Financial security allows you the freedom to align your actual life with your ideal life. Physical fitness can be liberating in much the same way. It has been for me: morphing from fitness enthusiast to professional bodybuilder has been the most empowering journey of my life.
As the Physician on Fire wrote in his post, Stay Fit for a Longer and Better Retirement, “Doing your best to stay fit can add quality years to your retirement, reduce stress, improve your looks, and give you a sense of accomplishment that is hard to come by any other way.” A cornerstone of overall physician wellness, physical fitness enables you to comfortably say yes to more experiences like exploring a new country, participating in a round of pickleball, or simply playing outside with your kids.
The discipline, work ethic, and grit that have allowed you to succeed in your professional and financial life can also apply when working toward your fitness goals. Many financial principles of The White Coat Investor can be used to improve your physical fitness. Dr. Jim Dahle often shares that getting rich is simple, but it’s not always easy. The same message applies to physical fitness.
Let’s break down how fundamental WCI principles for building wealth can also help build your fitness.
Avoid the Extremes
The spheres of fitness and finance are full of passionate individuals who loudly advocate for the extremes. You can easily find yourself entrenched in a community running off of hype, inspired by the success of a few. From an all-crypto portfolio to the Carnivore Diet, these radical approaches don’t lend themselves well to longevity. When you evaluate strategies to build wealth and improve your fitness, focus on those that seem realistic and reasonable—both today and 10 years down the road.
Finding balance in a world of extremes is a lifelong journey, and it will be continuously redefined as your life evolves. When it comes to fitness, one person’s balance could be another’s extreme. My current bodybuilding “off-season” consists of six two-hour workouts a week, 25 of 28 weekly meals tracked to the gram, eating the same meals each day, no alcohol, prioritizing sleep, and lots of walks. While that lifestyle works for me, that regimen is likely unsustainable, extreme, and unrealistic for physicians who have such demanding careers. My version of balance deviates from the extreme dieting needed for a bodybuilding competition prep. Still, I find flexibility in the off-season when bedtime creeps later than 8:30pm, and I can leave my Ziploc bag of chicken at home when attending social events.
To be competitive in an extreme sport, you need an extreme short-term approach. The low body fat percentage necessary for a bodybuilding stage is not sustainable, and neither is the approach to achieve it. After competition day, those who remove all dietary restrictions instead of slowly adjusting their intake to return to a more sustainable physique can rapidly gain 20+ pounds within a few weeks. A significant rebound post-competition happens at an alarming frequency. An extreme approach is ineffective for long-term success.
Instead of dramatically overhauling your lifestyle, think about realistic adjustments you can make to become just a bit more fit than you were yesterday.
Try some of these swaps in your current routines:
- Trading a movie with your partner for a walk around the neighborhood
- Swapping boozy brunch with friends for a hike
- Reducing your calories at lunch to allocate more calories for an anticipated dinner out
- Packing a healthy snack on shift so you are less tempted to binge on donuts and bagels brought in by a colleague
Keep It Simple
Dr. Dahle’s preference for low-cost index funds is well known in the WCI community as the best way for the vast majority to invest. The index funds of a strength training program are compound lifts: think squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and pullups. Compound movements provide diversification by working multiple muscles at once, and they will give you the most significant return on your efforts. Like good investing, a good strength training program is boring and should change very infrequently.
Physicians don’t have much time or energy to add to their workload, so if hitting the gym isn’t realistic or not something you’re interested in, consider modifications to activities you already do. Sustainable long-term habits you can use to improve your fitness include taking the stairs, adding a daily walk, parking at the back of the lot, eating slower and without electronic distractions, drinking more water, increasing your protein and vegetable intake, and bulk prepping some of your meals.
I used to roll my eyes when people mentioned trying to “get their steps in,” but focusing on increasing my daily movement has positively impacted my physical and mental health. While these may sound like cliché tips, how many of these habits do you actually practice? Building momentum through small habit changes will significantly improve your fitness.
Make the Nutritious Choice Easy to Choose
Don’t make eating well too complicated. Put diets with many rules and restrictions in the “too hard” box. Push the protein, fruit, and veggies to the front of your fridge. For busy docs, easy-to-grab snacks high in protein—like beef jerky, string cheese, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, or protein bars—can be handy mid-shift to keep you satiated. I always have a few protein options cooked in bulk, most often chicken, turkey, or lean beef. Since protein is typically the most time-consuming to prepare, having it ready to go makes for an easier choice after a long day at work. Buying protein in bulk and cooking your food at home are habits that are impactful for both nutrition and savings goals.
Create a Written Fitness Plan
Bursts of inspiration and extreme market fluctuations can motivate one to make drastic financial decisions that are unlikely to be successful in the long term. To avoid this, Dr. Dahle often recommends creating a written financial plan—and sticking to it. Create a written plan for your physical fitness in much the same way, on a day when you are level-headed and realistic and not hyped up on motivation. This formalized document helps you make decisions, track your progress, and establish criteria to make adjustments.
A fitness plan to show up at the gym 2x a week, eat more protein, and add a few walks is much more likely to stick compared to six gym sessions paired with mostly salads. Reducing meals at restaurants from 6x a week to 4x can go a long way in your budget and toward your fitness goals without leaving you feeling deprived.
Understand Your Baseline
If you don’t know where you’re at, it’s tough to figure out where to go. When you start to monitor your spending, you might be surprised to see how much money goes toward restaurants, coffee shops, or all of your streaming services. The same shock can occur if you start to track your caloric intake. Want to be really stunned? Try putting a “normal size” banana on a food scale. You’ll likely find it is close to four servings and over 300 calories.
Fitness goals will vary dramatically, but consider a few of these ideas to establish your starting point:
- Track your steps using a wearable device for two weeks
- Determine a one-rep max on a squat, deadlift, or benchpress
- Take a daily weight in the morning and track all calories consumed for two weeks
- Time how long it takes to run or bike a mile
- Track how many servings of vegetables and protein you eat for two weeks
- Take body measurements and photos
Documenting your starting point will be well worth it and provide you with the information to establish reasonable long-term plans.
Determine Your Fitness Goals
Now that you’ve established a baseline, you need to set fitness goals. Set specific, measurable, realistic, and time-bound goals.
Examples of Fitness Goals:
- Squat 305 pounds once by January 1, 2024
- Take 3 million steps in 2024
- Lose 15 pounds by May 1, 2023
- Average 13 servings of vegetables a week for six months
Short-term goals are great in fitness and finance, but they should be part of the long-term plan. If you have a short-term goal to lose weight over the next six months, consider an additional goal to maintain the new weight within five pounds for two years (by that time, you’ve established the habits needed to maintain your weight as long as you desire).
When setting a timeline, plan for life events that will impact the pursuit of your goals, such as vacations, holidays, and social events. Your strategy to manage these scenarios should be written down in your fitness plan. You can always hit your goal earlier if all circumstances align favorably, but it’s best to assume they won’t.
All too often, people default to extreme and unrealistic goals. You or someone you know has likely lost a significant amount of weight using extreme measures but ultimately gained it all back. It’s not the diet that doesn’t work. It’s the failure to implement sustainable habits to maintain progress. Perhaps you’ve seen fitness influencers on social media selectively posting photos of only their peak physique, enhanced by posing, lighting, Photoshop, filters, and anabolic steroids. Use this as motivation if you’d like, but remember that these photos often don’t reflect reality. In fitness and investing, you’re only competing against your own goals.
Measure, Evaluate, and Adjust
Establish a system to measure your progress and determine when to make any adjustments. How often will you step on the scale if your goal is to gain or lose weight? Allow enough time for your plan to work so that you are not prematurely making changes based on normal fluctuations, but also reevaluate frequently enough that you can course-correct if needed. Depending on your experience and the nature of your goals, your measurements may need to be precise, such as measuring your food down to the gram. A goal that requires less precision may be met by hitting a daily protein and step target.
Establishing a Sustainable Approach
Let’s consider tools and strategies for someone with a goal to lose 15 pounds. The principles of an effective budget translate seamlessly to managing your calories to lose weight. As Dr. Dahle says, “you don’t get a pass on math,” and you’ll have to consume less than you burn. With the intake data from your baseline measurement period, you’ll be able to adjust your meal planning to establish a calorie deficit.
We’re lucky to live in a time where technology can help us track and manage our financial and fitness progress with ease. Budget apps such as YNAB, Mint, or EveryDollar can keep track of your income and expenses. Calorie-tracking apps like MacroFactor, Carbon Diet Coach, or MyFitnessPal will help you hit your calorie goals.
Tip: I highly recommend MacroFactor (no affiliation, just a happy consumer) if you’re looking for a best-in-class food log and to receive recommended intake adjustments to reach your target weight.
A calorie deficit is similar to reducing spending because it can quickly surface a scarcity mindset. Instead of focusing on what you can’t have, prioritize most of your budget on things you value.
Intentional Spending to Maximize Your Happiness
There are many roads to Dublin. Take the one where you will feel the least deprived. If you prefer more significant rewards, the “fun” money bucket may be spent on one more expensive outing rather than smaller treats throughout the month. Similarly, one much higher calorie day with a lower intake the rest of the week can be just as successful as a consistent intake. The math is the same, but the way you perceive it matters.
When dialing in your diet, you’ll likely find high-calorie foods that are simply not “worth it.” When shopping, you pass on a purchase when the price is too high for the perceived value. Use the same approach with calorically dense foods. A short period of tracking your intake empowers you with the knowledge to make informed food choices. Try the Marie Kondo approach for food. Prioritize choices that spark the most joy for your taste buds. Some people love a cheeseburger and a craft cocktail. I’d rather enjoy cornbread and sugar cookies. To each their own.
It’s OK to have a bite of something and realize it’s simply not “worth it.” This is a luxury that readers of this blog are incredibly fortunate to have. We can all think of a dessert that looked WAY better than it tasted. You don’t always need to clear your plate, but try to eat most of the green stuff. Figuring out which financial and dietary splurges are “worth it” will help you maximize your happiness, all while sticking to your caloric and financial budgets.
Make a Trade
Going on “a diet” can surface nightmares of leafy greens and too much tilapia. While that may get you to a weight loss goal, it’s not a sustainable approach. It’s common for Americans to eat five meals out a week paired with a diet high in processed food. Cooking a few meals at home; focusing on more protein, fruit, and veggies; and/or using a meal prep service like HelloFresh or Trifecta can help you make impactful changes in your overall diet.
Evaluate your food choices like you do your investments and find the lowest fee (lowest calorie) option for the goal. Easy food swaps to save calories that don’t taste terrible are:
- Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ Sauce (70 calories) vs. G Hughes BBQ Sauce (10 calories)
- Coke (140 calories) vs. Diet Coke (0 calories)
- Mission Flour Tortilla (140 calories) vs. La Banderita Carb Counter Carb Tortillas (45 calories) or Egglife Egg White Wrap (25 calories)
- Yoplait Original Yogurt (150 calories) vs. Two Good Greek Yogurt (90 calories)
- 2% milk (130 calories) vs. almond milk (30 calories)
Note: While the FDA allows a 20% discrepancy in nutrition labels, the point is that a similar-tasting food may significantly differ in calories.
If you haven’t tried Yasso greek yogurt bars, they are an excellent substitute for an ice cream treat. With so many alternatives that taste similar, try making trades to “spend” more on foods that spark more joy.
Stay the Course
There will always be a shiny object. Just as continuously buying and selling stocks will likely not yield the long-term results you desire, the same is true for hopping between workout programs. Pick a program and execute it for at least six weeks. Just as time in the market matters most, a less than ideal program run consistently will yield much higher results than jumping from program to program—or even a “perfect program” done inconsistently.
Tip: If a particular exercise in your workout makes you avoid working out altogether (some days I feel this way about heavy squats), don’t do it, or swap it out. You will not stick to doing something you hate for weeks in a row, and you don’t need to.
For some, staying the course is made possible by allocating a bit of “fun” or speculation in the plan. Five percent of your portfolio in cryptocurrencies is still reasonable. Build your workout program around compound lifts and a diet of whole foods, but a little something fun like bicep curls or cookies can keep you on track with your long-term plan.
Be Aware of How Your Emotions Tempt You to Change Course
To effectively stay any course, it’s wise to understand your risk tolerance to fluctuations. Sometimes too much data tempts you to ditch your plan. If checking your investment portfolio in a bear market makes you want to sell, consider removing easy electronic access to your accounts. If fluctuations in weight due to one of many factors make you feel a certain way, put away the scale and focus on other measurements to define success—such as progress photos, measurements, or simply how you feel.
Managing Your External Influences
Be careful which influences you surround yourself with. If you are hoping to dial in your budget and/or diet, spend more time with friends who enjoy walks and coffee, not the city’s best restaurants and bars. When stock market news makes you want to pull out or fitness influencers dull your mood, hit the mute button, change the channel, unsubscribe, or block.
Be cautious of whose advice you take. In a world of money gurus, edited photos, diet charlatans, and “financial advisors” working for insurance companies, seek out folks with minimal conflicts of interest that have been in the game for a long time—those who have seen many bear markets and have maintained a healthy lifestyle over an extended period. Align yourself with individuals who have seen “exciting new investments” and fad diets come and go and yet have crafted their lives to maintain success.
Physicians who established an investment plan early in their career find themselves significantly more wealthy compared to their financially illiterate colleagues. Similarly, those in shape after 40 are often an outlier among their peers. Establishing strong habits and applying the WCI principles of avoiding extremes, keeping it simple, having a written plan, and staying the course will significantly impact your fitness and finances. As always, take what is useful and leave the rest, but consider this an invitation to focus more on your fitness using the WCI philosophy, which will enable you to say yes to more adventures and set you up for a longer, healthier, and more fulfilling life.
What do you think? What other personal finance principles could you apply to help you hit your financial and fitness goals? Comment below!