Letting Loose: The 80/20 Rule of Healthy Moderation

February 12th, 2009

To the dismay of many, discipline is often regarded as a major aspect of healthy living. Although it’s certainly an important part of achieving optimal health, occasional rule breaking is also important!

The 80/20 Rule

With all the unhealthy temptations that exist in modern society, even the healthiest and most determined individuals need to indulge once in a while. As such, there’s a simple guideline called the “80/20 rule” that many health practitioners use with their clients. According to this rule, if you spend 80% of your time adhering closely to a healthy lifestyle, your health should be able to withstand whatever you do during the remaining 20% of the time.

The Weekday/Weekend Split

Although there are many different ways to implement the 80/20 rule, one of the most common is to focus on good habits during the workweek and let up during the weekend. This tends to be most effective for people who work standard business hours because it’s often easier to establish a routine around a repetitive work schedule. However, if the nature of your job forces you to engage in unhealthy habits, this is something you need to consider in regard to your weekend activities.

It’s About More Than Diet. It’s About Lifestyle

Although the 80/20 rule is often applied to diet, it’s about much more than that. Ideally, it should be applied to your entire lifestyle. For example, if you get to bed late every night, you’re not adhering to a healthy lifestyle and having a few unhealthy meals in addition will exceed the 20%. This will result in more burden than your body can handle and will detract from your health.

In order to properly implement the 80/20 rule, you must have a broad perspective and consider all of the factors that can affect your health. For example, your level of stress, the amount of rest you get, your diet, and how frequently or infrequently you exercise all play a significant role in your health. According to the 80/20 rule, you can only afford to spend 20% of your time deviating from the combination of all health related factors.

Be Strict

As I said from the beginning, optimal health takes quite a bit of hard work and determination. Most people are applying the 80/20 rule in reverse which means they’re engaging in unhealthy behavior 80% of the time while only following healthy habits only 20% of the time. In fact, most people are even further off than that which is why disease and poor health are at such alarming levels. If you want to enjoy good health and still be able to indulge on occasion, you really have to be strict in regard to the 80%.

The Nearly Perfect 80%

The 7 foundational factors of optimal health represent the areas of your lifestyle that have the most significant impact on your vitality. As such, the healthy habits you spend at least 80% of your time adhering to should be based mostly on these factors. By doing so, you’ll be supporting your body’s ability to function optimally rather than detracting from it, and this is what gives you the capacity to absorb unhealthy activities 20% of the time.

Regardless of how much determination you may have, it’s inevitable that circumstances beyond your control will periodically interfere with your ability to follow a healthy lifestyle. In most cases, this is when we want to indulge the most, but is also when we can least afford to. Until you’re able to resolve the problem, it’s important to realize that the burden it’s causing is decreasing your capacity to absorb the effects of unhealthy habits. In fact, if the problem is significant enough, it may exceed the 20% capacity by itself.

The Price of 20%

You can’t expect to engage in unhealthy activities and not pay a price. While staying within 20% will most likely allow you to maintain good health, it’s possible that it won’t. We’re all different. Each of us has a unique tolerance for the amount of burden our body can withstand, and this can even depend on the type of burden it is. For example, a diabetic will be more sensitive to sugary foods and someone prone to anxiety will have more trouble with stress. Food sensitivities are another great example. The reactions they cause can last for days and far exceed the amount of burden your health can withstand without issue.

The bottom line is that you have to decide for yourself how far you’ll take this. You need to consider how much of a priority your health is, how much you are willing to sacrifice, and how much indulgence you need to maintain your sanity and happiness. Obviously, the less you cave in to unhealthy behaviors, the better your health will be, and the more mentally and physically capable you’ll be of enjoying life. However, if you’re so strict that you make yourself miserable, it defeats the purpose.

Personally, I prefer to keep the ratio closer to 90/10, and sometimes even higher. However, I have a history of poor health that requires me to be a little more careful, and I also have plenty of determination which makes this easier for me. As I said, we’re all different. You have to figure out what works best for you.

When 20% is Too Much

There may be some circumstances in which you have no margin at all for unhealthy habits because they would have too much impact on your health to be worth it. What gives you the capacity to withstand the burden of unhealthy habits is the good health you already have. If your health is poor, your capacity will be less, and any additional burden you put on your body will prolong the improvement of your health. The poorer your health is, the more this applies.

Again, it all comes down to personal decisions. Some people would rather deal with the discomfort of disease and die early rather than give up their bad habits. That’s fine, as long as they truly understand their decision.

What’s Life Without Pizza?

There’s a reason why I chose a picture of pizza for this article. It’s my favorite food and if I could eat it every day and still enjoy excellent health, I would. However, this simply cannot be.

For a while, pizza was one of the two unhealthy meals that I would sometimes eat during the weekend. Once I learned that I have sensitivity to both cheese and wheat, I cut pizza out entirely. After doing so, I could see the effect it was having on me each week.

Based on what I know now, it’s simply not worth it. Even if my sensitivities to cheese and wheat never go away, I may still have pizza, but only on rare occasion. I’m completely fine with this because the improved health I presently enjoy brings far more happiness than eating pizza. Ironically, before I began to truly understand good health, I couldn’t even imagine having to go without pizza. Obviously, now I can. If you think it would be too difficult to cut down on some of your favorite foods, keep this in mind.

Embrace the 20%

Not much longer than a century ago, there was no such thing as a light bulb, all food was organic with very little processing, and there was no such thing as a stressful office job. In other words, people of this era had little choice but to live life as nature intended. Things are much different today for many reasons. As such, our perception of life has changed dramatically. We put far more pressure on ourselves to produce, and we go to greater extremes to enjoy ourselves as well. But in the process, we’ve lost sight of our limited capacity.

This what the 80/20 rule is about. It’s a compromise that pays respect to the needs and capacity of our body without ignoring the desire to enjoy some of the opportunities presented by modern society. Be as healthy as you can manage 80% of the time, and for the remainder, you’re free to stay up late, have a few drinks, eat bad food, or do whatever other unhealthy activities you’d like to. Although you may not like the idea of restricting yourself to 20%, you’ll likely find that you get more satisfaction from your indulgences knowing that you worked hard to earn them. You’ll have better health to show for it as well!

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