When asked what the most important value in life is, I always answer, “Life.” Life is the value. Our health is life, and, like the air we breathe, we often take it for granted until it’s gone. To experience the world to the fullest and to accomplish all that we desire, we need to take care of the vehicles that get it done: our bodies. The Latin phrase mens sana in corpore sano—“a healthy mind in a healthy body”—speaks to the indelible connection between body and mind, a connection we often ignore.
We evolved a complex and powerful brain to enable high levels of cognitive faculties such as speech, logical reason-ing, and problem solving; physical movement and reproduction; and ultimately, our survival. Our bodies are the chassis for our minds. The chassis is the foundation, and a weak foundation makes a vehicle fragile; a little off-road driving stress will expose a frail frame, and the vehicle will fall apart. Our chassis is built on four major components: physicality, the physical world, nutrition, and sleep. In this chapter, I show you how to maintain and improve each of these components, and how taken together, they can build the body to support the mind.
Our bodies are the chassis for our minds.
As SEALs, we understand that our bodies are part of our toolkit, that they are weapons in our arsenal, enabling us to accomplish important missions. We live by the expression: “Take care of your gear, and your gear will take care of you.” It’s not hard to accept this concept when referring to a parachute or rappelling rope because of the apparent danger, but some ignore this idea when it comes to our bodies.
When I was lead instructor for the final phase of BUD/S training, I dropped a student from the program for becoming dehydrated and collapsing on the last land navigation course. Don’t get me wrong, this course is not easy. We make the distances long, and each student is required to carry a 45-pound pack to increase the stress. To complete it in the allotted time, a student needs to be either a great navigator or great at carrying heavy loads. At the end, the “A” students are tired, while the “C” students are exhausted.
At first glance, you might think that it wasn’t the dropped student’s fault because he was carrying a heavy weight over a long distance in a warm, dry climate. After the student was given an IV in the field, he faced a review panel. The student was not a great navigator, so he decided to lighten his load by not taking water. Part of the weight in the pack is a heavy sandbag, which we weigh after the course (we secure the sandbags so students can’t empty them and then refill them before they get to the finish line), but the variable part is water. We give students a minimum requirement for water that they must take. Most students take more water than required because they know that if their bodies fail, then they fail.
The student was surprised that I dropped him from training. I believe he thought I’d feel sympathy for him, that since he went down medically, his failure would be overlooked, and he would get another chance. But SEALs must adapt and learn quickly—that’s one of the necessities of the job. The student was failing in this learning, but that wasn’t the main issue. Carrying a minimum amount of water was an order, not a suggestion, so he disobeyed an order. Beyond that, as I explained to him, a SEAL’s body is a piece of equipment and part of the mission. Just like any mission-critical piece of equipment, if you neglect it, not only will you fail, but you can also be brought up on charges. Imagine never cleaning your weapon, and it becomes rusted or compacted with dirt and sand, and then the moment you need it, it fails. I explained to him that he must take care of his body, not just because we want him to be well, but because his body is there to accomplish the mission, and he is accountable for its functionality. If it fails him, it fails his team, and if it fails the team, it fails the mission.
The body is there to accomplish the mission.
If it fails, it fails the team, and if it fails the team, it fails the mission.
When a SEAL’s performance is measured, there are seven categories of evaluation. One is “military bearing and character,” which includes appearance, conduct, and physical fitness. When an officer is up for promotion, he competes with other SEALs of the same rank and is judged by the senior officers in the community. Each candidate for promotion takes an identical photo with the same camera, wearing the same uniform under the same conditions. When his career is being discussed, his picture is up on the big screen for everyone to see. How we treat our bodies reveals signs of our discipline and self-leadership.
This is certainly true in the SEAL world, but this judgment is prevalent in the business world as well. We may not like it, but we have to acknowledge that people often judge each other on the basis of their appearance, often attributing good qualities such as intelligence or competence—or the opposite—on that basis alone. It’s important for professionals, especially leaders, to look the part. A professional appearance that is appropriate to your role is also a sign of respect to those you serve and lead.
Physicality is a context, an environment, a way of being, not just something you do once in a while. Going to the gym or “getting in shape” is an event, while “physicality” is a way of being that creates the context for going to the gym, eating right, and getting enough sleep. Ideally, the trip to the gym won’t be a chore that requires willpower; it will be part of the greater context of physicality—that is, being physical in our lives.
I’ve been physical all my life, and when I feel like I’m on a downward spiral, I fall back on my physicality as something that makes me successful, motivated, and happy. If I wake up before dawn feeling scared and anxious, as if I was still in combat, I get up and strap on my running shoes. I know the mind drives fear and anxiety, so I take the “inverse evolution” approach: I work my body to soothe my mind. Rain or shine, I get outside and hit the road. Sometimes I run for a couple of hours; other times, I run until I’m finished, meaning as much as I need to. I know that moving and running gives me a DOSE, and quiets my fear and anxiety. I go on the offensive and reconnect with my physicality; it routinely is my therapy. Some days, I go outside and just walk and talk to myself before I start running. The act of going outside is my trigger to run, and once I pull it, the rest just happens. Remember, showing up matters—sometimes it’s all that matters—and the rest will follow. Find your trigger and pull it.
When anxious or nervous, work the body to soothe the mind.
In 1994 the movie Forrest Gump came out, starring one of the greatest actors of all time, Tom Hanks. Hanks played the character Forrest Gump, who starts recounting the story of his life next to a stranger on a park bench. At a very young age, he wore leg braces, and one day, while he was being bullied, his friend Jenny told him to “Run, Forrest! Run!”—and he did. Forrest’s braces flew off his legs as he ran; he had found his talent. Although Forrest had a very low IQ, he had a beautiful heart, and running led to enormous accomplishments in his life. As an adult, Jenny, who was recovering from years of drug abuse, came to live with him, but quietly snuck out of his house before dawn without notice. Forrest loved her and was heartbroken, so he did what he knew best, he went running! He became enormously famous because he ran for three years across the country nonstop; he ran until he didn’t need to any longer.
On some days, in my mind, I do a Gump run—I run until I don’t feel bad. I listen to music as I run a pace at which I can easily focus on my thoughts and coach myself the way I would coach someone else. I don’t allow negative movies to play nonstop in my head, and I’ve become quite good not only at talking to myself but listening to myself as well. The negative feedback loop has stopped.
Don’t allow those negative movies to play nonstop in your head.
Talk to yourself the way a coach would.
If I were a therapist (which I’m not!), I would prescribe a pair of running shoes over anxiety-reducing medication any day. Most studies show that regular aerobic exercise is just as effective as antidepressants to treat mild and moderate cases of depression.
Humans are designed for running. It’s nature’s way of rewarding and fueling us with a DOSE; the more you run, the greater the DOSE. On the road, I discovered more about who I was and who I wanted to be. It completely changed my state of mind, often, for many hours after my run.
The interesting thing about habits is that they often come with second- and third-order effects. For instance, a habit of overeating fast food makes you overweight. The second-order effect is that you don’t exercise because it’s uncomfortable, even painful to move, and your body doesn’t feel well. Diabetes and depression can often be a third-order effect. And the cycle continues. Thankfully, this is just as true for good habits like exercise!
The operational tempo in Iraq and Afghanistan was intense. We were working as much as 18- to 20-hour days, performing at a high level of planning and execution; war is exhausting in every aspect. Fitness is a SEAL cultural “habit,” and it is ingrained in every part of our lives. Even during these long days, we would work out. There was always a pullup bar and a dip bar wherever we went. We brought fitness equipment on deployments. If we were unable to take an hour a day to weight train, every hour or so, we would do a 5- or 10-minute session of max pull-ups, dips, pushups, air squats, or planks. Often, we kept a board with performance stats to encourage ourselves and each other. Of course, SEALs must stay strong, but that’s not the point. This habit of always moving and using our bodies built mental stamina. Moving is a great way to solve problems; even a “walk and talk” can spur ideas you never had. Every time we hit the “bars” (the ones we pull up and dip on), we got a healthy DOSE and were rejuvenated.
Take short breaks, go for a brisk walk, or do squats, planks, or any exercise of your choice to get your DOSE.
Imagine if everyone in an organization took DOSE breaks like we did in combat. Imagine the second and third order of effects: stronger focus, greater productivity, and healthier, happier people. Comfort kills; it kills our motivation and our health. A 2015 CNN article “Sitting Will Kill You, Even if You Exercise,” says that prolonged sitting increases the chance of getting Type 2 diabetes, which increases by 90 percent if you sit for prolonged periods like 8 to 12 hours a day.1 Let’s change that, shall we? Go ahead and stand up. Stretch those legs. Move that body. Comfort kills us. Physicality sustains us.
Comfort will kill your productivity and kill you.
When we improve our physicality, we broaden our potential experiences in all aspects of life. Physicality is much more than just exercise. The power of physicality to transform us lies in the physical world itself and the nature of our relationship with it.
The first law of thermodynamics states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; energy can only be transferred or changed from one form to another. When we interact with the natural world, we submerge ourselves in the flow of the physical universe, becoming part of the seemingly endless energy that flows through this universe. As SEALs, we train consistently, around the clock, almost exclusively outside, in nature. For weeks, we live in jungles, forests, deserts, and the Arctic, sleeping on the ground. We spend hours and hours swimming and diving in cold water, exerting ourselves physically, becoming one with the ocean. And yes, cold water does give you a DOSE. People often take cold showers as therapy for mild depression; it also increases alertness and energy. A couple of hours swimming or surfing in cold water will put you in a zone of clarity like nothing else. If you have a big day coming up, try a long cold shower and see how you feel.
One of my fondest SEAL memories is of humping for weeks across Kodiak, Alaska, in snowshoes, carrying a 120-pound pack in deep snow and living in snow caves and tents. We would patrol from sunup to sundown, and by the end of the day, you didn’t have a problem sleeping. You were one with nature, getting a heavy DOSE—happy.
Being in the physical world will change your thinking, your judgment, your reasoning. It will transform you and allow you to tap into the natural and instinctive wisdom inherent in you.
New SEAL graduates have an alpha presence that’s hard to describe, and it’s not just their mental toughness training that’s responsible. It’s their interaction with the physical world; all the training is outside. The signal that they emit is powerful and affects everyone around them. In the business world, your physical presence and the signs that underlie that presence, signs that may not be immediately obvious, will affect other people. Build that presence by being in the physical world.
In 1905 German scientist Robert Koch received a Nobel Prize for his work discovering the causes of diseases such as tuberculosis, anthrax, and cholera. He said: “The day will come when man will have to fight noise as inexorably as cholera and the plague.”2 Think about the noise of today in our cities: car horns, construction, sirens, jets, and more. The vast majority of the sounds we hear are man-made. We didn’t evolve hearing what we hear today, and every part of our life is negatively affected by this noise, which contributes to disease, stress, and sleep disorders. On my deployments, all electricity comes from big vehicle-sized generators; you continuously hear them rumbling day and night. When I would get home, I loved to sit outside and immerse myself in silence.
Remember, loud noises are one of the two fears we are born with, so much of this artificial noise we hear triggers our fight-or-flight instinct, killing us slowly. Get some quiet time, preferably in nature, ASAP!
When you see new SEALs in the alpha state, we use a term to describe their physical and mental condition: hard. You don’t achieve that by being a gym rat—you can’t do it indoors, you must be outside. It’s a combination of physicality and mental toughness with a connection to the natural world around you. The more you inoculate yourself from straining, the more endurance and tolerance you acquire, and that flows over to other parts of your life.
Being “hard” is a combination of physicality and mental toughness, with a connection to the natural world around you.
The movie Rocky IV was released in 1985, during the Cold War, and was a massive success in America. The American boxer Rocky Balboa fought the Russian Ivan Drago. Although much smaller than his opponent, Rocky was hard. The Russian trained with high-tech equipment, used steroids, and had the best team of experts around to transform him, but he trained indoors in a sterile environment. Our hero, Rocky, on the other hand, lived in an isolated cabin and trained outside, in nature, during the Russian winter. He chopped down trees, carried logs, climbed icy mountains—and became hard as a result. Of course, Rocky went on to win the fight, and both countries lived happily ever after (well, maybe not!). I know it’s a movie, but it does tap into what we intuitively know: being outside in the physical world and being physical transforms us in ways we may not understand until we experience it.
According to Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, the former Commanding General of U.S. Army Europe and the Seventh Army, one of the biggest threats to our national security might surprise you: it is obesity. Obesity and the lack of physicality in our youth have already drained the numbers of potential military-aged recruits. If the trend continues, by the year 2030, 42 percent of Americans nationwide, 50 percent of residents in 39 states, and in some states, as many as 65 percent of children will be obese—not just overweight, but obese.3
Obesity has second- and third-order effects, too. It can quickly lead to medical issues and make us sluggish and unable to reap the benefits of exercise, which in turn increases depression and poor self-image, an effect that compounds over time. It’s hard to be our best when we feel terrible! We are eating ourselves to death.
When I was redesigning my life after retiring from the SEAL Teams, I knew that I needed to eat and fuel my body for optimal mental and physical performance. I experimented with different nutrition plans and developed a keen awareness of what each did and how it made me feel. By listening to my body and practicing discipline, I’ve achieved a level of fitness that keeps my body strong and my mind sharp.
I started intermittent fasting two years ago, and I love it! I have clarity, energy, and motivation like I have not had in years. Going 18 hours or more without eating is also a way to delay gratification, which in turn builds discipline. Fasting has been around for thousands of years; its practice is part of every major religion. The New England Journal of Medicine has confirmed ancient wisdom: fasting results in “increased stress resistance, increased longevity, and a decreased incidence of diseases, including cancer and obesity.”4
When you want to change something, you need to change your relationship with it. You need to replace a bad habit with a good one. For example, in some studies, sugar is more addictive than cocaine. You immediately get a DOSE, and the brain craves it. Eating too much sugar will not only make you overweight; it can lead to diabetes, inflammation, depression, anxiety, and even hinder learning and memory. Our bodies aren’t designed to be poisoned by sugar, but the average American consumes almost 152 pounds of sugar a year!5 As a society, we need to change our relationship with sugar.
GUTS is not a nutrition book, and even the experts don’t agree on what is the best way to eat, but I’ve experimented a lot, and I know what works for me. I follow what I call the “PASS on, better, less” eating program. I cut down or cut out Processed foods, Alcohol, Sugar, and Starches, while eating “better” (lots of fruits and vegetables) and “less” (cutting portions in half). In a restaurant, I eat half a portion most times. After a while, your stomach will shrink, and you won’t be able to eat large meals.
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.
When I’ve helped people who haven’t spent a lifetime using their bodies as a tool, I like to challenge them to learn what it feels like to change an ingrained habit. Try my PASS on, better, less program. Cut down on fried foods, even gluten, and add more vegetables and some pre- and probiotics to your diet. Focus on winning those moments. Don’t look at it as a complete lifestyle change at first. Try making small changes to get compounding effects. It’s like ending a bad relationship. It’s often mentally easier to “take a break” and see how you feel. Distance often gives you clarity. When changing any significant part of our lives, it’s often hard to imagine giving up something we’re so used to. When you start this separation, in the first couple of weeks, pay close attention to how you feel and think and what you do. What is your mood and motivation? Write it down. Experimentation is essential. Keep what works; discard what doesn’t. Celebrate your success as you go! Only you know you like you do, and we all benefit from getting to know ourselves better.
We all benefit from getting to know ourselves better.
The digestive tract or gut is so crucial to health and overall well-being that there are now countless studies and books calling the gut the second brain. It’s connected to the emotional center of the brain, the limbic system. We all know the feeling of butterflies in our stomach when we’re nervous, which is the sensation produced by hundreds of millions of neurons lining the gut firing. We’ve all had a gut feeling. The vagus nerve carries information back and forth between the brain and gut. Also, about 95 percent of the happy hormone, serotonin, is manufactured in the gut. Stress, depression, and anxiety are in a two-way relationship with your gut and your brain, and either organ can cause or be the effect of these issues. A bad mood can produce a lousy gut, and a lousy gut can create a bad mood.6
I take care of my gut. I drink kefir and kombucha, eat kimchi, and take pre- and probiotics. When we put premium fuel into our bodies, we get better performance and results. Take care of your gut, and your gut will take care of you.
Take care of your gut, and your gut will take care of you.
Besides cold water and continuous physical exertion, one of the primary tools we use during Hell Week to test the endurance of candidates is sleep deprivation. The students are awake starting Sunday morning and go through Friday afternoon with a total of four hours of sleep for the week, give or take a few minutes here and there. By Tuesday morning you can start to observe the drastic effects of sleep deprivation and of physical and emotional exhaustion. By this time, most of the students have quit, and the ones who are left are starting to have difficulty thinking, solving problems, listening to instructions, and paying attention. They may have hallucinations and often nod off immediately when they stop moving.
Usually by Wednesday or so the students get to stay a little dry and lie down for a snooze, which only takes seconds. You can see their eyes go into REM sleep almost immediately. After they get an hour of sleep, we wake them with sirens and bullhorns, abruptly bringing them back to reality and back to hitting the freezing surf. For me, this was worse than not getting sleep; it’s one of the most painful parts of Hell Week I can remember.
The ability to sleep—and to function without sleep—is a key component of the leadership chassis, not just in combat but also in civilian work and even home life. The barriers to sleep probably aren’t as high as they are in military situations, but they are there and present a challenge for everyone.
After almost a decade at war, the SEAL Teams faced some issues that required immediate attention. As the Training and Readiness Officer, one of the additions I made to readiness was resilience. We built a program to help combat some of the fatigue that the force was dealing with; the pressure on the teams was taking a toll. One of the doctors on the permanent medical staff focused on the body chemistry and sleep of older SEALs who had been deployed multiple times over the years of fighting. We are all aware of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and know that the effects are very harmful and may affect veterans for life. But SEALs are considerably resilient; their training and preparation help them bounce back quickly in most cases.
One of the factors that stuck out to our doctor was not PTSD per se, it was lack of sleep. A substantial percentage of returning SEALs had significant sleep issues, and I’m one of them. After my second combat deployment, I was assigned another very high-intensity, demanding job, which was essentially seven days a week and required long hours dealing with emergencies and answering to different bosses. To have to go to work at zero dark thirty (3:30 a.m.) and have no idea what crisis would be coming is not a way to decompress. We were severely understaffed and overtasked, and it seemed the wars just kept multiplying. A few months into this job, I received a 10-hour notice for immediate deployment, and once again took off for a different war.
By this time, I dreaded nights because I knew that I would lie there and stare at the clock, waiting for it go off, and that the cycle would repeat night after night. Overseas, in high-consequence environments, you can’t afford to waste the few hours you have to sleep, so I kept a big bottle of sleeping pills by my bed. When I was ready to turn in, I took twice the recommended dose and usually got four hours of sleep. We were on vampire hours, operating at night, so sunlight was rare. I’m sure this considerably exacerbated my sleep problems.
When I tried to get off the sleeping pills, I would go as much as 72 hours without falling asleep. So I hit the booze, and although it does work in the short term, it doesn’t really do the job. I didn’t get proper sleep, just unconsciousness, so the effects of sleep deprivation still lingered, and my level of anxiety remained high.
Our doctor saw sleep deprivation as the most significant health issue we had at the time. Numerous SEALs were stuck in the same cycle as I was, and some were almost psychotic and couldn’t function. So instead of medicating SEALs further, the doctor concentrated on the importance of taking the first strike approach to sleep hygiene and educated SEALs on natural supplements to increase sleep efficiency. Although at first he received some pushback from other conventional doctors, his methods significantly helped the force recover. The doctor became so passionate about the importance of sleep that when he retired, he developed his own line of natural sleep aids and now works with professional athletes and lectures worldwide on sleep and wellness.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention one in three adults get insufficient sleep every night.7 The effects steal our productivity. Beyond that, exhaustion breeds cowardice; it’s easier to give up on important things when we don’t have enough sleep and are fatigued. It impairs focus, logical reasoning, complex thought, and judgment, and increases insulin production, among other things.
Exhaustion breeds cowardice.
Sleep is critical to our overall health, well-being, and productivity. It’s a time for the body to repair muscle, for the brain to consolidate memory, and for the release of hormones regulating growth, appetite, and other body functions. Ultimately, it is a time to reset our gauges.
Many experts have questioned the efficacy of supplements. I can only speak to my own experience, and, personally, they’ve worked for me. I take D3, magnesium (powerful relaxation mineral), Gaba, HTP, B vitamin complex, iron, zinc, a multi-vitamin, DHEA, and omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are not only good for cardiovascular health, they also help improve mood and may have benefits to those suffering from PTSD. At this point, I do not use an alarm clock unless I’m traveling and my sleep cycle is off. I get up naturally at 4:30 or 5 a.m. each morning; if I don’t get up naturally, I just go to bed earlier the next night. One other thing I do regularly to contribute to a good night’s sleep is meditate (as discussed in Chapter 4). You don’t need to be sitting in a lotus position in a sari to do it; sometimes I do it in bed. When you meditate, you control your focus and slow down your prefrontal cortex. Sleep comes more quickly when your mind is quiet.
There is so much information available on how to get good sleep; all it takes is a little curiosity and an offensive approach to find what works for you. Be deliberate about sleeping, set the optimal conditions, and make it happen.
Take care of yourself, starting now.
Sit down with a piece of paper and draw four columns representing the four components of your chassis: physicality, the physical world, nutrition, and sleep. Do an honest assessment of your situation in each of these areas in your life and give yourself a score from 1 to 10 (10 is perfect, and you don’t need to improve). Write several things down in each category that you can do to improve your scores. Start doing them and building the habits you wish to have. Later I’ll talk about goal setting and how to do it so that it STICKS.
• Our bodies are the chassis for our minds.
• The health of our chassis rests on four major components: physicality, the physical world, nutrition, and sleep.
• Our chassis provides a framework from which our minds can operate. Having a strong chassis improves focus, reasoning, judgment, complex thought, reflex, and readiness.
• Physicality: our bodies are part of our respective toolkits and should be cared for like a piece of gear. Our bodies serve the mind; they are part of the mission and must not fail.
• The body reflects what goes on in our brains; how we treat it reveals signs of our discipline and self-leadership.
• Physicality is a context, an environment, a way of being, not just something you do once in a while.
• The mind drives fear and anxiety, so when anxious or nervous, work the body to soothe the mind.
• Physical world: become one with nature and the outdoors; energy will flow and improve your physical and mental well-being.
• The physical world helps you tap into the natural and instinctive wisdom inherent in you.
• Being hard is a combination of physicality and mental toughness with a connection to the natural world around you.
• Nutrition: fuel your body for optimal physical and mental performance.
• Fasting has been proven to be beneficial: it increases stress resistance and longevity, decreases incidence of diseases, and produces clarity, energy, and motivation.
• Try my “PASS on, better, less” diet: little or no processed foods, alcohol, sugar, and starches; lots of fruits and vegetables; and smaller portions.
• Your gut is your second brain, which is closely connected to your first one. Treat it right!
• The ability to sleep—and to function without sleep—is a key component of the leadership chassis, not just in combat but also in civilian work and even home life.
• Sleep works hand in hand with the other components that build a strong leadership chassis. Good physicality, physical world connections, and nutrition help with sleep, and vice versa.
• When it comes to getting good sleep, take an offensive approach to find what works for you. There is a difference between knowing and doing. Be deliberate, set the optimal conditions, and make it happen.