The Word Healthy Sucks

I’m the co-founder of a startup. Unfortunately, as all entrepreneurs know, this means that there is very little stability in my day-to-day life. I’ll often not know where or when my next meal will be or when I’ll have time to go to the gym. Or sleep. Or shower. (You get the point.)

I should also mention that my startup, Fitocracy, is a fitness startup, and its 1.2 million members look to me to tell them what is “healthy.”

The word “healthy” is emotional for me, as I’ve dealt with it for as long as I can remember. My parents are doctors, and growing up, they always instructed me on what foods or activities were “healthy” or “unhealthy.”

As much as I could, I did my best to do healthy activities, like running, despite hating many of them. I didn’t always make healthy choices, but I figured that I would just make it a point to do as many as I can. After all, “it all adds up,” right?

Unfortunately, by the time I was 16, I topped the scales at 220 lbs and most definitely wasn’t healthy.

Let’s go back to present day Dick Talens, the one with the hectic startup life. I don’t miss a beat when it comes to exercise and my original struggles with weight are completely gone. I also coach people – people with incredibly busy lives – on how to get fit, with some clients losing the equivalent weight of half a person.

I am often asked what’s the difference in mindset that separates old Dick from new Dick.

It took me nearly a decade to figure out, but I’ve distilled it to one core concept: Nothing is healthy or unhealthy. In fact, when it comes to exercise and nutrition, it would be better if those words didn’t exist.


The only way to judge something’s “healthiness” is in a holistic context. A food or activity that is unhealthy in isolation may be healthy in the large scheme of things.

For example, I would bet that there is no nutritionist in the world who would call Oreos a “healthy” food. But what if eating a few Oreos increases a particular dieter’s adherence and chance of success? After all, that dieter may feel less deprived.

Does that make Oreos healthy?

Similarly, everyone believes that cardio is a “healthy” activity. No one would call cardio, in isolation, unhealthy. Yet, for those who do not enjoy it, it is time consuming, increases hunger, and is ineffective at fat loss, yet it’s the first avenue many people turn to in their efforts to lose weight.

If these factors decrease your chance of fitness success, does that make cardio unhealthy?

Let’s look at this another way. As an entrepreneur, the goal behind every decision that I make is to improve my startup’s chance of success. Yet, every decision is made with all facets of the startup in mind – limited time, budget and focus, to name a few.

If your company is desperately in need of another software developer, you wouldn’t hire a social media person if it puts you past budget, would you?

Similarly, everything that you do around fitness is constrained by limited time, energy, and willpower. For many, using these up on cardio, instead of focusing on diet or higher ROI exercise, is akin to saying “yes” to the question above. (This is the concept behind my project, Minimum Viable Fitness.)

If you want to stick to fitness, you must avoid using up your resources on unnecessary things.

That’s why labeling things as “healthy” and then trying to maximize your “healthiness tally” doesn’t work. It ignores the fact that everything is interconnected – that you have constraints and that every decision impacts another.

Many times, these constraints are physiological in nature and many “healthy” programs will doom entrepreneurs from the start.

Let’s look at two fitness protocols that have been popular in the entrepreneur community: CrossFit training in combination with the Paleo diet, both of which may be fine in isolation.

Combining CrossFit and Paleo, as its executed by many people (which commonly includes pushing past injury, glorifying vomit-inducing workouts, and heavily restricting carbohydrates) is often reprimanded for skyrocketing cortisol (stress hormone) and plummeting testosterone. In addition, that amount of aerobic exercise may increase hunger and decrease metabolism, due to disproportionately lowering the hormone leptin.

But maybe, for whatever reason, CrossFit and Paleo was what finally worked for you. Perhaps it was finally a “healthy” program that you can stick to.

That only illustrates my point. Nothing is healthy or unhealthy in isolation. Everything depends on context.

The popular phrase “it all adds up” doesn’t hold true for health. You cannot tally units of healthiness any more than you can tally Starks and Lannisters.

To generalize something’s “healthiness” is to ignore context. It’s like making a business decision that doesn’t take your startup’s budget, talent, time, and manpower into account.

Luckily there is a difference between startups and fitness – most startups fail.

Everyone, however, can succeed at fitness.

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