My 7 Healthiest Habits as a Wellness Writer

Wellness doesn't have to be so intense. Here's what I stick to.

June 17, 2024 5:22 am
A man resting on a beach. Not tracking my sleep stats is one of my seven healthiest habits.
Since when did the question of wellness get so complicated? We all need to take a chill pill.
Martin Mills/Getty Images

I’m always a little shocked to hear the impressions that friends, colleagues and acquaintances have about my lifestyle. Because I write about wellness for a living, I’ve had people assume the following:

  • I work out twice a day
  • I don’t eat pizza
  • I eat lots of almonds
  • I’m obsessed with living to 100

And so on and so forth. Are they true? No, not really. (Especially not the pizza point.) What’s prompting these assumptions? I blame podcasters, influencers, decades of wellness writing on weight-loss miracles and rigid celebrity routines. The recent advent of hyper-strict wellness protocols — like Equinox’s infamous $40,000 longevity program — isn’t helping.

Wellness has gotten so mixed up with a never-ending list of things you should be doing. It reminds me of the crowd that always showed up to the sauna at my old gym, typically wearing Russian banya hats — felt caps intended to thermoregulate the head — which, if I’m being honest, made them look like a pack of nude garden gnomes. These people would sit around and take turns talking at each other, dishing out things they learned from Huberman. They were the kind of guys who were always one breath from referencing a study. “Well, actually, what they discovered was that—”

It’s all gotten a little out of hand. A healthy lifestyle isn’t the result of a frenetic checklist. You don’t have to join a gym, tally steps, intermittent fast, attend HIIT sessions, train for a marathon, achieve a perfect protein-to-calorie ratio, buy a massage gun, try red-light therapy, guzzle creatine, give up your favorite foods or track your sleep across three apps in order to live a more perfect life. If you’re a professional athlete making millions of dollars, you might consider a fair share of those things…but most of us, unfortunately, are not.

A critical component of wellness — and I will beat this drum, die on this hill, whatever cliche you prefer, until the cows come home — is actually liking what you’re doing. It should feel natural. But what is natural? I define it as: challenging yet manageable. Eustress. Things worth doing, worth sticking to, which will pepper your life with discipline and discovery, with efforts and rewards.

These habits don’t have to be expensive or punitive. In fact, they’re much simpler (and less self-flagellatory) than my friends, colleagues and acquaintances probably imagine. I could keep waxing poetic, or we could just get down to business. So here they are. A wellness writer’s seven healthiest habits; my healthiest habits. Not an almond in sight.

1. The Great Outdoors

I go outside a lot, mainly because I have a permanent case of cabin fever. If any stretch of indoor time veers too long, I get grouchy. Not so fun to be around. When this happens, I recuse myself and go for a run or walk.

I’ve got some old-school flâneur energy. Perhaps it helps to live in a city like New York. Oftentimes, when I leave my house, it’s with the vague sense of drifting around — of ending up in the park, maybe calling someone. I like to watch people play softball in the spring and summer. When the weather’s bad, I’ll bundle up and stick to more of a loop. But I don’t mind the quiet crunch of winter.

When the day is ending, this sort of trip is at its most intentional. As a proud opacarophile, I like heading out to watch the sunset. No, I do not track my steps. The data miners at Apple Inc. do that for me. But I check the count from time to time, curious. On days where I’ve also gone for a run, that number can get pretty high.

I know all this walking is good for me, in the traditional understanding of that phrase — it’s good for my legs and lungs. But I’m convinced its greatest, lasting impact is on my mood. My creativity, my energy, my appreciation for the day, my treatment of those around me.

2. Lunch Is Packed

This one is a this-year habit, so I’m still in the honeymoon stage with it, positively smitten. While going outside is natural to me, I’ve long been anti-food-prep. Not for any legitimate reason — I just couldn’t be bothered. I figured I’d left my lunchbox days back in grade school. But the truth is I’d started spending a lot of money on lunch…or, when WFH, whipping up stuff that was alternately uninspired or unhealthy. Frozen stuff.

If I’m being completely honest: my Joe & the Juice “Tunacado” featured a fuzzy avocado one day, which I was mere millimeters from biting into, and it was time to take back some control.

So my girlfriend and I now have a salad system. On Sunday night, one of us cooks and preps a giant bowl of quinoa, chickpeas, chopped red onion, mint and parsley. That lasts for two days. Tuesday night, the other person tags in and preps it again, for Wednesday and Thursday lunch. Each morning, we add whatever we want to this base before heading to work. I put in a can of tuna, cherry tomatoes, a sliced cucumber and a dressing of lemon juice, mustard, olive oil, salt and pepper.

If I didn’t like this salad, I wouldn’t be eating it. Simple as that. But I love it; it’s fresh, tasty and filling, without leaving me lethargic. Others might bristle at eating the same thing four days a week, which I totally respect. Do you. For us, this is just easier — the most efficient way to guarantee a healthy, low-cost meal, which also happens to keep us happy. Bonus: I often meet my girlfriend in Central Park to eat; it’s near our offices. The other day, we munched while watching sunbathing sea turtles. That’s what it’s all about.

3. Scrubbing the Sink

I know it’s a little annoying, so I promise that this is the only “metaphorical habit” on this list. I do literally scrub my sink, but this is more of a thematic stand-in for taking care of (and pride in) the place where I live.

Like food prep, this hasn’t always come easy to me. Through various eras of my life, I’ve fulfilled the sad male stereotype of being absolutely useless around the house — waiting for others to cook, vacuum or scrub, and expecting a parade whenever I did the bare minimum. Even when I started to get better at this, it was partly due to selfish reasons; I’d read how effective chores were as a mode of behavioral activation, as a productive way of tapping into one’s presence of mind.

These days, I load the dishwasher because I’m an adult and it’s the right thing to do. There are so many little things that need to be done, day after day, to keep a house running. They either get done or they don’t. Psychologists have illustrated that men tend to overestimate the housework they do accomplish, so chances are…I still have some work to do. But I know that this mindset is good for me, the house and my relationship.

Also, if you don’t love the feeling of shutting down the kitchen for the night — everything sprayed, dishwasher humming, cast iron pan drying — you’re nuts. Gives me a massive sense of satisfaction every single time.

4. Oohs and Aahs

I don’t want a life without oohs and aahs. Neither should you. One of my favorites from this year was a trip to see The Effect, a limited-run play at the Shed at Hudson Yards. It was written by Lucy Prebble (a top writer on Succession) and followed two characters across a near-bare, strobe-lit stage as they fell in love during a botched clinical trial. Wild experience. I’ll be back to the same theater for Kenneth Branagh’s King Lear this December.

A play, a trip, a hike, a meal from a great chef, a swim in the sea. As the writer Bill Perkins once argued: “Work hard to live harder.” You can’t live like this all the time — whatever Instagram’s van folk want you to think — as it’s expensive and exhausting. But on the other side of the coin, it’s surprisingly easy to live without wonder, to stay put or stay home…for fear of having to make an extra effort, or being let down.

We don’t tend to think of this stuff as wellness, but of course it is. Certain experiences shift our perspective and pay memory dividends. I’ve been thinking about an exact day I spent kayaking in Norway off and on for nine years.

How does it work? Just think about what you like, what someone close to you likes. Be open to try new things. It’s scary, obviously, but then you get the opportunity to surprise yourself…and maybe savor something truly special.

5. Nightly Pages

I read every night before bed. No set amount — just until I realize I’ve attempted to understand the same paragraph six or seven times, and what would’ve been riveting at any other point in the day now reads like an organic chemistry textbook. At this point, I put the book down, turn off the light (I have one of those tap-activated electric candle things), and fall into a slumber pretty quickly.

My sleep latency — that’s the amount of time it takes for someone to fall asleep — was no guarantee before I codified my nightly pages habit. Now it’s pretty good. I’m too tired to think about all the stuff going on in my life; besides, I just spent like 15 minutes invested in the life of someone else (a literary person no less, who by definition has more interesting events going on in their life than me, anyway).

Rediscovering a consistent reading habit has been one of the most pleasurable aspects of my adulthood, truly. I read all the time as a kid (I was the four-eyes reading a book under the desk in second grade), but my undergraduate English major ironically put a lot of distance between me and my old hobby. I started to see the activity as a chore.

Over the last three years in particular, I’ve slowly redefined my relationship to reading. This year, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the likes of Claire Keegan, Trent Dalton, Min Jin Lee and Haruki Murakami. I know men typically favor nonfiction to fiction, which is totally fine. Whatever absorbs you. But if you lost your way from fiction, as I did, I’d urge you to find your way back. From a purely physiological perspective, reading is up there with meditation for slowing my heart rate down. (And I’m not much of a meditator, so there ya go.)

6. No More Counting Sheep

At some point, I stopped tracking my sleep. I think I got a little too into it — I’d check the stats within a few minutes of waking up, determined to see certain numbers, an exemplary “recovery score.” When I didn’t get what I was looking for, I felt deflated, in a sort of manufactured way that didn’t ring true to my hours of rest (this phenomenon is known as “nocebo,” or the opposite of the placebo effect).

This doesn’t mean I’ve stopped caring about the quality of my sleep. (In an unnecessarily long essay, I detailed all the steps I’ve taken to trick out my bedroom for maximum sleep depth and length.) I just decided to take some pressure off the actual performance aspect of it.

I understand this might sound like a step in the wrong direction; like a baseball franchise wrestling control away from the sabermetricians and giving it back to scouts who make all their decisions based on a mysterious eye test.

But it’s been gratifying to “de-optimize” a portion of my life, to give myself the freedom to have a not-so-amazing night’s sleep, and not feel anxious or guilty about how that might bleed into the next day’s tasks. Bad sleep sucks. Obviously. Great sleep’s the best. Do I need to know every intimate degree on the scale in between? At this very moment, I don’t think so. Perhaps that mentality will change following a life or health event. But for right now, it feels right. And because my relationship with sleep is so mental, I wonder if less tracking is actually helping me sleep better. (I just don’t dare check.)

7. My Kind of Exercise

Close friends of mine — if they’ve somehow made it this far in this essay, sorry guys — might find all of this a little ridiculous. They’ll be thinking: Shouldn’t two of your “healthiest habits” be running a lot and going to the gym?

Fair. I do run every week, and I do belong to a workout club. But first, I want to stress that those activities correspond to my athletic goals, not necessarily my wellness goals. I still have silly dreams I’m chasing in the athletic world, and I train accordingly in pursuit of them. (I’d urge people to remember that a lot of your “fit friends” are wack jobs chasing white whales. Don’t measure your fitness against them, there’s no point.)

I have no clue how long I’ll be able to train like this. Hopefully a while, but who knows? The point is I enjoy it — the efforts and the rewards. Which is really the only way to keep exercising, at any level. You need to like it enough to keep showing up. Only you can determine what your “it” is, through personal trial and error. I recommend keeping an inclusive and open mind about what constitutes exercise. What we’re really talking about is movement.

To that point: I make sure the other half of my exercise feels carefree and fun. I play with friends as much as people’s schedules will allow — basketball, soccer, tennis, pickleball, etc. I’m actually pretty bad at precisely one of those sports (I’m not telling), but even that doesn’t matter. I get to run around laughing for an hour, and then have a couple beers. I mean…almonds.

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