I was talking to a friend a few weeks ago, and he asked a smart and incisive question.
“Patrick, buddy, I don’t want to be ‘the fit guy’.
I’m busy and I’m lazy.
Can you just tell me the bare minimum I need to do so I don’t end up fat, sick, and miserable?”
I like these min-max questions, because they help us feel where the edges are with health and fitness. What’s essential? What’s an optional “nice-to-have?” When life gets tough and you need to throw stuff overboard to keep from sinking, what goes first, and what do you hold on to until the bitter end?
I’ve thought about this question and have an answer ready. To all my busy/lazy friends, this one’s for you!
WELLNESS: The Bare Minimum
First, a disclaimer. This list is as pared down as I can make it. It is NOT a guide to being fit and healthy. It’s a guide to being barely not-sick, by the skin of your teeth. Sometimes that’s the best you’ve got, and that’s ok. Consider this list the basement of wellness. Do any less than this and you’re digging holes in the ground.
7 Hours of Sleep
Sleep is the foundation of mental and physical health. If you consistently short-change your sleep you’re taking years off your life, and making those years foggier and sicker.
During the day the body racks up a lot of micro-damage. Joints are stressed, muscle tissue develops tiny rips, the brain collects a lot of metabolic waste. Sleep is the night shift of the body, when systems are powered down so that the clean-up crew can come in and patch things up. Imagine a city where the construction workers, garbage collectors, and sewer-system managers all went on strike. In just a few days it would be chaos and normal life would grind to a halt. When you skimp on sleep that’s what you’re doing to your body.
But how much is the bare minimum of sleep? Research points to 3 complete sleep cycles as a minimum bar to clear. What’s a complete sleep cycle?
SLEEP HAPPENS IN 4 STAGES
Stage 1 - Falling asleep (~5-10 minutes)
This is when you’re in bed and feeling yourself drifting into sleepfulness.
Stage 2 - Light sleep (~25 minutes)
Your body temperature drops and your brain starts to slow down. The body is powering down your daytime systems in preparation for the clean-up crew’s shift.
Stage 3 - Deep sleep (~70-90 minutes)
Heart rate and breathing wind down to their slowest of the day, the body is completely still, and your repair systems kick into high gear. This is the stage of sleep that keeps you physically healthy.
Stage 4 - REM sleep (~10 minutes)
This is the famous stage where the body reboots out of deep sleep, the brain becomes active, the eyes flicker behind the lids, and when most dreams occur. Research indicates this stage of sleep is key to forming long term memory and hard-coding the skills you practiced during the day.
If you successfully navigate all 4 stages without interruption, you’ve completed 1 sleep cycle. This takes roughly 2 hours. If something disturbs you, for example a crying child wakes you up in stage 2, then you have to restart the whole cycle again when you get back in bed.
Research shows it takes at least 3 sleep cycles to get the restorative effects of sleep. 4 is even better, but we’re going for the bare minimum here. That means you need 6 high quality hours of sleep each night. (There’s even more nuance involved here. Earlier sleep cycles tend to emphasize physical repair, while later sleep cycles focus on brain health and cognition, so if you never get that final 4th cycle you might not be as mentally sharp as you’d like - but it’s not essential for a bare minimum of survival.)
The issue is, we’re not robots that get into bed and instantly power-down. We toss and turn and wake up in the middle of the night. This means that in practice, to get 3 complete cycles you need to schedule a bare minimum of 7 hours in bed each day to account for this slack.
20 Minutes of Exercise
The science is very clear on this topic. To maintain bare minimum health, the human body needs 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week. This has been studied to death, with all the variations you can imagine. 150 minutes a week is about 20 minutes every day, or 30 minutes if you’re doing it just 5 days a week.
Your heart, lungs, and muscles need to be put to use at least this much, or they begin to decay. It’s as simple as that.
Moderate aerobic activity is anything that gets your heartrate up above 100 BPM. You should be slightly winded and break a small sweat. A brisk walk around the neighborhood is enough. A lazy stroll where you stop to smell the roses is not enough. You need to be moving consistently, keeping your heart pumping for the entire time.
Could you be a weekend warrior and do the entire 150 minutes in one day? Yes, but this stop-go style stresses the body and increases your chance of injury. Slow and steady is the way, if your schedule allows it.
The type of exercise is completely up to you. Anything and everything works, as long as your heart, lungs, musculature, and circulation are getting a chance to perform.
10 Minutes of Midday Sunlight
Going outside and getting some sun is always good for your mental health, but we now know it’s the key to your body’s biosynthesis of vitamin D.
Sunlight, specifically ultraviolet B rays, hit your skin and pass through the top layers of your dermis. A few layers down, these rays interact with a type of cholesterol protein called 7-DHC, kicking off a long chain of chemistry which spits out active vitamin D.
Your body LOVES this homebrew vitamin D, and can put it to immediate use for bone and immune health. Sun-derived vitamin D is much more useful than supplements or dietary vitamin D, which require a bunch of extra steps to become useful.
The sunlight effect works best when the sun is high in the sky and the rays can penetrate directly through the skin. In the early morning and late afternoon the rays are coming in at oblique angles, meaning most of the rays bounce off the skin and don’t give you a vitamin D boost.
If your shadow is longer than you are tall, the sun is too low in the sky to create vitamin D.
You don’t need to be sunbathing in a swimsuit for the vitamin D effect to kick in. Normal amounts of sun hitting the face and arms is enough. In practical terms, around lunch time just go outside for 10 minutes. That’s about as bare minimum a task as you could ask for!
1 Recognizable Vegetable, 1 Recognizable Fruit
Your body needs access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The vitamins, minerals, and most of all, fiber, are crucial for good gut health. I would consider healthy digestion and bowel movements as a bare minimum of wellness. The question is how much is the bare minimum?
Daily recommendations for fruit and vegetables in the US drive me batty, because they’re usually given in the unit of cups. For example, the recommended daily allowance for vegetables is 2-3 cups, and for fruit 1-2 cups. I can’t think of a less intuitive way to understand how much of a solid food to eat than cups. First of all, most people don’t have a grasp for how small an 8 oz cup really is. Most of the drinking glasses and mugs in our shelves (you know… our cups) are 12-15 ounces. So to start with, you have this unhelpful unit, and then you have to imagine how very uncuplike items like zucchini or bananas would fit into that cup, maybe if you diced and cubed them up? Completely useless.
I have a much easier way to get the bare minimum of fruits and vegetables in the way your body actually needs them. Every day you should eat one recognizable vegetable, and one recognizable fruit. By recognizable, I mean that another person could take a look at your plate and know what the original fruit or vegetable was.
For example, a head of broccoli chopped and stir-fried is still identifiable as broccoli, but a vegetable tater tot with blended broccoli as one of the ingredients is not. A plate of orange wedges is easily seen to be an orange, but a glass of orange juice isn’t.
When you eat something recognizable, it means it hasn’t been overly processed,
and your body is getting all the nutrients and fiber in the package it most prefers, as a whole food.
This doesn’t mean you should only eat one fruit or vegetable a day. There are fruit and vegetable sources in all kinds of things (pizza, french fries, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, for example), but you need to go out of your way to have just one fruit and vegetable that’s close to whole. It’s the bare minimum you can do for your digestion.
You can also divide this as you like, for example, half a bell pepper and half an onion would count as 1 recognizable vegetable.
Maximum of 1 Junk Food or Drink
We’ve got the idea of 1 vegetable and fruit in your day. Now we’re going to inverse that to make sure you don’t blow up your bare minimum efforts. It’s easy to say “don’t eat junk food,” and then watch people promptly ignore the advice and go on eating whatever they want. Junk food (by which I mean processed, calorically dense, highly palatable, strongly flavored foods) activates the pleasure centers of your brain and is very hard to just give up.
A bare minimum approach is to not outlaw junk food but to put a hard cap on it. This cap is 1. This means that in a 24 hour period, your body can safely absorb a single junk food product. Some examples of what “1” junk food item looks like.
1 pastry, muffin, cookie, or slice of cake/pie
1 standard sized bowl of ice cream (about two scoops)
1 small bag of potato chips (the kind at the deli counter)
1 small order of french fries
1 standard sized candy bar (the kind at the checkout register)
1 can of sugar-based soda/sports drink
1 fancy cafe coffee drink
1 can of beer or glass of wine
When you’re going for the bare minimum, each day you can choose how to cash in this 1 junk food item, and you need to stick with it. For example, if you chose to have a cinnamon roll in the morning, you need to remember that and pass on the after dinner ice-cream a whole 14 hours later. You’re still on the 24 hour clock!
The place people really get tripped up is caloric beverages. You never hear anyone say, “I’ll pass on the pie, this morning I drank a soda after all.” Most people don’t count liquid calories as real calories.
The bare minimum is better than nothing,
and puts you in the right frame of mind for bigger things.
When I proposed this article, I got some push-back. “Do we really want to give people a guide to doing the absolute smallest amount of work for their health? Won’t some people take this and run with it, thinking of it as a free-pass to ignore the real work of getting fit?”
My feeling is that when people take any action to better their wellness, even just the bare minimum, it begins to shift their mental landscape from a place of victimhood to one of agency. When you’re in a bad place with your health and fitness, it can seem like the bad food and exercise choices are something that’s happening to you, beyond your control. It feels like the universe wants you to get fatter and sicker each year!
All it takes is a small act of defiance against this “universe” to realize that you were in control the whole time. A 20 minute walk is a very minimal fitness intervention, but for someone in a bad place it can feel like a radical act of independence and self-care. That feeling is much more likely to result in positive change than always sitting on the sidelines waiting to start some big epic life-change where you’ll jog for an hour every single day. Doing the bare minimum opens the door to bigger and better things.
If you’re feeling lost with your wellness, take a breath and as yourself,
“Can I manage this list every day?”
- 7 hours of sleep (3 sleep cycles)
- 20 minutes of moderate exercise (fast walking is fine)
- 10 minutes of sunlight (midday)
- 1 Vegetable (recognizable)
- 1 Fruit (recognizable)
- Max of 1 junk food item per 24 hours
I think everyone can handle this list. You’ve got this. This list won’t make you fit, but it will keep you from being sick. Barely. That’s not nothing.
Get out there and do your least today!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder