Eat Right and Exercise…Simple, Right? Right!?

I met with a friend of mine just a few days ago and heard an all-too-familiar story. This friend is at the end of her rope. She’s stressed out, not sleeping right, in poor health and she feels like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders. 

As a result, she’s not really taking care of herself the way she knows she should or could. 

The solution is simple, right? A majority will reply that she just needs to take better care of herself. She just needs to eat right and exercise. 

Why do we say that? Because that’s the line we’ve been fed for SO LONG.

For those of you who don’t know, not only am I a FIRE/FIRO writer but I’m also a Kinesiologist (a fancy way of saying I’m a personal trainer with a university degree in exercise science). Given this other occupation, I see folks in her situation more often than I’d like to admit. And anyone can fall into a stress-induced mess of an existence. In fact, most of us will, at least once, at some point in our lives. 

Some people recover. Others never do.

So what’s the “situation” exactly? It’s when the body becomes so dysfunctional that even the mantra of “eat right and exercise” doesn’t work anymore. In her case, she’s been eating a lot of what would be considered “good foods” for many people AND she exercises far more than the average (including HIIT, or high intensity interval training), all of which should give her results. But despite it all, she’s been getting sicker.

This type of dysfunction is easy to spot. Unfortunately, it’s all around us and it’s starting to become the norm—which scares the heck out of me:

  • Visible signs:

    • Belly fat / weight gain

    • Skin problems

    • Rapid aging

    • General malaise

    • Sleep disturbances

    • Increased cravings & increased intensity of cravings

    • Gastrointestinal disturbances / inexplicable body pain

    • Frequent mood changes

    • Depression / Loss of engagement

    • Increased anxiety

    • Chest pain

    • Increases in marginal behaviours

    • Increases in injuries

    • Increased use of mind-altering substances

    • Increased use of distractions (TV/social media/Internet surfing/shopping)

    • Loss of focus / difficulty concentrating

    • Dizziness, headaches

  • Invisible signs:

    • Increased resting heart rate

    • Increased blood pressure

    • Fatty liver

    • Clogged arteries

    • Insulin resistance / diabetes

    • Endocrine (hormone) system imbalances

The near-universal underlying cause of the above? Constant stress. Stress that never lets go. Constant preoccupation. Constant responsibilities. A never-ending list of I-musts, I-have-tos, I-shoulds and I-need-tos. 

OK, clinical depression is roughly 7% of the population, drug addiction requiring rehab is about 9%…but everyone is stressed nowadays, and for most of them, it’s chronic stress.
— Robert H. Lustig, MD, MSL, author of The Hacking of the American Mind,

We can function under pressure. For a time. But we can’t live in a pressure cooker 24/7!

Unfortunately, an increasing number of us do.

The obligations of this manmade system we live in has resulted in a level of complexity that can and will drive many—if not all of us—to our knees at least once in our lives. And for some, there won’t be a second chance.

Because it’s killing us. Literally killing us.

I understand the situation all to well. I’ve been there myself. Twice.

Twice I’ve experienced some of the diseases I’ve listed above. Twice I’ve experienced a 25% weight gain, depression, months of 4-hour sleep or insomnia, cravings that were so intense as to make me unable to concentrate on anything else until they were satisfied.

It. Is. Pure. Hell.

So how do we pull ourselves out of this situation? Or help a friend or a family member who is living this nightmare?

The optimal answer is a lifestyle redesign that involves getting rid of the source(s)/cause(s) of the dis-ease:

  • Bad work environment

  • Dysfunctional relationship(s)

  • An over-taxing job or a job/profession we despise

  • Overwhelming personal obligations

  • Unbearable money obligations

  • Unbearable commute

  • Bad living space or bad living arrangement

*Evidence of this fact abounds when we look at the health profile of any class and compare it to that of the poorest among us. The poorer someone is, the more likely they live with stressors they don’t think they can change in any meaningful way and tend to live with a greater amount of day-to-day uncertainty, which leads to poorer health outcomes.

The reality is that part of the reason we’re so sick is that we can’t see our way out of our situation. And it’s not surprising. When we’re that unwell, taking a critical look at how we’re living just becomes another stressor. And our ability to even attempt a critical evaluation feels overwhelming.*

Seeking help from someone who can see and understand the problem may be one way of finding the means to act when we can’t see the forest for the trees.

But, when that’s not possible, any small change can help. We can talk to those around us who we think can help. Sometimes, just sharing what’s going on can mean others ease off and ask less of us, at least for a time. 

We can also reduce or eliminate small things that are contributing to our constant stresses. Every few degrees of pressure we can relieve can give our system a chance to—if not get better, at least—not get worse.

Examples of small things that can make a big difference:

**Knowing we’ll be better off, even when we don’t feel like it at the moment is key to knowing we’re on the right track. If it doesn’t feel good after the fact, it’s not helping. No matter what anyone says, it’s just contributing to the problem because, whatever it is, it’s making us feel worse. In this respect, we can trust our gut is always right. Doing a good thing, any good thing, for ourselves will usually lead to more good things, over time.

  • Reduce or eliminate small stressors (negative friends, unecessary spending, consumption of negative news, saying “yes” to helping others—sometimes we need to put the life jacket on ourselves, never mind help another do so)

  • Eat real food 

    • Eliminate as much convenience & processed food (including flour-based products) as we can and reduce as much naturally-sugary foods as possible—anything that spikes insulin is bad news at this point

    • Eat more basic protein-rich sources (if it runs, swims or flies it’s good) and lots of green vegetables

  • Regain control of a space that we can call our own and that enables us to relax

  • Make a point of connecting with positive people who make us feel safe to be ourselves

  • Increase our non-screen personal time

  • Increase our quiet time

  • Increase our physical self care (anything counts, from taking a walk to getting massage to taking a nap to going for a run…as long as it feels right to us and we know that it will feel good after the fact too**)

These small things can seem laughable when we’re in the thick of a stress-filled living situation. When we’re at our weakest, it’s hard to see how putting in effort to change—even a little bit of effort—can be anything other than an overwhelming exercise in futility, while already being in a state of overwhelm. 

But it’s worth it. We’re worth it. 

We’re worth investing in ourselves. We’re worth saving.

Image courtesy of tawatchai at

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