A Minimalist Guide to Health

Living well for decades to come is simple—and often delightful
By Mike Donghia
Mike Donghia
Mike Donghia
Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.
November 9, 2021 Updated: November 9, 2021

Minimalism is intentional living. It’s stripping away what isn’t needed, in order to focus on what matters most. It’s a framework that can be applied to just about any area of life, including your own personal health.

I approached writing this article with two questions in mind:

  1. What are the essential factors in promoting a long, healthy life?
  2. What is the value of good health and how much time and energy should I invest in pursuing it?

I am by no means a medical professional, but I’ve done my best to stick to the essentials without being overly prescriptive. The truth is, living well isn’t all that complicated and despite the never-ending saga on whether eggs are good or bad for you, living a healthy life is a pretty well-understood formula. That being said, be smart and talk to your doctor before making drastic changes.

Minimalist Diet

  • Eat more whole grains, fruits, veggies, nuts, and legumes.
  • Eat less “junk” food … i.e. food with very little nutritional value.

I think a lot of people get hung up on what exactly is a good diet. They’re overwhelmed by the endless theories and fad diets. My approach has always been to keep things simple and focus on what is almost certain to still hold true 100 years from now.

There’s an overwhelming consensus that foods such as whole grains, fruits, veggies, nuts, and legumes are good for our bodies in many ways. Eat more of these nutritious foods by finding simple and tasty recipes that incorporate them into meals your family already enjoys.

Foods such as meat and dairy bring out a wider range of opinions, but most agree that they can be part of a healthy diet when enjoyed in moderation. No need to overthink this one—there’s no bonus points in life for the “perfect” diet.

Now, when it comes to “junk” food, I don’t think we need a very sophisticated definition. I think most of us know intuitively that some foods are tasty, but don’t necessarily make our bodies stronger. No need to deprive yourself of your favorite foods and treats. Instead, adopt your own reasonable limits and boundaries. Over time, you’ll likely find that you need less and less to deliver the same enjoyment.

Minimalist Exercise

  • Get more gentle movement like long walks, gardening, playing with young kids.
  • With some occasional vigor such as sprinting, lifting weights, or hard physical labor.

We all know that moving our bodies more often is good for us. We wonder what exercises we should be doing or how many minutes we ought to be moving. Far better to direct that curiosity toward finding new ways to move your body that you enjoy. Movement can be a gift and a reward to yourself, not just something to be endured for the sake of better health.

The more you move, the better—but that’s no reason to start off with an audacious goal. That’s a recipe for burnout and disappointment. Instead, start incredibly small and build a daily habit. You’ll find, over time, that you’ll want to move more and more. You won’t have to force yourself at all.

I recommend a mix of lots of gentle movement with something occasionally more vigorous. For me, that means a long, daily walk and evening playtime with my kids. I sprinkle in a sprint workout once or twice a week. I go to the park or track and warm up and then I run as fast as I can for about 20 seconds. After four or five sprints, I am feeling both physically tired and mentally invigorated. There are lots of fun ways that I mix up this routine: uphill, downhill, length of time, or even with a friend.

Important Lifestyle Factors

When it comes to health outcomes, there’s an enormous range of possibilities, and that range is largely correlated to just a few factors. Consider the following stats, based on U.S. adults:

One of the most powerful steps you take for your health is to avoid falling into one of those categories, or to get out as soon as you can. That can be very difficult. Whatever it takes in terms of time, effort, and money is almost guaranteed to be worth the investment if a healthier life is your aim. In all the cases listed above, I recommend that you get the support of someone you love, and reach out to a medical professional who can provide help and guidance.

Add Life To Your Years

After tending to the above, your investments of time and energy into healthier living may reach a point of diminishing returns. Once you are eating well, exercising regularly, not smoking, at a healthy weight, and have a good blood pressure level, you are likely already among the healthiest 10 percent of Americans.

The average American has a life expectancy in the high-70s. But if you are still in good health and following these health principles, there’s a good chance your life expectancy is into the mid- to upper-80s (or beyond).

At some point, you have to stop and ask yourself—how much greater of a reward is it to extend your life from 88 to 91? Are those three extra years so valuable that you would devote even more time, energy, and money to the pursuit? In my opinion, there is far greater joy to be had in determining how to best add life to your remaining years, rather than a few extra years to your life.

I know, we’re only dealing with statistics, not guarantees. But I think the logic is sound. At the age of 32, I may have another five-plus decades on this earth. I think that my own personal sense of the good life would be much better served by thinking about how to best “spend’ those years, rather than trying to tack five more years on to the end.

Here are some ways that I’m deliberately trying to add “life to my years”:

Close relationships. I try to make as much space in my life for unrushed time with the people I love most. I doubt very much else matters more in your old age than if your life has been filled with warm, intimate friendships.

Personal faith. For me, the practice of my faith gives meaning and purpose to the ordinary days of my life. It also motivates and enables me to love others better.

Meaningful work. It’s not enough to just pay the bills, I want to fill my days with work that is good and useful. A huge bonus if my work is interesting and stimulating.

Well-rested. I have grown to place a huge value on the simple power of a good night’s rest. Without it, I feel like I’m playing the game of life in “hard” mode.

Avoid chronic stress. This one is a little vague, but for me, it means developing the right routines and habits of mind that allow me to operate mostly from a place of ease and calm.

Perhaps ironically, research in recent years suggests that the very kinds of activities that I included on my “add life to my years” list, are also likely to add even more years to my life. Those who practice a faith, maintain close friendships, find meaningful work, and cope with stress in a healthy way tend to age far better than their peers.

For me, that is all just icing on the cake. The real goal behind my minimalist health philosophy has always been to take care of my body so that I can live out my days in as good of health as possible, while filling my days and years with all types of beauty.

This article was originally published on This Evergreen Home.

Mike Donghia
Mike (and his wife, Mollie) blog at This Evergreen Home where they share their experience with living simply, intentionally, and relationally in this modern world. You can follow along by subscribing to their twice-weekly newsletter.