Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that humans have an ascending set of fundamental requirements — first for physiological survival essentials (like food, water, and shelter), then for safety and security, and then for a sense of love and belonging — all of which must be fulfilled before we are inclined to seek even higher motivations, such as self actualization and self-transcendence.
I would argue that there’s a corresponding hierarchy of needs in the pursuit of healthy living. And that observing and respecting that hierarchy can be a huge help in predisposing any health-and-fitness seeker toward success.
Otherwise, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by pesky details and “optimization” advice long before we’ve got our heads (and bodies) wrapped around more urgent essentials.
Too often, people get hung up on arcane questions about food combining, intermittent fasting, and herbal detoxes before they have begun consuming any reasonably balanced combination of whole, unprocessed foods.
They get drawn into debating the relative benefits of green tea, Bulletproof coffee, cold-pressed juice, and raw milk before they have begun to let go of their soda or vodka habit, or begun to embrace drinking any kind of clean water.
They get embroiled in the finer points of VO2 max, periodization, plyometrics, and slow- versus fast-twitch muscle before they have begun to practice getting any kind of regular, enjoyable activity.
Worse, people are often encouraged to ramp up aggressive nutrition and fitness programs before they’ve been invited to give any thought to their sleep, stress, or available energy.
They attempt to cram a whole fleet of new, complex habits and skill sets into a life whose daily structures, rhythms, and social influences are in no way designed to support them.
Needless to say, this doesn’t work all that well.
Part of the problem, as seen through the lens of Maslow, is that until the body’s basic cellular, neurological, and tissue-level survival needs have been met, it simply does not feel “safe.”
A poorly hydrated, malnourished, underslept, overstressed body is going to be stuck in “just-getting-by” mode, and until its basic needs are handled, that’s precisely where it’s going to stay.
In this condition, the body is not inclined to allocate resources to anything beyond defending its lackluster status quo: It’s not invested in generating higher levels of energy, burning off excess fat, increasing lean body mass, pursuing new goals, or discovering an athletic identity.
So, how can we address the body’s hierarchy of needs in a way that predisposes it to progress and evolution? By focusing first on the fundamentals.
1: Whole foods and water. By “whole foods” I mean actual, nature-produced foods — plants, animal products, nuts, seeds, fruits, legumes, whole-kernel grains — that have not been commercially processed, combined, re-flavored, and extruded into brand-name food products. And by “water” I mean water — pure, unsweetened, unadulterated H2O.
Why this comes first: Without adequate nutrition and hydration (and the elimination of hugely irritating processed flours, sugars, and chemical gunk), your body won’t have the cellular fuel it needs to get out of “struggle” gear. Instead, it will be bogged down with damage control.
Your energy, digestion, mood, and focus will all suffer. You aren’t going to feel much like being active, and your life will seem too overwhelming for you to consider undertaking most other attempts at healthy change.
You can massage the details of your personalized program (fat/protein/carb ratios, food sensitivities, and specific nutritional needs) through experimentation, or by getting some lab tests done and working with a smart nutrition pro. But starting with a good, whole-food eating plan is going to get you to healthy a whole lot faster than dabbling with more liminal details first.
2: Sleep and recovery. My friend Dallas Hartwig and I agree on this key point, and he’s doing a great job reminding folks of it: Unless you are getting adequate sleep and stress-recovery windows, including time to relax and enjoy important relationships, your body won’t have the capacity to repair day-to-day damage, much less take advantage of any strenuous fitness-improvement activities you decide to undertake.
Instead, you will be plagued by appetite disruptions that torpedo your healthy-eating intentions, and your whole body will be undermined by hormonal, neurological, and immune-system imbalances that work against all your other healthy-living efforts.
There are some real chicken-or-egg dynamics at work here though. For example, if you are not sleeping well, you will feel stressed out, be inclined to eat poorly, and have limited energy for exercise. But if you aren’t eating well, being at least somewhat active, and managing your stress, you’ll probably have trouble sleeping. So, hmm.
Ultimately, you have to intervene somewhere in the cycle, and only you can decide where you are best off applying leverage first. If you already know what works best for you, go for it.
In my experience, a whole-foods diet leaves me sane and energy-balanced enough to manage my life, create space for seven to eight hours of sleep, and sleep well through the night. That inclines me to feel more like exercising, and also lets me take on (and recover from) the higher-intensity training that builds my fitness. Which brings me to . . .
3: Activity and fitness building. Regardless of your fitness goals, you need a certain amount of daily activity (including full-range movement of your core, limbs, and digits) to shift your body fluids around, to lubricate your joints, to oxygenate your body’s tissues, and to give your brain some key inputs required for it to function properly.
Most of us get a certain amount of daily activity just by living our lives, and most of us would benefit from getting a great deal more. Fitness building is really about consciously escalating our levels of activity, while simultaneously seeking more exciting and nuanced opportunities for physical challenge, self-expression, exploration, and enjoyment.
Yes, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can net you exceptional fitness gains — but only if you can get yourself to do it, and then maintain your efforts without injury or exhaustion.
So, diving into hardcore fitness building before you can tolerate a walk around the block, handle body-weight exercises, and maintain your general health probably isn’t going to pay off. It’s going to tear you down more than it builds you up; it’s going to put your body into injury-prone panic mode.
All of which brings me back to my original thesis: Giving your body the fundamentals it needs to feel secure at a biological and mental-emotional level is the best way to prepare yourself for next-level striving, and to reap the rewards of your augmented efforts.
So why not start by asking your body what it really wants and needs now? Once you get those basics handled, you’ll see higher-level motivations and rewards come into clearer focus. And all those pesky optimization details will start to make a whole lot more sense.