week: These intense interval workouts (HIIT or Metcons) raise your heart rate. I do those usually after the strength workouts.
- I’m unsure if this qualifies as zone 5 training, but I now do Muay Thai once or twice weekly. This is by far my favorite physical activity I’ve ever done! Now, the whole family is doing it. I’ll talk more about this in the Mental Fitness section below.
- Walks and outdoor activities: I enjoy going on walks, especially after meals, to aid digestion and to help me think. I add outdoor activities like biking or playing pickle-ball. Another fantastic and fun physical activity. I also purchased an under-desk treadmill, a game changer if you work from home.
- Moving after meals: I try to take a quick walk after most meals, which helps my digestive system and is known to reduce blood sugar spikes.
I’m one of these people who need X hours of sleep or else…!! 😊 I’m also a very, very light sleeper. My wife makes fun of me and calls me the sleeping princess and the Princess and the Pea 🤷🏻♂️. I have no idea who that is, but I will look it up one day.
Sleep is a complicated and personalized topic. For me, I love my energy. I love being energetic during my workouts, playing or studying with the kids, and at work… In my opinion, energy is one of the drivers of happiness and is underrated.
Here’s how I approached my sleep these last 10 years:
- I learned how many hours my body needs for me to function optimally. Now I know I have to sleep 7.5 hours at least.
- I researched sleep and found that Dr. Huberman is one of the best resources. I would start with this YouTube podcast: Sleep Toolkit. I also tested a bunch of stuff.
Here’s my routine, as many days as possible:
- I sleep with a white noise machine on my bedside table.
- I don’t drink caffeine after 1-2pm. I hold off caffeine the first hour after waking up.
- I sleep at the same time every night. I also wake up at the same time.
- The previous category helps a ton with sleep: Working out and movement.
- I sleep in a cold room, we all do at the house now.
- I’ve been spending time in the sun first thing in the morning for the last few years. I cannot recommend this enough. Learned it from Dr. Huberman as well.
Functional Medicine & Supplementation
In my humble, non-judgmental opinion, the doctors I dealt with (And maybe lots of doctors?) don’t learn nutrition or include it in their solutions. Learned that the hard way while going through my GI issues.
I started going to a naturopathic doctor as my primary doctor instead of a traditional one. She tests things regular doctors don’t. She also uses non-conventional solutions like supplements, natural meds, nutrition, and movement. That was a significant positive change in my life.
After that, I went to Dr. Hyman’s UltraWellness Center, an excellent functional medicine team for my GI issues, which was another meaningful and positive change.
One of the main barriers to entry is that some insurance companies might not cover functional medicine or functional medicine doctors might not accept insurance. That was my experience; it was primarily out of pocket.
The last piece is my own research. For example, discovering Dr. Lustig helped me understand fructose’s role in our body and understand my somewhat high cholesterol better. I won’t attempt to explain cholesterol here, but I learned how to interpret the lipid tests better and asked for the Advanced Lipid Panel test to break down the numbers into more granular details. This talk helped me understand this topic a lot more.
Dropping sugar from my diet, adding fiber-rich foods, and adding zone 2 cardio for the last 12 months have lowered my cholesterol numbers to an all-time low.
Morning Light Exposure
Viewing sunlight within the first hours of waking (as soon as you can, even if through cloud cover) increases early-day cortisol release (the ideal time for elevated cortisol) and prepares the body for sleep later that night. A morning spike in cortisol will also positively influence your immune system, metabolism and ability to focus during the day.Dr. Andrew Huberman
This has played a significant role in regulating my energy levels, mood, and sleep quality. I highly recommend trying this routine for a few weeks and see if it makes a difference.
An ongoing 80-year Harvard study proves that relationships are the primary source of happiness.
“The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,”– Harvard Study
Here’s my approach to the relationships in my life:
- I’d rather have meaningful relationships with 10 amazing people than a mixed bag of relationships with 1,000 people.
- I try to approach these meaningful relationships with the following mindset: “What can I do to improve the life of the person I’m having this relationship with?” This is primarily true with my wife, kids and close friends. That was my approach with B when we first met, and I hoped this would be hers without us talking about it. Few months later, we were discussing our relationship, and we discovered that the main reason we are this close, is because we each want the other to be happy and fulfilled, first.
- Keep improving relationships with people I want in my life; stop relationships with people I don’t want. Usually, these people are selfish, harmful, and soul-draining over a long period, especially if I cannot help with any of these things. No unnecessary relationships.
- I try to fix broken relationships that I don’t want to or cannot end. That’s the hardest one.
Meditation & Mindfulness
This one might be the game-changer in my life! I started meditating 7 years ago, a few weeks after our twins were born. I started with the Headspace app. I noticed that my patience could use a boost. I was going through significant life changes and looking for a way to deal with them. I read about meditation. Did not believe a word. But I decided to start anyway. I am so happy I did.
I have since switched to the Waking Up app, which honestly feels like the next level of my meditation practice and learning.
Here are the changes I noticed:
- I have become way more patient, and I can deal with stress in a calm mindset.
- I can compartmentalize better and give each area of my life the attention it deserves. For example, work was no longer spilling over my life with my family.
- Most of the time, I can maintain composure and control. When something terrible happens, I can pause for a few seconds before automatically reacting, which I could not do before. And that affected my relationship with my wife, kids, work, and many more things.
- I became a spectator, watching and controlling myself in a specific situation instead of allowing my emotions to take the lead; it’s hard to explain. 😊
I cannot recommend it enough.
This past year, I have added a new practice to my routine that covers mindfulness: I read a few chapters of the Daily Stoic book by Ryan Holiday; while sipping my coffee in the sunlight. I highly recommend this book and the whole stoicism philosophy.
I believe that suffering and dark times are coming, no matter how comfortable our life is today. Nothing can really prepare you for major suffering, like real significant adversity. My dark times came early when I lost both parents before the age of 11.
The closest thing to the real adversity that life throws at you, is to challenge yourself and go through hardships voluntarily. Doing difficult things and overcoming things that scare you will prepare you for the dark moments and remove anxiety from your life.
This applies to working out and pushing your body. But it also applies to other challenging activities.
Here are a few things I have done in the last few years to challenge myself and my family:
- I moved to the US at age 25 with $4,000 to my name. This deserves its own post.
- I’m teaching myself guitar. Still bad at it, and it’s still hard.
- I started writing this blog.
- I signed the twins up for Mui Thai, but then I remembered that I should lead by example, so B and I signed up, which was one of our best decisions. It’s been great for us and the kids.
- Financial challenges: We occasionally try to act like our savings account is empty and see how to work around this. This can include budgeting or not eating out for a while. We also focus on diversification when it comes to investments and asset allocation.
- I always try to tell the truth, starting with myself. Being honest with myself has helped me detect some things about myself I can and should improve.
Decluttering: Creating an Environment of Focus
My wife, Brandi Khoury, founder of Minimal is Bliss, advocates for decluttering one’s physical spaces to reduce stress and improve focus. Minimizing the number of unneeded items gives you more time and energy to focus on essential tasks and work.
In her blog post on home office decluttering, B shares some actionable tips to help create an environment of focus. Some of these tips include:
- To keep your workspace organized, assess the space and its role, and consider the clutter on your desk or the room.
- Incorporate a tidy time at the end of the workday to maintain a clear desk for better productivity, and pair it with fun music for motivation.
- Paper clutter is a common problem, so use the O.H.I.O. (Only Handle It Once!) system to organize and file important documents.
- Make your office multipurpose to accommodate different roles and consolidate home admin items in one place.
- Set aside time to purge unnecessary items to keep your space clutter-free.
By creating a workspace that is clean, organized, and free from distractions, you’ll be able to focus more effectively on your work and be more productive throughout the day. These same concepts can really be applied to your entire home.
From B… by keeping our homes uncluttered and without excess, we spend less time dealing with “all the things” and have more time and energy to devote to the things we want to do. The goal isn’t a home that is always tidy but easily tidied. Declutter until you reach the number of items you and your family can comfortably manage… This is different for everyone. I promise you need less than you think.
This sounds cute and easy when laid out nicely in a blog post.
The reality cannot be further from the truth. These changes or practices are hard to start and hard to stick to, and you need to accept the delayed gratification of the results.
With that said, the benefits are worth all of that and some.
Physical and mental fitness are equally crucial for a healthier life. Here is a recap of the categories:
- Optimize your nutrition
- Move most days
- Good sleep hygiene
- Find the right doctor and supplement regiment
- Go outside first thing in the morning
- Keep your friends and family close
- Meditate and declutter the mind
- Challenge yourself volunterality
- Declutter your living space
Thank you so much for reading!