Through my personal experience and through coaching and working with thousands of people over the years, I’ve had the privilege (and sometimes surprise) of more or less seeing it all. And, I’d like to think I’ve picked up some helpful perspective along the way. I thought I’d highlight some of that perspective on the unique challenges or “spirit” of health at each age—how to live well and take care of yourself through each of life’s phases. Look for part two next week!
Childhood – (a.k.a. Play Is All You Need)
Let me jump right in with the young ‘uns….
You lucky ones are as close to Grok instinct as it gets. Embrace it for all it’s worth. Don’t be in a rush to surrender your inner cave child.
Get muddy. Get sweaty. Climb trees. Build forts. Skip stones. Make plenty of dirt pies (and don’t hesitate to taste them). Stay outside as long as your parents will let you. Play as hard as you can. Run so fast that your legs feel like they’re going to propel right out from underneath you.
These years aren’t the time for life or health to feel too complicated. In fact, don’t worry about what it means to be healthy for now. Just try to understand that you’ll thank your parents and/or other adult figures for limiting your junk food and pushing meat and vegetables. Cave children need these. Teddy Grams and Gold Fish won’t help you reach your wild potential. That would be a major shame and so not worth the sugar crashes.
Think instead about pushing your limits, discovering your abilities, reveling in all that you notice about yourself and the world around you. Explore—and experiment—as much as you can. Discover awe in small things the way Grok Jr. would’ve—in animal encounters, cloud formations and large sticks.
Childhood should first and foremost feel like a rush—hitting up against your limits, pushing them further. Ask yourself—and test—on a daily basis—how high can I jump, how far can I throw, how long can I run, how fast can I climb?
Sure, some wet blanket people may try to tell you that play isn’t productive. I’m not suggesting you get yourself in trouble with these folks, but don’t believe them, okay? The outdoors calls you—although school gyms and trampoline parks can be fun, too. Still, spend as much time under the sun as you can.
And for the record, you’re right: recess is the golden part of the day, and it should be. Trust me—that’s the stuff you’ll really use the rest of your life. If you make recess a daily habit throughout your entire life, you’ll give me and every other person on this site a major run for his/her money. Keep up the good work!
High School Years – (a.k.a. Challenging the Adolescent “Everything Goes” Attitude)
You’re coming off those years when you played hard and slept hard. Now you probably just want to sleep period—until noon anyway.
Life is, most likely, much busier than just a few years ago. With homework, activities, an after school job and friends, health may not command much (if any) attention. Maybe you even consider it something “old people” (i.e. people over 25) think about.
It’s true you’re still in the thick of growing—pretty quickly actually. It probably feels like the adults in your life endlessly fuss over you with this rule or that. From your perspective it’s totally unnecessary and annoying. You seem to bounce back from whatever choices you make with no perceptible effect. Energy drink? Pizza for lunch three days in a row? Your friend’s brother’s cigarettes? What’s the big deal?
These might seem like Teflon years—when you can do what you want without noticeable consequences. Save the salads and exercise for when you get older and need to take your body seriously, right?
Recess is no more. After school doesn’t mean playing outside. Riding the bus or commuting by car is the norm for getting to and from. At home there’s plenty of homework and an array of online diversions to keep you sedentary. Food is often whatever friends are grabbing at a drive-thru or from concession stands. Caffeine is the thing to drink—and even show off (how grande can you go?). This is the life of the every-teen, isn’t it? No biggie.
Take that in for a minute. You deserve better. Absorb it. Consider what it might mean for you. Make a point of remembering it—even if you aren’t ready to act on it or even claim it yet. Carry it with you until something in your life or thinking brings it to a head—tomorrow, next month, next year, two decades from now. Trust me—this truth will change your life someday—maybe many times over.
For now, imagine you aren’t just sauntering around the school halls each day. Picture yourself on a class trip climbing a 14,000 foot mountain in the Rockies. Would you be able to do it? Be honest, and don’t automatically assume yes. I’ve seen these kinds of trips pick off a surprising percentage of teenagers (not to mention adults). Your little kid self probably would’ve been pumped at the opportunity. How much have you—your motivation and your abilities—changed?
See, it’s so easy at this age to let peer behavior influence our choices and coerce us into letting go of so many things about ourselves that we should never surrender—aspects of ourselves and our best interest we’ll regret giving away one day. Yet, in the social moment, no one wants to look like they care too much. As “old” as I am, I get it.
But try to care about your bigger (and not just social) self-interest. Try to see that what you do today matters for how you can live your life now (and, yes, what will come down the line for you later). But focus on today. When we’re honest, that’s usually the better motivation for all of us.
What are you putting your time and life into these days? What is it asking of you? How is it pushing you to develop your physical potential? How is it encouraging you to enjoy exercising that? You can probably see that screen time, junk food and all the other common adolescent traps don’t offer very inspiring answers to these questions.
You’re at an age when intellectualizing health won’t make much of an impact, but living it should. Enjoy what you used to enjoy as a younger kid in a renewed way—whether in team sports or in your own pursuits. Trust me, you aren’t limited to what’s being offered in school. Seek out martial arts, parkour, community running and walking clubs, biking events, community swim times, hiking and other outdoor activity groups. You’re no longer a child, but don’t be so quick to cede your wild, primal potential. Casting off your ability to play means abandoning yourself at a fundamental level. Don’t surrender your physical vitality and creativity before you even graduate high school.
As you grow into your interests (a big part of life at this stage), decide (or find!) what stokes your inner fire. Don’t apologize for your choices if they aren’t what your peers or parents would choose for you. What will YOUR active, adventurous life look like? There’s no need to have it all figured out at this point, but begin to ponder it. Envision claiming it. Step toward that however it makes sense each day.
You’re suddenly in a position to make (much of) your own weekly schedule. Maybe you even make your own food (or at least eat at the cafeteria where you have a plethora of choices). The fact is, no one is watching or directing or dictating whole aspects of life anymore. A skeptic might joke, “What could possibly go wrong?”
On the one hand, I tend to think we expect too little at this age. Older adults in our lives assume we’ll make stupid choices and generally chalk up this time of life to burning off one’s inner dumba$$ instinct. It might sound like a heyday at the outset, but is that ALL you really want from life today?
You’ll see plenty of people your age, maybe even good friends, organize these years around short-term gratification (e.g. Captain Crunch at every meal and frequent Mountain Dew pick-me-ups) and even varying levels of self-destructiveness (e.g. binge drinking, drug use, chronic sleep deprivation, risky sexual behavior). Underlying this tendency, I think, isn’t just entitlement to sabotage but also maybe the sadder belief that this is your last/only chance to “live it up.”
We perpetuate an enormously destructive lie in this culture—that these years will be your best. Trust me, if you’re living your life to its full potential and aren’t beset by horrible tragedy just after graduation, this won’t be true. Believe it now, and you’ll coerce yourself to live with a pressured immediacy that can end up narrowing your experience almost as much as the opposite extreme of the spectrum—where people can’t loosen up enough to step away from the term papers and service projects. Either extreme offers an impoverished and caricatured vision of what this stage can be.
I’m not preaching the straight and narrow route here. By all means, use the time to explore and enjoy yourself. However, develop the discernment to imagine what you want out of these years (in health and other terms) and the self-discipline to make sure you’re acting toward those purposes most days.
So, let me ask you this question. What condition—physical and psychological do you want to live your way into during college? This isn’t a hiatus from life after all—what happens in college stays at college (as much as the culture talks about it this way). I’m sure you could come up with a hundred jokes and many more examples of this principle. Suffice is to say, those “freshman 15” will likely be coming with you post-graduation unless you do something about it. The other effects of a sedentary 4-year college career will leave with you, too.
The fact is, here’s the chance to make your life your own. Remember that very personal question of what your active, adventurous life will look like? Are you planning on living that—or holding yourself captive on some socially dictated detour for 4+ years? This is the time to understand that living your own life to its healthiest (and generally most successful) potential means accepting the responsibility of creating your own path rather than tagging along with the crowd.
Getting Married (a.k.a. Negotiating Personal Boundaries and Partner Dynamics)
So, you found your true love, and now you’re living in holy matrimony or a romantic agreement in which you’re both on the lease. Unlike the string of roommates you’ve had over the years, now there’s this vague expectation that you share everything—share food, share meals, share free time, share responsibility, share social lives, etc. Some elements of this arrangement go better than other. Achilles’ tendon? It just might be a Primal versus non-Primal showdown.
How can it be that someone who makes us so happy can also challenge our efforts to stay healthy? It just happens.
Primal couples exist, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. More are made after the vows, but the majority of married Primal folks, I’d easily venture, go it alone. Perhaps many of their partners exercise and/or eat reasonably cleanly, but many others don’t.
Sure, there are strategies you can employ involving separate shelf space, co-existing food budgets, overlapping food preparation/meal planning that calls in your Venn diagramming skills.
I know too many people who have put too much energy into cajoling or complaining about their partners. Some of it comes from feeling like they’re being cheated of convenience they feel they should have. (Why should anyone feel entitled to this?) Some of it comes from feeling like they’re missing out on support. (This is certainly nice, but you partner isn’t responsible for emulating or cheerleading your choices.)
Finally, others feel they’re missing out on a sharing and bonding experience over what some Primal types consider deeply held values. While I get this, I also think people have the choice of sharing instances or elements of their commitments (e.g. now and then sharing a meal—or most of a meal—that fits both tastes, enjoying after-dinner bike rides or weekend hikes together) without requiring mutual adherence to appreciate the occasion.
Some people might call this approach harsh or unsympathetic. I call it realistic and, ultimately, respectful. I’ve seen a lot of people lose the forest through the trees focusing on a tallied list of differences. They took their partners’ choices as personal slights or, even worse, evidence that the other person didn’t care about their relationship. In other words, they wanted to see change—in the other person.
Whether it’s a question of food or the proverbial toilet seat, we all have a choice in long-term relationships to stew in a cauldron of resentment and discontent about our partner’s lack of compliance or “good sense.” Alternatively, we can let that $#!% go—really go—and focus on ourselves.
Are there cases in which partners are so far apart on the spectrum of valuing themselves and their health that not enough is left holding them together? Yes, I’ve seen these cases. And, it’s really not my business whether someone leaves their marriage or not.
That said, I think we benefit when we embrace our own independence within a relationship and demand less from the other person, particularly when our interest is in making them more like ourselves. I’ve suggested to disgruntled clients that for one month they let go of attachment to the idea their partners have any role in their choices—or in their own sense of contentment with life as well as health.
Yes, this flies in the face of what our culture teaches us, but see how it works—30 days or your full-blown misery back!
After battling some inner resistance, it’s amazing how many of them have come back to me happier in their marriages, more centered in their own choices—and (further down the road if they keep it up) in more productive (not perfect, but progressing) collaboration with their partners. The power of self-focus in health as in life—with its emphasis on boundaries and responsibility—can’t be overestimated.
Thanks for reading today, everyone. As mentioned, look for my follow-up on the remaining life stages next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on health, wisdom and well-being in early life. Share your comments, and enjoy the end of your week.
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Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.