Focus On Your Health

If you don't take time for your wellness, you will be forced to take time for your illness.

—Joyce Sunada

You are lucky enough to be put on this earth for a reason.

Your time here is precious, and the quality of that time is directly related to how much you take care of yourself. If you can't take care of yourself and thrive, you will leave the planet too early, and you will rob the rest of the world of all the gifts you have to offer.

Starting from that perspective, you might begin to look at your health a little differently. It's not just about you. It's about everyone who might benefit from interacting with you from now until your last days. Without my long‐term health, I don't feel like I can live to the full potential that God has intended for me through the gifts he's given me.

I'm always trying to be an example for those around me—especially for my family—so I'm constantly trying to model healthy habits for them. Along the same lines, I believe that the best leaders show steadily the example of what they are preaching, so I always want to be a healthy example to those I'm looking to lead. No one wants to take advice from someone who looks like they just ate a box of doughnuts before they walked in (a line my performance coach buddy, Ben Newman, and I will often say to each other). It simply would indicate that there is likely a lack of discipline often in certain areas of that person's life, healthy eating being one of them.

I have always felt that it's been easier for me to follow individuals who have tremendous discipline in their life, and a healthy physique usually is the first sign of that on meeting them. Sean McDermott, the current coach of the Buffalo Bills (whom you heard from in the foreword), wakes up at 4 am to ensure he gets his daily workout in and abides by a healthy eating structure. When he stands in front of the team to talk about discipline, that goes a lot further than from those who do not commit to a healthy lifestyle.

Your Unique Health Focus Requires Vision and Perspective

If you are at your pivot point, then focusing on your health is critical. Now, more than ever, you are relying on your body and mind to make big moves. There is a reason I started this book with examining your gifts, choosing a greater perspective, having a vision, and examining your core values—you need a strong foundation in those basics so you know why you are focusing on your health. Your health journey is personal and about you, yet it is also about your vision and positively influencing everyone you touch along the way.

Everyone's health journey is unique. You should tailor your regimen to your goals and the things that are most important to you. I talk about my training not because I want you to mimic it—that's not my intention. It's to pull back the curtains on why I trained the way I did, how I approached my health at that time because of the specific vision I had. As my vision changed, so did the way I approached my health.

Also, I want to emphasize that if you plan to change your diet or adopt a new fitness regimen, please consult with your doctor. My choices are my own and not necessarily suitable for everyone else. And I also want to add that everybody's body is different, so use your common sense and instinct to determine what may be right for you.

Early Health Sacrifices in My Football Career

Before being in the NFL, starting in high school, I realized that I was going to have to do some extreme things to my body—things that, from a longevity standpoint, might not be the best. So I understood I was making sacrifices for the short and maybe not‐so‐short term.

I felt it was going to be worth it for me. That started with my junior year of high school when I quit playing basketball for my high school team and primarily just lifted weights six days a week. I started by gaining 55 pounds my junior year of high school, and I gained another 45 pounds my senior year. The following year heading into the University of Louisville, I showed up weighing 300 pounds. Between 18 and 24 months, putting on a hundred pounds was significant—but it was something that I had to do.

No, that's not great for your body, but it enabled me to get my one scholarship to college.

In college, I started 49 straight games and never missed a game with an injury. Of course, you get dinged up along the way, and you play through some things, but that's the sacrifice you make with the game of football. And there are many reasons why you'd make that sacrifice, especially as an offensive lineman because you never want to let the guys down on your offensive line. I couldn't have withstood the constant pounding if I didn't commit to putting on all of those pounds.

Going into the NFL and maintaining a weight between 305 and 310 was tough. It was an enormous number of calories. So I would wake up in the morning and immediately start pounding food or shakes until bedtime. Every day ended with some type of food or another shake, just to keep the weight on.

I realized some of the costs at the time. There were injuries and surely some traumatic brain injury along the way with all of the hits, but I always say there are inherent risks in any profession. My mom dealt cards for a living at a casino, and she ended up getting carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists. There's going to be some physical harm with any profession that requires repetitive movements—even if you're only sitting at a desk and typing on a keyboard.

There were many reasons why I was willing to take on those health risks. The ability to live out the dream of playing in the NFL, the relationships, the rush of playing the game you love in front of huge crowds, to use the gifts God has given me, and to create generational wealth for my family and also to be generous to those in need are all reasons why I would make those health sacrifices.

Now, football is an extreme vocation of oftentimes brutal combat, but that's not a lifetime of work. Instead, it was a temporary sacrifice to pursue something I loved in order to achieve high success.

After Football: Getting My Long‐Term Health Back on Track

After my final football injury, there was a lot to reassess. I had to make a new plan to take care of myself from then on. My years in the NFL had not been kind to my body, even though I felt I had a healthy perspective about all the injuries I had sustained. But on paper, it looked intimidating. I had six lower‐body surgeries while I was playing. When your NFL career ends, you get a disability checkup from an independent doctor that the NFL and the NFL Players Association picks.

When I went there, the independent doctor gave me 27 different x‐rays to determine what was maybe going to ail me moving forward—injuries that could possibly inhibit me from certain types of work. So, with his guidance, along with other health experts, I needed to lose some weight. I also had to start training differently so I wasn't pounding my body nearly as much. I had my neck injury, but that didn't require immediate surgery; it required some rehab and treatment. From that point on, I needed to pay attention and avoid certain activities. I still have disc and bone sitting at a very dangerous spot near my spinal cord.

But first and foremost, I needed to lose weight. There were a lot of habits I had built up ever since I was 16 years old, ever since I had started trying to put on weight for football. So I had to start avoiding the pantry for the first time in 16 years.

I have to admit it felt pretty weird.

Developing New Habits

One of my favorite new habits I've adopted is intermittent fasting, which means choosing an eating regimen in which you switch between your regular healthy meals and not eating at all. Fasting has a weird stigma in our American culture. It's still seen as an unusual practice, something not really in the mainstream. But it's funny because nearly every other culture worldwide uses fasting for health or religious purposes. Fasting has been around for thousands of years, since biblical times.

Part of the reason I like intermittent fasting is that it puts time restraints on when I can eat. It also offers a lot of health benefits. By restricting my eating window each day, I can still eat to be full and then continue to lose weight. You also feel a small win each day when you complete your 12‐ to 18‐hour fast for abiding to that discipline. And so, my workouts changed—everything changed, but I was able to lose weight and make some progress.

That competitive part of my nature, one of my most important gifts, has been such an asset when getting back into shape and working on my new habits. Now, if there's not some type of competition, if there's not something I'm working toward, it's hard for me to find motivation. For instance, this year, I ended up running a half marathon. Part of the training challenge was to run 100 miles in eight weeks, which isn't a crazy amount when you break it down to day‐to‐day.

But for me, I had never done distance running in my life. So, it was a total changeup, which was kind of exciting. Instead of just running, I was doing a different type of workout—more high‐intensity interval training instead of straight power training and endurance for the field training. You could call them boot camp–style classes. I paired this with a reasonably low‐carbohydrate diet and started getting steady results.

I own part of a gym in Louisville. So, I just started going to the classes with everybody else. I would generally hit the 9 am class, which was when many moms who had just dropped their kids off at school would come to work out. So, it was the housewives and me for a few months. And it's funny; I may have appeared unapproachable because people just assume that I would be doing my football‐style workouts. But really I want to work out like a normal, functioning, healthy member of society. I'm no longer training for hand‐to‐hand combat in the trenches!

Dealing with Traumatic Brain Injury

One of the significant issues that I knew I had to deal with was the long‐term impacts of traumatic brain injury (often referred to as TBI). It's become a big issue with NFL players nowadays. Many are concerned about brain injuries, and with good reason because of all the constant hits to the head. Doctors are seeing serious ramifications from former players starting in their 60s and sometimes younger than that now.

Having played center for nine years in the NFL where I had contact on every play, obviously, this is a concern of mine now. But when you're playing, you put it on the backburner. It's not something you can think about when you're up there—if you do, you're just not going to be able to play at your full potential. So I knew that it was time to address any issues I might be facing and develop an assessment and plan.

I was lucky to get connected with Dr. Daniel Amen, who is a psychiatrist and brain disorder specialist and a prominent media figure in his own right.

I went to his clinic and got a full assessment, which included a series of brain scans. I committed to a six‐month rehabilitation program, which involved spending time in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, daily sauna sessions, some different supplements, and dietary recommendations. I had terrible blood flow in the areas of my brain affected by TBI. With the new rehab program in place, the goal was to heal the brain and improve blood flow.

A lot of people don't know that you can actively heal the brain and that the brain is capable of neurogenesis, literally growing new brain neurons and nerve cells, for your entire life. Sure enough, in a little over six months, they were able to find significant improvements in my brain scans. Blood flow has dramatically improved to certain parts of my brain that I had damaged when playing football all those years.

You are never “done” with taking care of your brain, so there are specific ways of eating and recovering that I will be practicing for the long term.

The Three Pillars of Recovery

As a professional athlete, I thought about recovery quite a bit, because it is an essential part of being ready to play on the field. When I was playing football, it seemed like it was all about recovery, getting prepared to perform the next day, and there was no option of missing it.

So, I always had to recover to perform the next day. If you had a terrible night of sleep the night before the game, nobody cared. You figure out pretty quickly that getting good rest and recovery time is the player's responsibility. No matter what happens the next day, you're going to be held accountable for your performance on the field.

I had to ensure I was getting good sleep, training in a way that supported my energy, rehydrating appropriately, and getting the proper nutrition. We had coaches and other people who would instruct us on all those things. At the end of the day, though, it was on you as a player to get yourself ready.

Another way to think about recovery is recharging. Just like your phone, you are multitasking all day, feeling like you are moving at 1,000 miles an hour and dealing with a lot of information and tasks. Just like that phone, you get depleted and need to recharge. Everyone needs periods of recovery to operate at an optimal level, not just athletes.

Over time, I've learned that there are three pillars to complete an effective recovery: sleep, nutrition, and movement.

The First Pillar: Sleep

When you are in a big transition in life, you need to approach every day as game‐ready and have a regimen of recovery built into your lifestyle. Whether you're trying to be positive around the house, or be a patient parent and spouse, whether you're a businessperson, whatever it is, you need the energy from the recovery to perform each day. It's so easy to slip on the first pillar and not get enough sleep. I know I fall into this trap as well. If I just cheat myself out of an hour of sleep, I'll inevitably feel it at some point during the day. I'll be drained, moody, and not nearly as productive.

It's tough because, in our work culture, it seems to be a badge of honor nowadays to go without sufficient sleep. How often have you heard, “I only got four hours of sleep last night! I'm getting so much done.” Ultimately, that is going to haunt you. There is so much data out there on the importance of high‐quality sleep and recovery for your productivity, mood, concentration, and general creativity.

Athletes know the importance of sleep and restoration all too well. For me, it has become imperative because of my past traumatic brain injury. Now that we know that neurogenesis can promote healing and new development in the brain until the day we die, then high‐quality sleep becomes a necessity. Most neurogenesis happens during deep sleep—so I need to prioritize that to make sure that I can perform and be cognitively sound.

Recent research indicates about 1% of the population can perform well on less than six hours of sleep a night. Those rare people have those genes, but for most of us, we need more.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, some people need even more, and that's okay.

LeBron James sleeps nine hours a night; J. J. Watt sleeps nine hours a night, too. So many high performers make sure they get the rest they need by prioritizing their sleep.

I realize we're not all perfect—inevitably, you're going to have a night that you didn't get enough sleep. Parents especially know this to be true! But the more we can make getting good sleep the rule rather than the exception, the better we're going to feel all around.

The Second Pillar: Nutrition

Even through high school, I had a basic idea that all calories were great and were created equal, whether they came from vegetables or ice cream. Throughout college, I started to shift a little bit toward being nutritionally conscious. This shift started at the time when I came down with mono, and I had to miss spring football.

Since initially bulking up in high school, any time I'd ever been hurt or sick, I would drop weight like crazy because I needed constant calories. I also needed to be lifting to keep the weight on, so I lost about 30 pounds when I got mono. I got down to about 270. One of our assistant strength coaches at the time was a guy named Kurt Schmidt (now at the University of Tennessee). He would take me grocery shopping and show me how on a budget I could get excellent nutritional fuel to build the weight back on the healthy way.

That guidance from Kurt was a blessing. He helped me strip a lot of the junk weight that I had packed on over the past year to prepare for football. It's impossible to put on 100 pounds of good weight in a year and a half to two years, so it stripped a lot of that fat off, and I was able to put back on more muscle by building it the right way with a better nutrition program. Since then, I became devoted to nutrition because I saw a difference. I got stronger, faster, and I was able to put on more muscle. I could move better because I had a better body composition.

When it comes to precisely the right nutritional program for your body, it can vary wildly depending on your health goals. And on top of that, everyone's body is different. So it's really up to you to research and find the right thing for you. I can only tell you what worked for me, and even then, there was a lot of trial and error before I found the right balance.

Nowadays, good nutrition is a huge part of my philosophy and that keeps me in the weight range that I find acceptable. Now, I live by the 80% to 90% rule, meaning 80% or 90% of the time, I have strict guidelines for nutrition and fasting. For fasting, that's usually a 12‐hour or 18‐hour fasting window, depending on how active I am. Also, 80% to 90% of the time, I eat lean protein, veggies, healthy fats, and some berries. The focus for me is real food and not processed or packaged as much as possible. That is what most of my diet consists of. We eat as organic as we can with the produce and grass‐fed, cage‐free with the meats.

If we do splurge on the weekend, maybe a bit in excess of not‐so‐healthy foods and drinks, I know we can reset and get back on track. Anytime we do that, my wife and I will generally fast from dinner Sunday night to dinner Monday night. And generally, by Tuesday morning, all the inflammation is gone, and we're back to square one.

I read a fascinating book called Genius Foods by Max Lugavere about eating the right kinds of foods to help you “become smarter, happier, and more productive while protecting your brain for life.”

Lugavere started on his health journey after his mother had an early onset of dementia. Using his media credentials and skills as a journalist, he spent years pouring over medical research and contacting some of the best minds in the field. He concluded that there was a lot to be discovered about nutrition that wasn't in the mainstream. He lists many of the foods that are healthy for your brain, such as lean proteins, almonds, avocados, extra virgin olive oil, leafy greens—foods that many health gurus have trumpeted for years—but Lugavere goes into the science of why they're so good for the brain.

Genius Foods inspired me, and his research helped guide me into the kinds of foods that I like to keep in the house. To my kids, I explain them as “brain foods” and “beast foods.” Lean proteins are the beast foods in our house, the significant protein sources that help our bodies perform. Then we have our brain foods, like blueberries, leafy greens, avocados, and everything else Lugavere mentions in his book.

When your kids see you enjoy eating healthy food, they just love it. My son sees me make a big deal about salmon, and he sees how much I like it. And I don't say, “I have to eat this.” I say, “Man, how lucky am I to eat my favorite meal any day I like?” When I take Gracie on one of our daddy/daughter dates to sushi, I know she likes it. And I think part of why she likes it is because she knows I love it.

Bottom line—you have to make an effort to eat healthily and put the proper nutrition in your body. But, if you make it part of your lifestyle, it won't feel like a sacrifice. The more you start eating healthy foods, the better you will feel, and the more healthy foods you will crave. The more you model healthy eating, the easier and more natural it will come for your kids. And that way, if you eat healthy 80% to 90% of the time, then cheating a little with the occasional junk food won't be a disaster.

The Third Pillar: Movement (aka Exercise)

I call the third pillar movement, but some might call it exercise instead. I've been athletically moving my whole life, ever since my childhood, so exercising comes as second nature to me. It's just in my DNA. If you find yourself in a sedentary lifestyle with not much history or experience with exercising, it's never too late to start. The trick is just to begin and stick with it.

It's kind of funny that the cure for a tired and out‐of‐shape body is to move it more, but there it is. Unlike machines, our bodies get stronger and more able the more we use them, even into old age. Provided we are getting enough sleep and fueling it with the proper nutrition, there's very little that can stop us if we keep a regular exercise regimen. Movement and exercise are a form of recovery.

On top of that, exercise helps our emotional and mental states, as well. It benefits the whole person, and once you get into the regular practice of it, you'll never want to quit. You're just going to feel way better than when you don't exercise.

On the flip side, the remedy for too much movement, such as a sore body or weakness from strenuous exercise, is also movement. Whenever my teammates and I would finish a game, the next day, we would all be incredibly sore in one way or the other. That sore feeling comes from a significant buildup of lactic acid in your body, which is a substance produced by your muscles when they exert themselves. (Also, from a whole bunch of collisions during the game.)

Instinctively, it may feel counterintuitive to keep moving your body when it hurts, but to get the lactic acid out of your system naturally, that's precisely what you need to do. You need to move, stretch, walk around, or even lift weights. This is what we call active recovery. Resting, by itself, will take you longer to relieve the symptoms of soreness and fatigue.

Active recovery is something I learned a lot about during my college and NFL career. The day after the game, we would come into the facility, and we would get moving. We would get a lift in or run around. We had to get moving to recover. We wouldn't work strenuously to the point of exhaustion or injury—you don't want to pile on. But we had to get our bodies moving for the lactic acid to flush itself naturally.

We had to be in touch with our bodies and know what we could and couldn't do. So, we started with cardiovascular work. For example, if you were capable, you would run. If you couldn't run at top speed, you might run 10 sprints at a 75% pace. If you couldn't run at all, you could hop on a bike. If you couldn't bike, you could get into an underwater treadmill. This machine was a partially submerged treadmill that takes a lot of the load off of your lower body. Basically, the routine was to move in some way, shape, or form. Just to get the blood flowing again throughout your body.

In general, we found the right combination of stretching, cardiovascular, and strength exercises to soothe the symptoms of soreness while also maintaining our strength and helping our bodies through active recovery. I believe movement is a critical part of the solution for all lifestyles.

If you find yourself having trouble staying consistent, revisit your vision and core values. What are you here on earth to achieve? What kind of exercise would best serve your longevity, stamina, goals, and overall health? How can your body best serve your potential? Remember the people who will be potentially affected by your positive influence over a lifetime. Your health serves a higher purpose.

One of my favorite Bible verses talks about the importance of maintaining your health. It's from 1 Corinthians 6:19–20:

As a man of deep faith, I take that particular verse to heart. God has put me here and has special plans for me. Who am I to abuse the gift of this body? I must do everything in my power to maintain, improve, and cherish it.

I believe everyone can create an active lifestyle that will enhance and protect their health, no matter what age and even if they feel they have limited athletic ability. It doesn't matter. During the pandemic, many people took up brisk walking or running just to get out of the house. Just a 15‐minute walk has tremendous health benefits for the body and brain. Everyone has a different exercise style, so if you're not sure, try some things out. Whether it's walking, swimming, yoga, a team sport, hiking, weight training … there are virtually unlimited ways to exercise your body. The key is just to start.

You've got one body to use as your tool for engaging the world with your gifts. Remember to treat it with love, care, and respect.

Key Takeaways

Here are the key takeaways about focusing on your health:

  • You are here for a reason, and your health serves a higher purpose.
  • The quality of your time on earth is directly related to how well you take care of your health.
  • Every health journey is unique.
  • Your unique health focus requires vision and perspective.
  • If you're out of practice with your health, you can always get back on track.
  • It's never too late to develop new habits.
  • Be mindful of your brain health.
  • Recovery is essential for all lifestyles.
  • There are three pillars to recovery and health: sleep, nutrition, and movement.
  • Maintain an active lifestyle that works for you.
  • Remember to treat your body with love, care, and respect.
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