Body and Mind

Active Body, Still Mind

Joe Holder is a different kind of wellness expert — for the brain, body, and spirit.

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THESE DAYS, THERE are about a million and one wellness sages out there, particularly since the pandemic created a hunger for health tips and home remedies. They’re shouting at us about what not to eat, which muscles to work, and how many supplements to swallow. But Joe Holder, the thinking person’s fitness expert, doesn’t scream his advice so much as summon it, calmly, without hyperbole or pretension — and always with a practical understanding that most of us are just doing the best we can with what we’ve got. “People in health and wellness like to proselytize. They stand up. They tell you what you should be doing,” he says over Zoom, recovering from running a half marathon, cocooned like some athleisure monk in a hoodie pulled over his forehead and a cup of tea held with two hands to his mouth. “For me, it’s about elevating the way people think about these things, so they can develop a system that works for them. I call it the sport of life. These are just really fundamental life skills, and I don’t think we should try to overcomplicate it. It’s not my desire for you to think of me as the specialized guru who you follow forever. I’m your favorite high school teacher who has connected with you emotionally. You have learned, and now you can go and continue to graduate.”

To be clear, Holder does utilize some of the conventional methods of health and wellness. He acts as personal trainer to stars like Naomi Campbell, designs free exercise programs for the Nike Training Club app, and writes articles for GQ, holding court on topics like what to put into your smoothie and how to develop a solid daily routine. He is undoubtedly a paragon of strength and fitness, enviably ripped in all the right places, and a proponent of a clean, plant-based diet who can run great distances and do umpteen pull-ups. Additionally, he offers classes on how to kickstart your whole life with HIIT and mobility exercises as the first instructor in MasterClass’ wellness portfolio.

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It’s that Holder also urges people to think so much bigger, to build a life that’s healthy in mind, body, and spirit. To his over 140,000 followers on Instagram, he’s just as prone to encourage people to take time to read a book as lift a weight. He regularly spotlights the macro social inequities that create health challenges, like the fact that the U.S.’s SNAP benefits (better known as food stamps) don’t cover vitamins and hot food. And he’s adamant that a balanced life has space for all kinds of choices, even ones outside the rigid confines of “healthy.” “It throws people off that I don’t just work out — that I sometimes party, or I meditate, or I’ll do an exercise then join you in drinking,” he says. “What I want is to give people personalized freedom to feel good.”

All of this falls under what he calls the “Ocho System,” an eight-pronged philosophy that focuses on the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, social, environmental, and financial aspects of building a life. It includes advice on everything from how to find someone to help you manage your stock portfolio to the science of why sound baths produce a relaxation response in the human brain. “We’ve condensed it too much into superfoods and going to the gym. Yeah, that’s your grounding point, but it definitely doesn’t end there,” he says. “Maybe you need to work on relationships, every week for the next four weeks finding a friend to connect with. And you’d be surprised how much better you’ll feel.”


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Even when it comes to literal exercise, he likes unconventional methods, particularly for busy city dwellers with too much on their plate and not a lot of time to get to the gym. He’s a big believer in what he calls “exercise snacks,” quick bursts of activity done throughout the day to keep from being sedentary. He has some fast classes he’s uploaded to YouTube to guide you through a few high-intensity, bang-for-your-buck snacks, but he believes that any movement is a game changer, whether it’s a walk in the park, stretching, a quick run, or doing more straightforward bodyweight fitness routines. “I think everybody has the ability either in the morning or the evening to move their body for between five to 15 minutes,” he says. “Just stay in the habit of taking care of yourself.”

For the most part, Holder has been in that habit, understanding since childhood how much health matters. His grandfather was a pro athlete in the Negro baseball leagues, and his father is a holistic MD who regularly ran blood tests on his kids to help keep their bodies in tune while they were growing up. But Holder’s passion also comes from a bit of pain and an intimate understanding of what feeling out of whack can do to your sense of self. He was an Ivy League college football player at the University of Pennsylvania, but after an ankle injury sidelined him, he fell into a depression that made him feel disconnected and listless. By reinvigorating and rethinking his diet and exercise, he got his life back on track, spurring a lifelong obsession with hacking his health to keep him moving forward.

Now that he’s known and loved worldwide, his life presents other challenges: namely, how to stay committed to the cause even when he can’t preserve a strict routine while traveling all over the globe. It’s a challenge anyone spending time on the road deeply understands, but Holder is intuitive and pragmatic (no surprise) about his approach. “It’s triage, triage, triage, triage. It’s a separate regimen in itself, which really has a goal of ‘let me make sure I don’t fall off completely.’ Think about how not to allow things to get worse or super bad — what are the practices that you could do that will just make sense?” he asks. Hydration is key, of course, and a little planning goes a long way: Pick a hotel that has gym amenities and a sauna, pin healthy restaurants in a new city on Google Maps, buy groceries for your room’s mini fridge, take public transportation and walk as much as possible, load up on supplements and calming teas, and stick to a sunrise stretching routine to ease into new time zones. “A lot of it is just small strategizing,” he says.

That is, in the end, what’s so refreshing about Holder’s approach to health and fitness — there’s no magic formula that promises you perfection, no ultimate end stage when you can sit back and bask in just how in shape you are. Instead, Holder believes health is a state of mind, an ongoing process rather than a goal to achieve. He’s simply trying to get us to be more aware of the world around us, to be conscious enough to make little decisions all day, every day, that lead to a more wholesome existence. “A lot of that is just about being present. With all the things that we’re bombarded with, the only thing really that I have is what’s right in front of us,” he says, sounding every bit the seasoned Zen master. “Active body, still mind. It feels good once you’ve unlocked that.”

Joe Holder's Travel Tips for Hacking Your Health on the Road

  • Bring equipment

    I have a kit always set up, packed, and ready to go because I travel a lot. I typically have resistance bands and a jump rope. I have a Hypervolt Go, a little massage gun, which helps me so much because I just sit and watch TV and massage my muscles either at night or in the morning.

  • Think ahead

    There’ll be expensive hotels that don’t actually have what you need. The gym may not have a spa or a sauna. Research hotels that would either end up being a better deal or be around the same price and have what you need. Ask about a small refrigerator in your room to use for food you buy from the healthy grocery store you researched, so that when you’re in a time crunch and need to eat, you won’t make bad decisions.

  • Take sleep seriously

    What I’ve seen that has helped is taking L-Tryptophan, vitamin B6, and 5-HTP in the morning and possibly a little bit of calcium, which will end up later improving your melatonin production and building what’s essentially called your sleep pressure. Work out earlier in the day, and do something a little bit more low intensity at night. Make a nice stretch routine. Stay away from artificial light. Go see the sunset so that it changes your body clock.

  • Sip tea and take supplements

    I travel with three different teas: an energy tea, a digestion tea, and a nighttime-sleep tea. The digestion tea is especially helpful when traveling across time zones because circadian rhythms get thrown off. At night, maybe it’s a little passionflower or lemon balm tea. I have a few supplements here and there that help me. Just basic ones, one for immunity and just a simple vitamin C.

  • Get shady

    I don’t do it to look like a jerk, but if I’m traveling and it’s night and everything is bright, as soon as I get in that airport and it’s after sunset, I have shades on — and I’m not taking them off. It helped my sleep so much. Anna Wintour has it right.

  • Bring equipment

    I have a kit always set up, packed, and ready to go because I travel a lot. I typically have resistance bands and a jump rope. I have a Hypervolt Go, a little massage gun, which helps me so much because I just sit and watch TV and massage my muscles either at night or in the morning.

  • Sip tea and take supplements

    I travel with three different teas: an energy tea, a digestion tea, and a nighttime-sleep tea. The digestion tea is especially helpful when traveling across time zones because circadian rhythms get thrown off. At night, maybe it’s a little passionflower or lemon balm tea. I have a few supplements here and there that help me. Just basic ones, one for immunity and just a simple vitamin C.

  • Think ahead

    There’ll be expensive hotels that don’t actually have what you need. The gym may not have a spa or a sauna. Research hotels that would either end up being a better deal or be around the same price and have what you need. Ask about a small refrigerator in your room to use for food you buy from the healthy grocery store you researched, so that when you’re in a time crunch and need to eat, you won’t make bad decisions.

  • Get shady

    I don’t do it to look like a jerk, but if I’m traveling and it’s night and everything is bright, as soon as I get in that airport and it’s after sunset, I have shades on — and I’m not taking them off. It helped my sleep so much. Anna Wintour has it right.

  • Take sleep seriously

    What I’ve seen that has helped is taking L-Tryptophan, vitamin B6, and 5-HTP in the morning and possibly a little bit of calcium, which will end up later improving your melatonin production and building what’s essentially called your sleep pressure. Work out earlier in the day, and do something a little bit more low intensity at night. Make a nice stretch routine. Stay away from artificial light. Go see the sunset so that it changes your body clock.

Our Contributors

Alex Frank Writer

Alex Frank is a contributing editor at Departures. Based in Manhattan, Frank previously worked at Vogue.com as deputy culture editor. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, Pitchfork, New York Magazine, Fantastic Man, and the Village Voice.

Jingyu Lin Photographer

Jingyu Lin (affectionately known as “Jean”) is a photographer based in New York City. She utilizes a dreamy color palette to capture emotive moments in her portraiture. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, she strives to tell stories that reflect her own experiences growing up Asian American.

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