About a year ago, I wrote an article about rest, A Novel Approach to Rest Periods. I was so exhausted after writing it, I took some time off. One interesting thing about that article is the number of requests I've received asking me to expand on the topic.

Seasoned, elite warriors seem to really want to hear about balancing life with overwhelming levels of stress. It's odd to tell someone at the end of their rope that maybe doing something "harder" will ease the tension. But, it works.

Why do people continue to fall into the trap of smashing their head against a wall only to discover (usually much later) that it hurts to smash your head against a wall? What's this insanity I continue to see in the strength, conditioning, and fitness world where people are willing to trade in a future of chasing great-grandchildren around a park for a temporary fix that delivers higher-peaked biceps or fuller pecs?

I can only help with some part of the madness, but I am willing to step up. Really, the bulk of my rantings centers around this lunatic idea that, somehow, putting yourself next to death's door is good for you. Oh, I've seen the t-shirts.

  • "Pain is weakness leaving the body."
  • "That which doesn't kill me makes me stronger."
  • "It's not too heavy, you're just too weak."

Why did simple questions like, "I want to feel better, can you help me?" or "I'd like to lose a few pounds, what should I do?" turn into battlefield tactics?

Well, the first problem is the idea that health and fitness are the same thing. They're not, and when you confuse them, you really start down the wrong road. I've been using Philip Maffetone's definition of health for a long time now: Health is the optimal interplay of the organs.

Health is something that can always get a little better. It's measured by blood tests, longevity, and the lack of bad health. Health doesn't have the presence of illness. Tumors, high blood pressure, and fainting are not signs of good health.

Health is something you probably take for granted, until you don't have it. In fact, I remind myself often to breath in deeply, smile, and enjoy a moment of good health. It's a gift.

There's Health, and Then There's Fitness

Didn't Maffetone (and I) really just define fitness, too? No. Fitness is simply the ability to do a task. Years ago a guy I know jumped, while drunk, into the shallow end of a swimming pool and broke his neck.

He can't move well, but he fathered two sons. He's "fit" for the task of procreation, although he can't walk. If you can do 100 pull-ups in an hour or run a marathon, but you have a major cancer lurking inside your body, you are fit for a task but not healthy.

People often comment on the way I train athletes. I have my throwers throw. For the record, my jumpers jump and my sprinters sprint, but I don't want to give away all my trade secrets.

Here's the thing, though, my throwers don't run. My throwers don't do agility drills or jumping or, really, just about anything other than throw and lift. Why? Because I want them to be fit to throw.

The more a thrower throws, the smoother the technique and the farther the implement goes. The more a thrower throws, the "fitter" the thrower becomes. Sure, your athlete might jog more than mine, but there's nothing in the rulebook that rewards jogging for throwers.

For health, I have my throwers floss their teeth twice day, insist on them wearing seatbelts and helmets on bikes or motorcycles, and encourage a generous use of fish oil. Moreover, I'll encourage my throwers to find a life partner willing to remain active physically, optimize rest and recovery, and discover a spiritual life. But jogging? Nope, that's an issue of fitness.

The New Compass for a Balanced Life

Achieving clarity in the role of health and fitness was the single biggest hurdle in my coaching career, but I think my first glimpse into the art of lifelong fitness actually happened in the second grade.

The fact that I can remember a talk from the early 1960s, literally decades and miles ago, is enough to thank the memory of Sister Maria Assumpta and her few minutes at the chalkboard.

Sister walked up to the board and put up a basic compass shape. Rather than North, South, East, and West, she replaced them with Work, Rest, Play, and Pray. Very simply, she told us, "Your lives should always live in a balance with these four things."

If you work too much, you'll ignore important things and "burn out." If you rest too much, you'll become slothful and ignore real living. If you play too much, you'll be like the grasshopper from Aesop's tale who played all summer, instead of storing food, and starved to death in winter as a result.

Curiously, Sister never went into praying too much. I guess she figured that was a given.

But I've often pointed out that "pray" could just as easily be "alone time" for some.

"Pray" could also just be taking an appreciation of goodness or beauty. There's something restful about watching a waterfall or witnessing a plane land at night. Breathe in, breathe out, and enjoy it.

See The Compass In Action

Like natural fractals – objects that seem to display a self-repeating structure when looked at from a great distance or up close (think snowflakes, mountains, and rivers) – one's entire life from birth to death can be looked at by the Balance Compass.

Look back over your life and find times where you seemed "whole" and your life was full. If you look close enough, you can usually see that you were also holding work, rest, play, and pray in balance.

You took care of business, but also took your shoes off and played in the sand. You probably had good friends, worthy of the title, and enjoyed some time to take care of your personal and spiritual needs alone.

Narrowing down from the fractals model can give you some insights about how these four compass points can illuminate any successful venture. One's day, one's workout, and perhaps even one's morning coffee could be seen in this same way.

Let's use a training day: Too much training (work) can lead to soreness, injuries, and fatigue. What's worse is that the workouts that work you out, literally, tend to only be short-term and will have you regressing over the long haul.

Too much rest in a workout can be fairly broad. Few people honestly have this issue in training. Instead, they tend to rest, sit, sleep, and watch TV so much that their rest reserve is well in hand.

Too much play is something I just don't see much anymore. I'm convinced that most of us would never need workout DVDs or personal trainers if we all just met in the field after work and played some games. Freeze tag is an under-realized workout modality.

Though, it's possible to have too much socializing during a workout. A lot of gym rats, and Internet personae, would rather talk about great workouts instead have one.

Too much alone time (pray) is something I've had to undo in my own training. I trained in my garage for years, but found a lot missing. By inviting friends over or by popping into a gym every so often, I push myself harder than when I train alone. It's a small thing, but it makes a real difference in intensity.

So, the "answer" to all of this is to insist that you take some time and energy to think about how you balance a workout.

Design Your Balance Compass

I want you to take the time and write out something like the following chart, and to drive the point home, really write it, don't type it (I'll explain how to use it below):


  • Health
  • Fitness/Performance
  • Longevity


  • Health
  • Fitness/Performance
  • Longevity


  • Health
  • Fitness/Performance
  • Longevity


  • Health
  • Fitness/Performance
  • Longevity

It was my good friend, one of the brightest writers in the field of nutrition, Robb Wolf, who not long ago suggested that I add "Longevity" to this Life Balance Compass.

Beginning as early as you can in life, it's worth thinking about living as well as you can for as long as you can. In other words, when considering something that may be unsafe, unhealthy, or dangerous ­– an un-warmed-up two rep max, the deep fried Twinkie eating contest, that late-night rendezvous with the girl you've broken up with four times this semester – at least take a second to ponder the longevity question.

Also see that I include performance along with fitness. For whatever reason, no matter how many times I define "fitness," most people choose not to hear "ability to do a task." So, I specifically added Performance, since many people seem to hear that as "completing a marathon," or "salsa dancing like the good ol' days."

While any unit of time – lifetime, decade, year, month, week, day, or hour – can work, think a bit more globally on the chart the first time you try it. Let's use this coming year on your first attempt.

In each area, write in a short note about how you'll use your full mind, body, and spirit to engage all four points and all three "pillars" (again, Robb Wolf's term) to balance yourself by the end of 2011. For example:


  • Health:  I will keep a supply of dental floss, fish oil capsules, and water at work.
  • Fitness/Performance:  I will finish the 5K "Walk for Life."
  • Longevity:  I will take an easy walk, bike, or swim at least five days a week.


  • Health:  I will turn off the television at 9:00pm every night, unless there is a show or sporting event that I "must see." Otherwise, I will spend from 9:00pm to 10:00pm preparing for sleep.
  • Fitness/Performance:  I will stand up from my desk every half-hour and walk around for a few minutes to relax and recharge.
  • Longevity:  Either through audiotapes, DVDs, or lessons several days a week, I will learn to put myself into a relaxed, meditative state within minutes.


  • Health:  I will learn to laugh more at work, especially by posting Dilbert or Calvin and Hobbes comic strips as appropriate to situations that arise.
  • Fitness/Performance:  I'm going to say, "Yes!" to every chance to play in a game, no matter what the game or sport.
  • Longevity:  Each month, I will schedule at least one "hang out and graze"-session with friends.


  • Health:  I will take some time each day just to be alone for a few minutes.
  • Fitness/Performance:  I'm going to master a difficult physical task. (Choose any one, there are plenty: Full side split, a one-arm chin-up, a particular lift, a yoga move, etc. Mastery is a path, not a goal, but get on the path!)
  • Longevity:  People who go to church live longer. I should consider where I am with this.

The next step is to look at all these "I wills" and try to find the connections. For this example, the stress of the work place is obviously a factor, as well as time management.

Little things, like less television and changing the mindless commute into what many call "the mobile university," can make a huge difference. Everybody has the same amount of time in a day, but how they spend it is a very different thing.

When you make a small, easy change for the better in one area of your life, it seems to carryover into the other areas. Once you start flossing (yes, I keep repeating it), you seem more in tune with other things you put in your mouth and maybe you'll skip the birthday cake in the break room at work.

Skipping the cake can give you the courage to come home from a long day and still get in a good workout. Working out invigorates you enough to not click on the TV and slump into the couch.

Yes, it's that simple and, yes, it works that well. When you have it all dialed in, you'll laugh at the simplicity of this chart. It's when you struggle that you need to wake up and reassess this focused attempt to have balance in your life.

When You Really Need a Compass

This "compass thing" might seem all well and good once it's in place, but how do you first recognize that you are spinning out of balance?

I recently saw an interesting way to spread the concept of health and fitness across a continuum and spot problems on the horizon, from Dr. Paul Hammer. Imagine the standard traffic light to better visualize. Green is go, yellow is caution, and red means stop.

If you're on the green side of the continuum, congratulations, you've got it dialed in. My goal is to be in the green for every area of my life. For me, life in the green is all about having some reserves. I have enough in the bank to cover a minor tragedy like a broken water heater and I have enough time to help a buddy move a couch.

I have enough energy to train and enough energy after I train to still enjoy some entertainment with my family. I'm enjoying life, keeping in decent shape, and sleeping well.

In the green, nobody pulls you aside, puts their arm around you, and says "Hey, I'm a little worried about this or that with you." And by the way, if there's nobody in your life to warn you about excess, that's a sign you aren't in the green.

Yellow is not as bad as one may think, but it's important to remember "caution" from driver's education class. This isn't a time to speed up! In some of the most productive times of my life, I've also felt myself spinning out of balance. At these times, I often just look at the calendar. If I can see "relief" in sight, I don't worry too much.

Knowing that the pressure will ease, eases the pressure. I'm "lucky" because I have friends, family, and a schedule that all support the stressful times. Like I always tell people, I really had to work hard to be so lucky.

The red zone means an intervention is needed. That's something like a DUI, an arrest, a serious injury, or another traumatic issue. This is not the area for friends. This is a time for professional help.

It's far beyond the scope of this article to discuss "fixing" these red types of issues, but if you find yourself in a yellow light situation for long enough with no respite in sight, address it now. Don't wait to hit the red.

However, don't always focus on the negative here. The great insight I learned about the Balance Compass is that these four great truths – Work, Rest, Play, and Pray – tend to spiral out, eventually.

If I decide to work harder, I now find it natural to increase my play. I play harder when I work harder. My vacations, perhaps reflecting the increase in money from working harder, are "bigger." There's a tremendous synergy when I look at consciously increasing my other compass points when I take on a task.

It also begins to affect how you go about your goals. I've become famous for hosting very hard workouts in the backyard along the river. We have one or two dozen people taking turns pulling, tugging, running, and carrying various odds and ends. It's a fun, playful workout and we keep the grill going the whole time.

After training hard, we "hang out and graze" for hours on the deck, laughing and enjoying life. Of course, I balance this with some workouts where I train alone and try to figure ways of besting my friends next time, and thinking of even more devious ways to exhaust them when they come back next time.

When you're approaching a decision to expand yourself, take a few minutes to expand all four compass points. I bet you find the road to success a lot easier and, oddly, more fun.

The Biggest Mistake You Could Make

There's one final idea to help you discover balance towards your health and fitness goals. Realize that there are ups and downs, lefts and rights. Don't constantly worry about improvement.

The biggest issue most people have is that they think linear. Life isn't linear. Do we start squatting with 100 pounds and add five pounds every single week? Within one year we'd squat 360, and in two... 620 pounds. I wish!

Play around with this wonderful life compass and rethink progress. Part of the reason I think I've had long career is that I retire just about every time something bad happens and swear to never come back. A few weeks later, after some (apparently much needed) rest and relaxation, I un-retire and come back healthier, happier, and, almost always, "better."

Dan John is an elite-level strength and weightlifting coach. He is also an All-American discus thrower, holds the American record in the Weight Pentathlon, and has competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting and Highland Games. Follow Dan John on Facebook