WHEN MOST OF US think of health we think of weight, so the focus tends toward how much weight we need to lose to be healthy. The usual method to do this is: diet and exercise. Right? Sort of. While these are obviously key factors in being healthy, there are many others you need to consider to have a well-balanced and healthy lifestyle.

Weight vs. body composition

Following a week at Mountain Trek, after exercising intensely for 5-6 hours per day (hiking, cardio, strength training) and eating healthy, my partner — who came in pretty fit — left weighing exactly the same. Some would see that as a failure, but the bigger picture is she lost 3lbs of fat and an inch off her waist. She gained the difference in muscle (and a bit of water). This is body composition. The true metric of health is body fat % (not BMI, which is just a ratio of height and weight). The healthy range for a woman, at any age, is 25%-30% body fat. For a man it’s 20%-25% (below these you would be considered athletic).

I weighed in at 139.8 lbs (I’m 5’6”) and left weighing almost exactly the same. But I lost fat, gained muscle, and trimmed 3/4” from my waist. A guest we befriended who spent two weeks in the program lost around 7lbs of weight, but 9lbs of fat. The difference? Muscle. And building muscle increases your metabolism.

Don’t obsess with weight. Focus on body composition.

Sleep

Author and partner on the Cedar Creek hike near the Mountain Trek lodge.

Not all sleep is created equal. Even if you’re getting 8 hours per day (likely you’re not — the average American sleeps under 7 hours per day), if you’re not sleeping at the right time you’re not giving your body the best chance to repair and renew itself (especially important if you’re exercising and working those muscles). The hours before midnight are crucial as this is when that happens. This has to do with our circadian rhythm and hormone release; it’s biological. Midnight to 8am? Not bad. 10pm to 6am? Better.

Also important is what you’re doing before bed to support a good, deep sleep. Turn off the screens well before bedtime and stay away from caffeinated drinks in the evening.

Toxins

We have both biological toxins (like when we’re sick) and environmental toxins (the list is too long) in our bodies. Our body works to get rid of them through our sweat, breath, and bodily waste. If we don’t detoxify — through sweating, massage, diet, breathing properly, etc — we get enlarged and concentrated fat cells. Adding a detox regimen to your efforts will help to shed fat and keep you healthy. Many cultures around the world have been detoxing for centuries (think sweat lodges, European saunas, Russian banyas, Roman bathhouses, etc). It’s essential.

Tip: There are over 3,000 chemicals approved by the FDA in processed foods. Eat whole, and as much organic fruits/veggies and hormone-free meats as possible. (See the dirty dozen.)

Eating habits

I’m not talking about reaching for an apple instead of the bag of Doritos, although that’s important. Even if you’re already eating a relatively healthy diet, there are other important factors to consider, like when you’re eating, how you’re eating, and how often you’re eating.

When you’re eating — For many people, skipping breakfast and eating a big dinner late in the evening is normal. This is a surefire way to store more calories as fat. Eating a big healthy breakfast is important to fuel your body for the day (and burn it off) — ideally you want to eat something within 30 minutes of waking up to kickstart your metabolism and to let your body know that “food is coming.” Breakfast is breaking the fast, and if your body thinks it’s famine time it will store calories. Think of food as fuel and when you need that fuel the most.

How often you’re eating — Feeding your body every three hours (healthy snacks between main meals) will also keep blood-sugar constant and stop the body from storing calories as it does as a famine response. Try to get two-thirds of your calories within 9 hours of waking up.

How you’re eating — “Drink your food, chew your water” ~ Taoist saying. Chewing your food until it has the consistency of liquid greatly assists in digestion. It’s easier on your system and it also decreases stomach acidity. Another reason to do this: It takes 20 minutes for your brain to be signalled that the body is full. If you eat more slowly (i.e., chewing more) you’re much less likely to overeat. When drinking water don’t gulp; take smaller mouthfuls and swish it around to mix it with your saliva. This will also reduce stomach acidity as saliva is alkaline.

Stress

As human beings we all have physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. If you only focus on diet and exercise (physical) to be healthy and ignore the other three elements in your life, you’re effectively sabotaging your efforts. Stress, in the right moments (like fleeing a dangerous situation), is helpful. Chronic stress depletes energy and keeps cortisol levels high, which is conducive to larger fat cells. Attend to your mental (e.g., creativity), emotional (e.g., sense of belonging), and spiritual (e.g., contemplation) needs and decrease your stress.

Body feedback

Listening to our bodies is crucial when we’re exercising. Target heart rate, as seen on gym equipment, does not give an accurate picture since it’s only based on age (220 minus your age in years), ignoring other factors like gender, lifestyle, and fitness level. Instead, use Perceived Rate of Exertion (PRE). On a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 being sitting on a couch, 10 being you just finished a triathlon and are about to collapse — measure how you’re feeling in whatever exercise you’re doing. If you’re below 6.5 PRE (e.g., going for a walk) you need to exercise longer than if you’re in the 6.5-8.5 range (e.g., hiking uphill, running on a treadmill) to burn stored fat. With less intense exercise you need to be at it for 90 minutes continuously before burning stored fat, versus 40 minutes if you’re above 6.5 PRE.

Tip: The “talk test” is a good indicator of PRE: If you can only manage a few words between breaths you’re in the intense range.

Goal setting

Underpinning everything above is how you go about setting and achieving your lifestyle goals. In the business world, SMART is an acronym that describes how to set these. Goals are much likelier to be reached if they are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. Set yourself up for success, not failure. If you’re setting unrealistic goals, you’ll be hard on yourself when you don’t achieve them (more stress). If your goals aren’t specific enough, you won’t know how to focus your efforts.

If you have several goals or several habits you’re trying to change, prioritize them. Focus on one or two max at a time until they’re on autopilot, then move on to the next one. In studying the most highly effective people, this has been found to be a common method of success.

Be kind and gentle to yourself. The stricter you are, the less likely you’ll be to stick to the program. Remember, this is a lifelong journey.

Author’s note: These were lessons I learned in the 1-week Reboot program at Mountain Trek, a health and wellness retreat in the mountains of British Columbia, as an invited media guest.