Updated: Dec 18, 2020
I want to introduce you to a powerful way of thinking about your health, your fitness, and your life in general. It is the idea of pulling the longest levers possible, to gain the greatest effects from small efforts.
Certain decisions have disproportionately large effects, and even if they don’t have the largest impact on our lives in absolute terms, they have so much potential to alter the course of the ship, that we have to give them special attention.
There are many examples of easy, quick, low-cost levers we can pull that are force-multipliers. Learning to negotiate salary and benefits, for example, can result in tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in greater salary over a career.
"Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." -Abraham Lincoln
Investing is a great example of how leverage matters.
Of course, your portfolio won’t grow if you don’t put any savings into it. That is the most important step - simply remaining consistent in saving more than you spend and making contributions. No matter how sharp your axe is, you still have to swing it consistently to get the wood cut. But there are several decisions you can make that will have really out-sized effects on the portfolio size over time. If your company offers a match of say 2 or 3%, then electing to take this match is a high-leverage choice. Opportunity costs aside, there is no other investment vehicle that offers a guaranteed 100% return, risk free, but by taking the corporate match, you automatically double those inputs once you are fully vested.
High Leverage Decisions: small investments of time/effort for large returns.
The same is true for allocating your assets within your portfolio - spending an hour or two each year to rebalance your portfolio between the lowest fee asset allocations (bonds vs stocks, etc), can result in many thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in savings and investment returns over your investing career.
The savings is the most important, again, but one smart decision can leverage your hard work more effectively. Showing up to work, saving, etc might take you 2000 hours each year, and be responsible for ⅔ of your total portfolio size. But just 1-2 hours per year spent making good decisions can be responsible for the other ⅓ or more of all your lifetime returns, or the equivalent of working an extra 3 or more months each year. See how big of an effect this lever has?
Eating right is like balancing the checkbook- it's required, but takes consistent effort.
When it comes to health, as with investing, probably the single most important aspect of our lifestyles is our diet. It doesn’t matter what other factors you optimize - if you eat a diet that lacks enough bioavailable protein, vitamins, and minerals per calorie, no amount of exercise, special therapies, etc will be able to correct for this, and you’ll suffer problems. For many, those problems will involve overeating, as our appetites increase to get the proteins and micronutrients we need from low-nutrient density foods. Eat low quality and you’ll end up eating more.
But eating a nutrient rich diet takes planning and consistency. No, you don’t need to wrestle constantly with hunger to be healthy, provided you eat filling, protein rich foods. But you do need to keep showing up, planning your week, buying the right groceries, and occasionally cooking food ahead of time to ensure healthy options. Thus, when it comes to “investing” in our health, a healthy way of eating is akin to having an income and saving each month. It’s not glamorous, but it is essential.
Resistance Training is a High Leverage Decision for improving your health.
Fortunately, wealth and health are similar, and we have a powerful level that can enhance the effects of our dieting: resistance training. Once we have made the right decisions about food quality that help us to avoid outright illness and overeating, resistance training is a “long lever” that takes only 20-30 minutes once or twice per week, but has a huge impact on our health. A single resistance training workout can’t “undo” a pizza, but it can send a very strong signal to preserve our lean muscle and bone mass - perhaps as strong of a signal as would be sent by eating high protein foods for several days! Deeply fatiguing muscular work also makes muscles more sensitive to the action of the hormone insulin.
This is a big win, because if we can control our blood sugars with less insulin (thanks to big, hungry muscles), then our bodies will have an easier time using fat for energy in between meals. Again, it’s not about the calories we burn, but the effect we have on our hormones of recruiting our “gas-guzzling” fast-twitch muscle fibers. And as you may recall, these fibers ONLY get fully recruited and fatigued when we “simulate the emergency” through high effort resistance and sprint training.
Sprinting - the second best High Leverage form of exercise.
Sprinting at maximum effort, like resistance training, is another “long lever” because it preferentially empties out our muscle’s supply of “emergency fuel” or glycogen, which both improves insulin sensitivity, and even helps control our appetites.
Doing the hard, straight-forward work of saving, or eating appropriately, will always be the cornerstone of healthy finances and a healthy body. But occasionally life presents us with opportunities to hugely increase the effect of our hard work. High effort resistance training and sprint-type exercise are just such opportunities. In just 20 minutes, a few times each week, we can hugely enhance the effect that our healthy eating has on our bodies. So the next time you are looking for a way to optimize your health, ask yourself if you are taking advantage of the long lever of short, intense exercise! It's money most people are simply leaving on the table.