To fall from Olympian to limpin’ around feeling like I’d been kicked between my legs took 19 years and 5 months.
Here’s how it happened:
- Two knee operations
- Shoulder operation
- Parenting three children
- Intensified work commitments
- The absence of a well-thought out, well-supervised training plan that had previously been mapped by my coaches.
- Physiological changes from simply getting older that meant slower recovery times
- And everything in between.
Then, as a 41 year old, when I decided I’d love to start karate, my mind was operating from the “10+ sessions per week” guy rather than the keyboard warrior I’d become.
Was I in reasonable shape? Sure.
But my baseline had eroded, quietly and certainly.
When I took my old training attitude into a brand new set of skills and movement patterns, the inevitable happened.
3 months into my karate journey, what felt like a small tweak of my hamstring in the dojo turned into 2.5 years of rehab.
And I’m only now just getting to the stage where I’ve been able to consistently train and even begin to push it a little.
Over that two and half years, I scoured the internet looking for information.
I spent more money and time than I care to think about on scans, doctors, physios, acupuncture, diets, trainers, books, programs, you name it.
And I’m not alone.
Many friends and clients have found themselves in the same boat.
Competing demands on time and attention have meant that health has been pushed down the priority list until they wake up one day wondering: “How did it get this bad?” “How did I let this happen?”
For some people, it might even be the lowest level of health they’ve ever experienced. It can feel daunting.
The questions turn to:
“Can I ever come back? And if so, how?”
The Old Approach
The old me would have said:
- Set the goal (lose X kilograms, run Y kms, lift Z weight etc)
- Get a plan
- Follow the plan
Seems simple right?
But so rarely does this lead to lasting change.
How many people do you know have set a goal to lose weight for a wedding, hit the number and then as soon as the day is over have reverted back to, or even past, their original weight?
These kinds of things happen all the time in health.
Goals are important but they’re not the long term answer.
So what can we do?
One part of the challenge is that personal health is incredibly complex.
Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.
That is a huge aspiration for our health and quite a bar to set.
Another challenge is that we’re drowning in information. Tech is moving so fast we can barely keep up. Even with seemingly rigorous evidence bases, there appear to be diametrically opposed views on the best health strategies and tactics.
Having said that, there are a few things all the experts appear to agree on that will make a difference:
They also agree that there is no single approach, pill or program that works for everyone.
So another part of the challenge is that the few things that appear to definitely work – sleep, nutrition, exercise – can be boring. They take time and are often repetitive. And they need to be done every day.
So how do we develop the buy-in and commitment for ourselves to actually make the changes required and stick to them?
If there is no single solution that works for everyone, where do we start?
Before I go further, I want to introduce this concept of Healthspan.
You’re probably familiar with the idea of lifespan – the number of years we live.
It’s possible to extend these years dramatically by living in an air-conditioned room on a restricted calorie diet with no exposure to disease.
But what kind of life is that?
Certainly not one I’m interested in.
Healthspan on the other hand is the number of years we live in which we have good health – cognitively, physically, emotionally.
Dr Peter Attia defines healthspan more specifically as the length of our life for which we have more than 50% of our cognitive and physical health (excellent video here).
Healthspan is what I want.
What if we could extend the number of years of our health and energy to maximise our connection and contribution to the people we love (including ourselves) and the communities we live in?
What if we could extend our healthspan for multi-generational impact?
Sign me up.
But it’s not a quick fix.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s about playing the longest game possible.
This article isn’t going to go into more strategies, tactics or recommendations.
What I want to share is how I’ve come to think about rebuilding personal health, not just for a few kilos of fat loss or to rid myself of chronic pain, but for energy and healthspan in service of lasting personal impact and fulfilment.
7 Steps To Rebuilding Health
While the tailoring of treatment to patients dates back at least to the time of Hippocrates, the rise of Personalized Medicine on the back of advances in genomics and other technologies, is just one aspect of rebuilding health by preventing disease.
So how can we take into account a broader view of an individual’s health?
What follows is a distillation of everything I’ve ever learned about the process of building and rebuilding health.
Consider this the process I’d follow (and in fact am following right now) to come back from broken, to baseline and beyond.
It’s designed to do three things:
- Drive intrinsic motivation and alignment for healthspan
- Work with the challenges that inevitably arise
- Establish the support structures required to sustain the changes.
There are 7 steps:
- Identity: Aspiration and Suffering
- Personalised Plan
- Systems and Structure
- Accountability, Feedback and Support
Let’s work through them one by one.
Even after a lifetime of exploring health and performance as a personal passion, I’ve realised that when it comes to rebuilding health, context changes everything. So I need to understand that before I even begin to explore solutions.
Here are a couple of questions to begin to explore context and establish the case for embarking on rebuilding my health:
- Why now? What is the specific catalyst or new circumstance that has triggered me to want to make substantial and permanent change to my health right now?
- Results, Reality, Roadblocks What results do I want? Why are they important? What is the reality of where I’m at? What’s happening in my health and more broadly? What are the roadblocks to me getting to where I’d like to be?
Identity: Aspiration and Suffering
Once I have context, I start with Identity.
That puts me firmly at the centre of the process rather than just outcomes or goals.
And to truly work with identity we need to understand both sides of the yin/yang: aspiration and suffering.
What are my values? Who is important to me? What is important to me? What is my purpose? What would I willingly do for free? What energises me?
These answers help to define my longest possible game and tease out my “why”. They help in aligning my program and training design with what truly matters to me. This immediately sets up those programs to have a fighting chance against the status quo.
By defining a long game that truly matters to me, I can then start to make choices right now, today about how to move towards that.
As I say to my daughters, the reason I do chin-ups today is so I can still carry you up the stairs when we’re 30 years older. For me, that’s an expression of love.
When I think about my health, what are the tough thoughts, feelings, sensations that show up? Do they have a size, colour, shape, texture? Can I give them a name?
A big part of any change is understanding our internal hooks – the internal experiences that hold us back or actively move us away from our best. By knowing these in advance I can predict what might show up and learn to work with them.
The science of Psychological Flexibility definitely applies in making lasting health changes.
[This Identity part of the process I’ve made available in my Momentum Activity here.]
I realise how fortunate I was as an athlete to have a multidisciplinary team of world class experts that assessed progress and advised next steps specifically for me and my goals. A centrally co-ordinated, yearly baseline and ongoing assessment of my health meant I could continuously improve.
The tech and science have come a long way since my playing days.
What’s available now through wearable tech and mail-based testing kits enables most people to have access to real time data and assessment in many areas.
So what’s my baseline? What are my current needs across these areas?
- Gut health
Given the data from the assessment above, I’d work with experts to begin to develop an adaptable, personalised roadmap of my health into the future. This would include specific tasks, activities and experiments I might like to try, as well as larger projects and longer term goals. It would include things I can do for myself and others where I’d need to get expert involvement.
I’d also document ideas for the habits and patterns that would help me making this lasting change.
There appears to be a pervasive and toxic myth that we need to “burn” to make it worthwhile when it comes to health.
So one of the opportunities in this plan would be to revisit activities that I’ve loved in the past. I’d begin to combine them with the people and environments that really matter to me in order to help make the journey as enjoyable, sustainable, fulfilling and energising as humanly possible.
Systems and Structure
Once a plan was in place, I’d look at the details of the systems and structures that surround and support my health.
They don’t have to be complex.
A simple review of my calendar for how I allocate my time and schedule the ongoing activity, monitoring, coaching and plan adjustments would be the beginning.
Ideally I’d be looking for opportunities to integrate my health to existing activities to make it easier to stick to.
Small changes like walking when I’m on a work phone call, can compound enormously over time. I know a client who walked over a million steps last year employing this tactic.
[The book, Atomic Habits, by James Clear goes into all of the details required here to design habits that really stick.]
Personalising my toolkit would depend on the prioritised changes.
Evidence bases such as Psychological Flexibility spring to mind as a near certainty to help me work with the challenging thoughts, feelings and sensations as I rebuild my health.
Using all of the preceding steps, I could then adopt the highest-value, personalised tools rather than trying to drink from the firehose of information, strategies and tactics available online.
The right experts would help with selection to make sure it was for sustainable results.
Accountability, Feedback and Support
For me over the last few years, this has been very much self driven with the input from expert advisors and monitored by doctors, specialists, wearable tech and kits.
In many ways, I’ve been what elite sport calls a High Performance Manager for myself. I’ve quarterbacked information selection, appointment scheduling, activity planning and periodisation.
For accountability, feedback and support I’d suggest three things:
- Coach(es): help create the plan or specific parts of the plan, oversee execution and keep me on track.
- Wearable tech: watches, whoop bands etc all help to monitor and provide immediate real time feedback and data on so many of the components laid out above.
- Expertise: I’ve been fortunate to have built up a network of multidisciplinary, Olympic-level experts that I’ve been able to ask for advice along the way.
As the ancient Greek philosopher Archilocus said:
“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”
Almost never will there be a perfect time to start. And there’s no way we’ll get to a point where we have all of the information.
So the only place we can start is with who we are and what choice we make next.
Sooner or later we all have to actually do the reps.
My hope is that what I’ve outlined above might be an approach you can use to architect reps that are enjoyable, that matter to you and are in service of the people you love (including yourself) and the contribution only you can make in the world.
As always, please let me know what you think and how you go in the comments because if this helps you do that, I’ll be stoked.
Here’s to improving our healthspans for multigenerational impact.