The simple path to the right way to do The Big Three for your health – eat healthy, exercise, and manage stress is found on the inside. Be guided by science, what is happening inside your whole person in the present moment, and respond with kindness you have your built-in guide to get out of the overwhelm of the right way to be healthy. The right way to exercise, eat healthily, and manage stress all fit in one guide when you know the common skills that allow all three to work together, as they are designed for you to thrive. This guide gives you the five key mindsets to adopt to know the right way to be healthy, and then the way to use them to know the right way for YOU to exercise, eat healthy and manage stress.
What defines the right way to exercise, eat healthy and manage stress?
Ever feel like you are drinking from a fire hose when it comes to information about how to be healthy? You may remember simpler times when you got health information in small manageable doses. Maybe you read an article or a book and knowing what to do to be healthy was simple. Now, whoa! Now it’s like the ice bucket challenge for your brain. Your nervous system freezes in the face of an overwhelming amount of advice about how to eat healthy, get enough exercise, and reduce stress.
Too much information leads to less motivation
This is just how our physiology is hardwired. The state of overwhelm shifts your physiology into survive mode. The only choices in this mode are either fight, flee, or freeze.
- Fight: use fear, frustration, anger, or guilt to energize you to make drastic changes for quick results. That often boomerangs into…
- Flee: go the opposite direction, unleashing a flurry of unhealthy choices. Once you wake up and see the damage that it caused it sends you into…
- Freeze: Distract from the whole idea of trying to be healthy. Things are just too busy right now. It will be better ________ (after the holidays, when the kids are back in school, when work slows down).
Here is the important takeaway: this is NOT a problem. You are not ‘being bad’ when this happens. It is completely normal way to survive so you can thrive. It’s when you call yourself ‘lazy’ or an ‘all or nothing person’ or ‘bad’ that it becomes a problem.1
The solution is to use that state as a reminder it’s time to stop listening to everyone else for the right way to be healthy. It’s time to go to your best guide, your Inner Trainer, your built-in guru, for information on how YOU can be healthy and stay motivated.
The 5 key mindset shifts that simplify knowing the right way to be healthy
1. Trust your internal guides for being healthy
Your nervous system has another physiologic response. It is where you can respond with calm, stand strong with confidence, and stay connected to what is most important to you, even amid the ‘noise’ out there.
It starts with knowing that the vast majority of what you read online is science-based, just not health science. Marketing science has become quite advanced, with information-gathering systems that ‘know’ what you need to hear to get your attention. This personalized advertising makes it really challenging to tell the difference between someone trying to sell you something and someone giving you straight talk about how to be healthy based on health science.
The fact is, no one knows what you need better than you do. I love science-based information, but even the best science is only a guide. It cannot tell exactly what YOU need right now to be healthy.
2. Know that now is the most important moment for your health
Key words there: right now. Your health happens now, in THIS moment. What your cells are doing now is laying the tracks for your future health. This is true for thoughts, movements, and emotions. What you practice now gets stronger. The more consistent that practice, the more you get that specific result. Use-it-to-keep-it is how our whole person operates. What you are doing now matters the most for being healthy.
Yet, most health information talks about the future benefits you will get if you do this and this and that. Your brain, however, is most motivated by what is happening now; specifically, what makes you feel better in your whole person right now. It’s hardwired to repeat those actions, and avoid the ones that make you feel worse now.2 Being healthy and staying motivated is about what is happening now, in your whole person.
Check this out for yourself. Compare an article about health to an ad for a candy bar. The candy bar ad is focused on how you will feel now. The health article is focused on how you will feel in the future. Which one do you think will grab your brain’s attention more? Research backs the fact that the language used for unhealthy foods and behaviors is much more enticing for the brain.3 Knowing the right way to eat healthy, exercise, and manage stress starts with being present to how you feel now, in your whole person.
3. Shift your physiology to the state of health
This happens best when your physiology is in the thrive state. This is the opposite of the survival state, where you are trying to get to a better place. In the thrive state, you are connected to what your body is telling you about what it needs right now, confident you know what is right for you, and calmly making choices in your best interest, even when life around you is stressful.4
Sound like a fairy tale? It’s not! It’s completely possible when you know how to engage your thrive state when choosing the right way to exercise, eat healthy, and manage stress—The Big Three.
The first step in knowing the right way to achieve The Big Three is to notice what state exercising, eating healthy, and managing stress puts your physiology: survive or thrive?
In the survive state, you are stressed. Your energy goes into protecting against real or potential threats. In the thrive state, you are well. Your energy goes into healing, growing, and learning. Clearly, the more moments you are in the thrive state, the more energy is going into being healthy and well.
It’s often subtle but you can tell by listening to your body, hearing your self-talk, and checking in on your emotions. You sense this subtle state of ‘trying to get somewhere else’. Trying to lose weight. Trying to prevent disease. Trying to lower blood pressure/sugars. Trying to calm down.
That mindset of trying to get somewhere else tells your cells there is a real or potential threat right here and you need to fight it, flee it, or freeze all action until you know what to do about it.
4. Don’t try to improve your health
We are told that we have to work hard to be healthy. Success stories are all over the media. People pushing their bodies and proudly posing for the ‘after’ pictures next to the ‘before’ pictures. This is an athletic approach to being healthy—work hard to get to a goal. The problem is that it doesn’t work for health because it’s meant for a short-term goal, like winning a competition.
Health is not a competition you win, it’s a physiologic state. That takes a whole different mindset and approach to knowing the right way to be healthy. The fact is, you are hardwired to be healthy. Your cells are built with instructions to take care of you. Since you were just two cells old, they have been doing that. You don’t have to try to be healthy because trying puts you in the survive state. Instead, trust your cells know how to be well.
5. Use a whole-person approach to know the right way for you
What we need is a whole-person approach, one that gives each part of you what it needs to shift from the survive state to the thrive state. It is a powerful combination of mindfully moving as an act of self-kindness.
- Mindfulness guides your brain’s attention back to the present.
- Self-kindness shifts emotions from negative to positive, freeing you to go from problem-seeking to solution-seeking.
- Movement science shows you how to move your body as it is designed, so it can release the ‘ready-to-move’ tension generated by the fight, flee, or freeze modes of the survive state.
The combination of these three skills is what it means to be Exercising Well. It is the foundation of whole-person health because it shifts your physiology into the thrive state.
In the thrive state, exercising, eating healthy, and managing stress can do what they are meant to do—keep you healthy. The information you have inside in this present moment is your best guide to knowing how to exercise so you move well, eat healthy so you nourish well, and manage stress so you rest well.
Let’s apply these to The Big Three the right way for whole-person health
The right way to exercise to be healthy
Your body already knows how to move well. You did it when you were a baby without anyone telling you how. Your nerve cells knew how to tell your muscles to move your bones in the way they had the most strength and the least strain.
Unfortunately, the definition of the word ‘exercise’ has strayed from moving well. The combination of influences from sports and weight-loss media has redefined exercise as a way to push your body for some future result. The movements of the most common exercises are based on exercises athletes do to perform a sport better. The weight-loss industry promises that exercise can deliver all kinds of things that are not possible, but sound great to someone who wants to lose weight and ‘tone up’.
The word exercise means ‘to practice’. This kind of exercise is practice for being in the survive state. Pushing your body for some future result tells your cells you are not okay right now. Exercise becomes another source of stress.
To practice being in the thrive state, combine mindfulness and self-kindness, with movement science. This is when moving is practicing being well now. It changes the whole meaning of the word ‘exercise’. Now you are moving to shift your physiology into the thrive state in the present moment. In that state, your whole person automatically puts energy into being healthy.
What to do for exercise for being healthy
Your body needs three movement skills for daily life: mobility, strength, and stamina. Each of these is important. One does not replace the other, they help each other.
The template for finding the right way for you to exercise
- Exercise with a consistent balance of mobility, strength, and stamina.
- 1 time a day, practice mobility by stretching
- 2 times a week, practice functional strength moves
- 3 times a week, practice stamina by doing a form of cardiovascular exercise that you enjoy.
- Self-kindness: use exercise as a resource for self-care so it is a moment in your day to restore your well-being so you thrive.
- Mindfulness: notice how you feel as you move, making adjustments so you feel and function better now in your whole person. This is how it becomes a habit.
By using this as a template, you can trust that you are exercising the right way for whole-person health, whether for one minute or one hour. How to move your body well is beyond the scope of this guide. Please use caution when searching for exercises online. Since you probably wouldn’t entrust the care of a loved one to a stranger, make sure you take care of your body by getting personalized, health science-based information about exercise for your individual needs when searching for exercise information online.
The right way to eat to be healthy
Eating healthy starts with what is science-based, not marketing-based. There are many nutrition approaches out there. Start with the ones that are backed by science and recommended by degreed nutrition professionals. I have had the privilege of working alongside some amazing dietitians throughout my career. They know chemistry. They know physiology. They know disease processes. They know how to make healthy food taste good. When you learn from a professional, you can eat with a mindset of trusting your design to thrive.
The template for finding the right way for you to eat healthy:
- Rethink exercise as a way to prepare your body to use nutrition well. All the healthy food in the world won’t make you healthy if your cells can’t use those nutrients well. Change the idea that exercise is to burn off calories. A Mindful, kind, science-based approach to exercise does two important things for your physiology that nothing else can do:
- Provides the equipment needed to turn food into energy and strength. Your cells need equipment like mitochondria, enzymes, and muscle cells to use the healthy food you are eating. In your use-it-to-keep-it body, exercise is what tells your cells to keep that equipment.5
- Shifts you to the thrive state so when you eat your body can use energy for healing, growth and learning rather than fight fight and freeze.
- Mindful eating to nourish well. Mindful eating is a popular tool for eating healthy and losing weight. The challenge is it can become another ‘should’ and thus keep you in the ‘trying’ mindset of the stress state.
- Mindfulness is simply noticing, not judging. The whole purpose of mindful eating is so you can relax while eating.
- When in that resting state, your digestive system is in the state where it can process the food you are eating. That gives it the best chance for getting to cells to be used for energy. Mindful eating allows you to listen to your body so you know the right foods and the right amount, for you right now.
- Self-kindness to nourish well. Eating is one of the most elemental acts of self-care.
- When eating healthy means ignoring cravings, hunger signals, and preferences, it is embodying self-criticism.
- Knowing how to go below the surface to understand what you really need when you have food cravings or use food for comfort is a powerful act of self-kindness.6
Cravings are the main source of taking in more food than our body needs. Cravingsare rooted in unmet needs. Our core needs are to be safe, enough, and connected. When a need is not met, your physiology shifts to a stress state. When that shift is ignored, your body will look to feel better from a source known to help—food. We are surrounded by foods that are engineered to change our brain chemistry to feel better now. With mindfulness and self-kindness, you can stay aware of when you are influenced by marketing science and using food as a quick fix to feel better. When you get curious about what you really need, exercising becomes a resource for a more effective way for you to feel better now.
The right way to manage stress
There is great research that proves mindfulness, self-compassion, and exercise are important skills for managing stress. But alone, they can easily turn into a brain-based approach. You can end up ‘trying’ to be more mindful, ‘trying’ to be kind to yourself, and ‘trying’ to exercise to relax. The mindset of trying keeps you stuck in the survive state.
The template for finding the right way for you to manage stress
- How to use mindfulness to manage stress: The thing about the survive and thrive states is that only you know which one you are in. No one can tell you what that feels like. When in the survive state, only you know what you need to shift back to the thrive state.
- Start by using your skill of mindfulness to get to know what your survive state feels like and what your thrive state feels like for you.
- How to use self-kindness to manage stress. Often I hear people say “I am not good at self-care”. You wouldn’t be reading this if you were not ‘good’ at self-care. The key is trusting that even when you mess up, end up stressed, veg out on the couch, and eat mindlessly while binging on Netflix, the root motive of everything you do is to take care of yourself. When you are in survive mode, those actions might not align with what you know you should do. Berating yourself for doing this only mires you deeper into the survive state.
- See everything you do as self-care and stay curious, learn from what happened. By getting off the detour of critical self-talk, you will shift back to the thrive state with greater ease.
- How to exercise to manage stress. That tension you feel when feeling stressed is your body ready to move. Nothing changes that fact. It’s hardwired into your physiology. You can be mindful, take deep breaths, use encouraging self talk, but your body is still ready to move.
- Mindful, kind, science-based movement is the complete antidote to stress. This combination ensures you are guided by inside, so exercise can shift your physiology from the stress state to the thrive state.
- Then connect that feeling with moving as you are designed, with mindfulness and self-kindness. By exercising well, you get the benefits of these three skills in one action and you treat the root cause of stress in your whole person.
Your guide to making it a habit to exercise, eat healthy, and manage stress the right way for you
Using The Well Habits System, you leverage both body and brain science together to turn this information into a habit.
- Why: Clarify your Core Why for wanting to be healthy.
- your reasons why you want to eat healthy, exercise and manage stress may seem obvious. The deeper you do, the more you discover how to be well by doing The Big Three.
- Enough: Get really clear about the range of how much is enough.
- Guidelines are rarely rigid. Guidelines for how much is enough to eat healthy, exercise, and manage stress are presented in ranges because no one knows the exact amount right for you right now. Flexibility in your ideas about enough allows you to keep it flexible, so your plan can fit your life right now. The more evidence-based and flexible your mindset about how much is enough, the more likely you are to stick with it when you need it most; when life gets stressful!
- Link: What is happening in your body right now is where you find the most reliable, personalized information about the right way to do The Big Three.
- Notice if you are distracted to get through an exercise, a healthy meal, or meditation time. Stay connected with your body to learn from your most reliable guide for making moment-by-moment adjustments in what you are doing to be healthy
- Loop: Connect what you are doing and how you are feeling now back to your Core Why. This is what creates the habit. When what you do makes you feel better now in your body, your brain wants you to repeat it.
- The more you are aware of what your body is telling your brain, the more you are in charge of your healthy habits.
Summary of the right way to exercise, eat healthy, and manage stress
The right way to be healthy—exercise, eating healthy, and managing stress—is found on the inside right now. Be guided by what’s inside, trusting that your cells know how to be well. This state of thriving is when exercising leads to moving well, eating healthy leads to nourishing well, and managing stress leads to resting well.
- Milia, C., Kolubinski, D., & 1. Spada, M. (2021). The effects of self-critical rumination on shame and stress: An experimental study. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 49(3), 272-286.
- Chen, W., Chan, T.W., Wong, L.H. et al. IDC theory: habit and the habit loop. RPTEL 15, 10 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s41039-020-00127-7
- Bradley P. Turnwald, Margaret A. Perry, David Jurgens, Vinodkumar Prabhakaran, Dan Jurafsky, Hazel R. Markus, Alia J. Crum, Language in popular American culture constructs the meaning of healthy and unhealthy eating: Narratives of craveability, excitement, and social connection in movies, television, social media, recipes, and food reviews, Appetite, Volume 172, 2022,
- McEwen BS. Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators: central role of the brain. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2006;8(4):367-81.
- Angulo J, El Assar M, Álvarez-Bustos A, Rodríguez-Mañas L. Physical activity and exercise: Strategies to manage frailty. Redox Biol. 2020 Aug;35:101513
- Sagui-Henson SJ, Radin RM, Jhaveri K, Brewer JA, Cohn M, Hartogensis W, Mason AE. Negative Mood and Food Craving Strength Among Women with Overweight: Implications for Targeting Mechanisms Using a Mindful Eating Intervention. Mindfulness (N Y). 2021;12(12):2997-3010.