The Magic Number

Ladies and gentlemen, the magic number for optimal health is 0.8. I know, it seems random, but let me explain…

As I mentioned in Eating Ethos, hara hachi bu is a Confucian teaching that instructs people to eat until they are 80% full. Okinawa is a collection of islands in the southern portion of the Japanese archipelago. Okinawa’s high concentration of centenarians is often attributed to Okinawans’ practice of hara hachi bu, as is the exceptional health of Okinawa’s elderly. While the categories are slightly different, the recommendations delineated in the Okinawan food pyramid are substantially similar to those in my food pie chart. The only major difference is that most Okinawans are flexitarians or pescatarians and consume seafood daily and meat rarely, whereas I get all of my protein, omega-3s, and calcium from plant-based sources. Either way, per the first commandment of eating, it is important to eat slowly so that you can gauge your satiety and stop eating when you are 80% full.

**Fun Fact: The number eight is considered to be a lucky number in Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian cultures. Why not include as many eights in your life as possible?**

Another popular nutritional principle is the 80/20 rule. Followers of the rule embrace the fundamental truth that no one is perfect. Observers generally stick to a Paleo or whole foods, plant based diet 80% of the time and indulge in cheat meals the other 20% of the time. Assuming you eat 21 meals per week (i.e. 3 meals per day), 17 meals should consist primarily of nutritious, whole foods. The remaining 4 meals can contain not-so-nutritious foods, like Margherita Pizza with whole grain crust or a veggie burger with baked French fries plus frozen yogurt or apple crumble à la mode for dessert. Cheat meals should be fun, not toxic. As far as I’m concerned, restaurants like McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Outback are peddling poison, and I wouldn’t patronize those places if they paid me to eat there. **Don’t forget to follow hara hachi bu during your cheat meals, as well as your nutritious meals.** Indulging in occasional fun foods is fine, but it’s never a good idea to overindulge from a quantity perspective. If you want dessert, make sure you leave room for it!

Through trial and error, I have found that moderate exercise is optimal, and high intensity/impact exercises are often overkill. Personal trainers and fitness instructors frequently say to give 100+% of your effort during your workout, but I would suggest that you give 80%. When I was younger, I had the team sport mentality that you should always try your best in sports and other physical activities. Unfortunately, over the years, I wasn’t getting the results I wanted despite giving my all while exercising. In college, I would watch my sorority sisters barely break a sweat at the gym; meanwhile, I was always drenched. I might have been more muscular, but I was definitely stockier too. My roommate always said I was trying too hard, but I didn’t believe her…until I did. I have a Type A personality and predominantly Pitta dosha. I can’t help but be a teacher’s pet, even in exercise classes. Needless to say, it’s pretty hard for me to NOT try my best. However, through experimentation, I realized that exerting 80% of my effort results in significant cardio, strength, and flexibility training without causing me to be stressed during my workout or exhausted and ravenous afterwards.

  • When I take a spin class, I don’t always turn up the resistance when instructed.
  • My 30-minute elliptical workout includes fifteen 10-second intervals (just 2.5 minutes total) of high intensity exercise. The rest of the workout (27.5 minutes) is done at a comfortable or moderate intensity.
  • When I do yoga, I no longer try to compete with the class Gumby.
  • During strength training, I use smaller weights (2 to 5 lbs) and try to do a moderate amount of reps and sets (15-20 reps per set, 1-3 sets per exercise). I want to be toned but not bulky. When I use 8+lb weights, I build guns and thunder thighs instead of sleek muscles.

During a meditation session, I try to achieve mindfulness 80% of the time, which is realistic. If you expect to be mindful for the entire session, you are setting yourself up for failure. By contrast, if, during a 20-minute session, you are able to be mindful for 16 minutes, cumulatively, you are doing great! When your mind starts to wander, don’t beat yourself up. Instead, acknowledge the detour and get back on track.

We all have lots of professional and social obligations. With regard to time management, try to limit your various obligations to 80% of your waking hours and dedicate the remaining 20% to self-maintenance and growth. Assuming you are getting the recommended 8 hours of sleep per night, you should be allocating 13 hours per day to work and play and 3 hours per day to yourself. When you are living a hectic life, 3 hours may seem like a lot, but it’s worth it. For every 60-90 minutes of work, take a 15 minute, anti-smoking break. Read a couple of articles or a few pages in a book, scroll through some adorable animal photos (shameless plug – follow my furry angels on Instagram @darwinandsavannah), make some tea, chat with a colleague, meditate, do some stretches in an empty conference room, or take a walk around the block. Your employer will thank you – various studies (e.g. this and this) indicate that breaks boost focus and productivity. The 3-hour target no longer seems insurmountable when you knock out 30 minutes in the morning, 90 minutes during work, and 60 minutes after work. For example, practice mindfulness during your morning routine, take breaks while at work, exercise (take a class, go to the gym, or take a walk), and practice mindfulness while preparing dinner. Voila! Mission accomplished.  

Embrace the eight!