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The first wealth is health.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s a peculiar irony that we invest so much of our time and energy into relationships, work, and countless other commitments, whilst regularly relegating our health to the bottom of the priority list.

But experience a health scare, and it’s amazing how quickly all of those things which looked so important immediately go out the window.

As I’ve begun to pursue a healthy lifestyle more earnestly over the past few years, I’m always intrigued as to why it’s something I didn’t make more space for during the first 30 years of my life – despite knowing its importance. Is it simply a matter of self-discipline, or is there something else at play?

In this article, I’ll delve into the fundamentals of maintaining good health and explore why finding motivation can be challenging. Then, I’ll take a look at some of the strategies you can use to be intentional about your health – every single day.

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What Is a Healthy Lifestyle... Really?

I don’t mean to ask the obvious here – it’s a serious question! As with much of 21st-century life, there is so much conflicting information that it can be difficult to know what a healthy lifestyle even looks like.

Is it Keto? Paleo? 5 minutes of high-intensity cardio? Never eating sugar again?

I don’t know about you, but I prefer not to rely on anecdotal evidence or someone trying to sell me something on TikTok. That’s why I always go straight to the scientific literature on the subject. If you too are interested in understanding more about your health, then the above three books would be a great place to start.

When we boil it down to the basics, you can think of your personal health as being supported by three main pillars, or what I like to call the holy trifecta of diet, exercise and sleep. It’s easy to remember, and if you prioritise these three things every day, you’ll absolutely 80/20 your health.

Bear in mind that whilst I’m primarily focusing on physical health in this article, when you focus on these three pillars, you’ll also build a solid foundation for your mental health, too.

The three pillars of health

#1 Diet

The primary reason diseases tend to run in families may be that diets tend to run in families.

Dr Michael Greger

A well-balanced diet is crucial for optimal health, as it provides the essential nutrients needed for our bodies to function efficiently. However, there are many fad diets out there that can actually prove more harmful than helpful.

There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that adopting a whole food diet based around plant foods is the healthiest option. In How Not to Die, Dr Greger emphasises the benefits of this diet, which has been shown in numerous studies to reduce the risk of chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.

By incorporating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes into your daily meals, you can fuel your body with the vital nutrients it needs to thrive. And don’t forget to iron out any potential deficiencies.

#2 Exercise

Make exercise necessary and fun. Do mostly cardio, but also some weights. Some is better than none. Keep it up as you age.

Daniel Lieberman

We’re all likely aware that exercise is vital for maintaining physical and mental health. The benefits, ranging from weight management to reduced disease risk, are undisputed.

However, the popular belief that exercise has to be high-intensity and time-consuming isn’t helping anyone. Rather, consistency is key. Even moderate activity, such as a brisk dog walk, can provide significant health benefits.

Stick to the mantra of a little cardio every day plus weight training a couple of times a week, and you can’t go far wrong.

#3 Sleep

Sleep is the single most effective thing we can do to reset our brain and body health each day.

Matthew Walker

Sleep is typically the most neglected pillar of health because it is much misunderstood. However, a lack of it will not only impact your well-being and performance – it has strong causal links to every major disease in the developed world (including Alzheimer’s, cancer, obesity and diabetes).

Though it’s tempting to prioritise diet and exercise, sleep has significant effects on our cravings, weight management, and physical endurance. Remember that health is holistic, so all three pillars are interconnected.

At the very least, have a consistent sleep routine. And, if possible, aim for at least 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night.

We Know Our Health Matters, So Why Is It So Hard to Be Disciplined?

The Discipline Equation

Saying that we should ‘just be more disciplined’ is sort of like telling a smoker to ‘just quit’. It’s not very helpful.

I was listening to a podcast with Ali Abdaal and Steve Bartlett, in which they discuss the challenges people face regarding discipline and health. Steve introduced the concept of ‘The Discipline Equation’, which looks like this:

How much that goal subjectively matters to me
Psychological enjoyment I get through pursuit of the goal

The psychological friction I experience in pursuit of the goal

I think this is a great framework for understanding our motivations and actions in various aspects of life. It provides an insight into why we do or don’t follow through with our intentions (no matter how much we announce them to the universe!).

In particular, I’d like to highlight the word ‘subjectively’ in this equation. Often, we have an objective understanding of a concept, like acknowledging that our health is important. However, recognising something’s importance on a subjective, emotional level is a different matter entirely. As Steve Barlett states:

And then the pandemic happened… And as I watched that in March 2020, I realised very unforgettably that there is this tectonic plate called my health that I’d never seen shake before. And I was witnessing it shake globally, vicariously. Everything I’m pursuing and caring about actually sits on top of it. My girlfriend, my dog, my cat, my businesses that I’ve built, my podcast… So the tectonic plate of my health is my top priority. If you remove my health, you remove everything.

3 Key Ways To Be More Intentional With Your Health

We can use the discipline framework to be more intentional with our everyday health efforts. By making sure your health subjectively matters to you, working to increase your enjoyment of a healthy lifestyle, and reducing any friction you may experience along the way, it’s going to be a heck of a lot easier to commit to. Here’s how:

#1 Make sure it matters

Personal values statement for 'Health'

Know your why

Suddenly, the reason, the ‘why’ for the goal to go to the gym and workout was so strong that it outweighed the friction. And over the last three years, I’ve gone to the gym 82% of the time, which is 6 days a week roughly. And it stuck.

Once Steve understood why going to the gym was subjectively important to him, everything fell into place. And I think this is the best place to start, especially if you’re a yo-yo dieter or January gym-goer.

First, you have to recognise why your health is important to you – beyond a superficial level.

For example, I can objectively ‘know’ that I should exercise. In fact, I knew this for the first 30 years of my life. But what do you think I did with that knowledge? Absolutely zilch. Because until I took the time to understand why it was important to me, it was just generic advice.

Saying ‘I want to be skinny’ or ‘I want a six-pack’ also isn’t the strongest motivator in the long term, because when you think about it, they’re pretty shallow reasons. It’s usually driven by an extrinsic motivation to look good in the eyes of other people.

Your ‘why’ is best shifted within, where the motivation is intrinsic and based on self-love.

I’ve personally found that since educating myself and making health one of my core values, I’ve been able to more easily see past any ego-driven health goals (although a toned body is certainly a nice cherry on the cake!).

Connect with your why, and I promise, this process is going to be a whole lot easier.

Identify limiting beliefs

Whenever you identify an area of your life you’re struggling with, you’ll usually find more than one limiting belief lurking beneath the surface.

In fact, you may find that you have many limiting beliefs around food, exercise and rest. So to move forward, you’re going to need to cultivate healthier beliefs that support you. For instance, I know that I have said all of these things to myself in the past and believed them:

  • “I’ve never been very good at P.E., I’m more academic”
  • “I’m not a very good cook”
  • “I can’t help it, I’m a night owl”

Or perhaps you even identify with more damaging beliefs: “I’ll never be skinny” or “Comfort eating helps me to cope.”

To unpick your own self-limiting beliefs, check out my article here, where I guide you through the process of uncovering, challenging and changing them for good.

Embrace the journey

I’ve spoken about this in my post on New Year’s resolutions, but suffice it to say that health should be viewed as an ‘infinite game’, i.e. continuous progress rather than achieving a finite goal.

When you think about it, this is probably why people yo-yo diet so much. Because once they’ve ‘achieved the goal’ of losing 5lbs, there’s nowhere to go from there. There’s little incentive to keep up an unsustainable lifestyle.

Unlike finite games with set rules and a clear endpoint, infinite games require flexibility, adaptation, and a focus on long-term growth. Embracing health as an infinite game encourages sustainable, lifelong habits.

#2 Increase enjoyment

Dr Greger's Daily Dozen checklist

Gamify it

In his book Feel Good Productivity, Ali Abdaal reframes the traditional discipline-centric approach to productivity, advocating for the power of fun and play in maintaining motivation and long-lasting results.

When I first went vegan, I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was unintentionally ‘gamifying’ plant-based eating. By downloading the Daily Dozen app and making a record of the daily food groups I was eating (see image above), it helped me to stay on track each day and feel a sense of achievement.

Although I’ve mostly internalised this now and don’t have as much need for the app, I still enjoy putting together colourful Buddha bowls full of proteins, grains, fruits and veggies, so this element of play is something which continues to make my plant-based journey creative and fun.

You could easily do something similar when it comes to recording your workouts. Or reward yourself when you reach certain milestones (e.g. 5, 10, 25 gym sessions, etc).

Pair it with something you love

James Clear’s Atomic Habits proposes combining less enjoyable tasks with more pleasurable activities to successfully establish new habits. Applying this concept to my health routine has been an ​​absolute game-changer!

I’ve managed to transform once dreaded gym sessions into something I actually look forward to, simply by reframing it as my time to listen to my favourite music or indulge in a podcast.

Plus, turning my nighttime routine into a calming ritual with a cup of herbal tea and half an hour’s reading has made it an experience I look forward to at the end of the day.

By connecting healthy habits with the things you already love, it’ll be easier to maintain consistency and find joy in the process.

Cultivate a growth mindset

Adopting a growth mindset is another transformative approach to diet and health. Instead of viewing it as restrictive or focusing on lack, e.g. “I can’t have takeaways anymore” or “I can only eat 1,500 calories a day,” begin instead from a place of curiosity and exploration.

For instance, my journey with plant-based eating began by reading How Not to Die, and has continued to grow through genuine interest and experimentation. This approach has made it easier to maintain, as it hasn’t come from a place of lack.

Embracing a growth mindset allows you to learn, adapt, and develop healthy habits – without those all-too-common feelings of deprivation and guilt.

#3 Reduce friction

Woman doing advanced yoga pose

Front-load your day

The beauty of an intentional morning routine is that you can set yourself up for success – all whilst you have the most energy.

Front-loading your day with health-promoting habits can set a positive tone and create a ripple effect on your decision-making throughout the day. For example, starting your morning with a nutritious bowl of overnight oats, blueberries and flaxseed provides the fuel your body needs (and you’ll tick off three boxes of your daily dozen!).

Engaging in some form of gentle exercise will also kickstart your metabolism, reduce stress, and enhance mental clarity.

Systematise it

Creating daily systems is key to maintaining healthy habits. Whether it’s preparing your gym clothes the night before, meal prepping on a Sunday night, or setting a wind-down reminder on your phone an hour before bed, I speak from experience when I say that by having a plan, it’s much easier to stick to your goals!

These small, proactive steps streamline your day, minimise decision fatigue, and create an environment that supports your health journey. By removing barriers and making healthier choices more accessible, you’re more likely to follow through with your intentions and establish lasting habits.

Accept good enough

Last but not least, I just want to stress the importance of not being a perfectionist (something I’ve struggled with in my own health journey!). I think we all have a tendency when we slip up on one takeaway or one gym session to throw the baby out with the bath water and completely give up. But this kind of all-or-nothing approach isn’t helping anyone!

It’s also worth mentioning that comparison can be problematic. Rather than worrying about how much you can bench press or how defined your six-pack is compared to other people at the gym, focus instead on small, consistent actions… and let compound interest do the rest.

Holistic life pyramid showing the importance of health

Your Health Is the Foundation for Everything in Your Life, So Take Good Care of It

During the writing of this article, the irony isn’t lost on me that I paused to go to the gym (today happens to be one of my gym days). This illustrates the point that despite prioritising writing over many other things in my life, I know that my health always comes first. And, whilst life sometimes has other plans, I try to stick by this principle every day.

The beauty of the discipline equation is that whilst it takes a while to gain traction, once you prioritise your diet, exercise and sleep, it eventually becomes more habit-driven. As with any behaviour that we normalise, our enjoyment of it naturally starts to increase, and the friction we experience decreases.

This means that looking after your health becomes more and more effortless over time, until you barely pay it much attention anymore. Instead, it becomes intrinsically tied up in who you are. It’s a part of your identity.

If you’ve been struggling to get motivated about your health recently, then I hope this post helps to give you a different perspective – one that is free from guilt, shame and avoidance. And, if you’re interested to read more about getting started with intentional living, check out my full guide here.

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