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  • Writer's pictureDave Balzer

My 10 Favorite Books for Health, Healing, and Performance

A little over 5 years ago I graduated Physical Therapy school and began my clinical career. The first week, and the many following weeks/months, were challenging and eye-opening. So much to learn in what felt like so little time. After finishing patient care that first week I still remember closing my laptop and turning to my co-worker/mentor at that time and asking him "how can I improve my clinical skills... and FAST!?".

His response was surprising and I don't think I was fully bought-in to his recommendation at that time. In fact, I can remember being somewhat discouraged. I was hoping he would recommend some fancy continuing education courses that would save me from my feelings of inadequacy. Instead, he said one simple word... "READ". He then repeated that word three times "read, read, read... find topics you are interested in or problems you identify in patient-care and explore them". Sure, he ended up recommending a few courses eventually as I kept pushing for the response I had hoped for, and I took those classes and enjoyed them, but over the past 5 years nothing has been more powerful for myself personally and my clinical practice than reading. I am not downplaying the impact continuing education courses can have, I have attended many amazing courses, but he was 100% correct... reading can be a superpower.

This superpower is something I saw on a daily basis growing up in a family of book lovers. In fact, large chunks of my childhood was spent in a library or bookstore as my mom was a schoolteacher and librarian. Yet, I still neglected this superpower for periods in my life (my brothers will agree with this as they were always the bigger readers). Over the past few weeks I took time to reflect on this growth and wanted to share with you some of my favorite books from the past five years - both personal and clinical growth in health, healing, and performance. Also, be sure to check out my full recommended Book List.

10 Books Recommended for Health, Healing, Growth, and Performance

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk

This is the book I gift most frequently to my clients. I truly feel it should be required reading for any healthcare clinician. I sometimes joke this book would make for much more impactful "high school summer reading" than Grapes of Wrath or Tale of Two Cities. Joking aside though, if everyone did take the time to read this book, I feel the world would be a much better place. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk does an amazing job of discussing "Big T - Trauma" and "little t - trauma", and how it reshapes our body and brain. Chronic pain, stress, and dysfunction compromises the sufferer's capacity to heal, feel pleasure, self control, engage with others, and carry on a productive life. Through the concept of neuroplasticity van der Kolk describes many powerful treatment techniques to "bring the body back on-line with the self and the world around it" (biofeedback, polyvagal theory, mindfulness, yoga, EMDR meditation, somatic tracking, talk therapy, etc). As the title states... the body always keeps the score, yet as the book summarizes the best way to heal is through the body. This book is by far my most recommended book to ALL readers!

Deep Nutrition by Catherine Shanahan

I've read a ton of nutrition books over the past 5 years and Dr. Catherine Shanahan's book is easily at the top of the list for discussing diet and nutrition. There's no sales pitch of keto, vegan, or carnivore in this book. Just good old fashioned quality nutrition! She explores the research of Weston A. Price, a dentist, who in the 1930's made significant strides in showing nutrition directly impacting dental health, but also how nutritional deficiencies stemming from industrialized cultures being the cause of poor health and disease. She also discusses the diets of those living in the Blue Zones and what we can learn from them in regards to longevity. This book does a great job of showing the reader the negative impacts of ultraprocessed foods, while demonstrating the benefits of following her "Human Diet" - fresh whole food, fermented and sprouted foods, meat cooked on the bone, and organ meats. I love her explanation of food being more than just a calorie, it is sensory information directing our body to heal, grow, and perform. A quick quote from the book description, "Our family history does not determine our destiny: what you eat and how you live can alter your DNA in ways that affect your health and the health of your future children."

BONUS Book: Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Weston A. Price

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I think I went through 2-3 highlighters while reading this book. So many great quotes and insights on life, adversity, leadership, integrity, spirituality, balance, interacting with others, resolving conflict... I could go on and on. It has everything in it! If you are interested in Stoic Philosophy this is a great book to start with. In fact, I leave this book on my desk and will often just open it to a random chapter and read a page or two. Quick, easy, and always insightful. I also found it interesting how this book directly impacted my ability to truly listen while interacting with clients. If you're looking for a more modern day take on Stoicism I would also recommend Ryan Holiday's work.

BONUS Book: The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

When the Body Says No by Gabor Mate

Similar to The Body Keeps the Score, this book can drastically change and possibly save lives. It's that impactful for those suffering from or treating chronic disease, addiction, or trauma. The theme of the book follows the impact of the mind-body connection (stress, anxiety, fear, and emotional dysregulation) on chronic disease and healing. Dr. Gabor Mate does an incredible job of weaving anecdotal case studies with researched based clinical treatments. His thesis is that nearly all chronic disease, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, IBS, lupus, ALS, etc, have an underlying hidden stress component. And from my clinical experience I certainly think there is significant truth to this thesis. My favorite quote from the book... "Emotional competence requires the capacity to feel our emotions, so that we are aware when we are experiencing stress; the ability to express our emotions effectively and thereby to assert our needs and to maintain the integrity of our emotional boundaries; the facility to distinguish between psychological reactions that are pertinent to the present situation and those that represent residue from the past."

Comfort Crisis by Michael Easter

This book exceeds its goal of analyzing a major crisis in modern day society... comfort. The current state of the modern world is hyperfocused on making life comfortable. Which I would agree, at times, comfort can be fantastic. I enjoy not having to print out directions on Yahoo Maps in order to drive places and it's truly amazing to be able to Facetime my nephews from across the country, but as this book proves there are many downsides to always trying to make life easier. The author, Michael Easter, argues these major improvements in comfort may be negatively impacting our mental and physical health. I completely agree! Technology is adapting at a speed with which our physiology cannot keep up and what I love about this book is he also offers up a solution to this "crisis of comfort"... small doses of discomfort. I often talk with my clients about the concept of "hormesis" which is defined as a low dose physiological, psychological, or environmental stress that leads to a favorable outcome for the body. Simply put, this is the the body's "adversity gene"... or to some degree "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger". I like to call it Type 2 Fun. So get comfortable being uncomfortable! This book was by far my favorite book from 2021.

Dr. John Sarno pioneered a new approach to treating musculoskeletal conditions, specifically back pain, focusing on lifestyle behavior change, addressing repressed emotions, and establishing a movement practice. "Back pain" has been the leading cause for disability in the United States for decades, yet even with all our advances in medicine and technology this issue has only persisted. Dr. Sarno argues the reductionist approach of imaging, medications, and surgery only treat a portion of the systemic problem and in many cases make the situation worse. Dr. Sarno's work was initially very controversial as it discussed the psychosomatic component to musculoskeletal dysfunction, but over the years it has become clear his treatment approach can be effective. You may be noticing a theme with many of the books on this list... the body is very complex and the stressors (both good and bad) we place on the body play a role in the function of our immune system, musculoskeletal system, and nervous system.

Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink

I can still remember exactly where I was when I first listened to Jocko Willink on the Tim Ferriss Show podcast in 2017 (nowhere special actually - just driving through the desert south of Phoenix). I know, very anti-climatic, but this shows how influential Jocko's leadership and approach to life can be on people. Jocko is a former Navy SEAL and led multiple SEAL deployments in the Iraq War. His book is not just an exploration of leadership through war stories. It provides actionable ways to implement more discipline and ownership in your daily life. I even noticed this book had a huge effect on my clinical practice as it showed me the necessity of making sure clients have a sense of control over their healing and performance. This self actualization helps them realize they are the one creating the positive change, and in turn see their capacity to self-heal and gain autonomy over their life... or as Jocko says EXTREME OWNERSHIP!

Explain Pain by David Butler and Lorimer Moseley

David Butler and Lorimer Moseley are considered the premier physiotherapists in regards to treating persistent pain. They also have a special skill for educating patients and clinicians on what pain is, why it hurts, and new approaches to address it. Pain is extremely complex. Tissue damage doesn't always lead to pain and pain doesn't always mean tissue damage (reread that!). The old school Cartesian approach of separating the brain and body only set the medical world back. The short video titled Tame The Beast by Lorimer Moseley is a great starting point if you are looking to gain a better understanding of what pain truly is. I also highly recommend checking out my Resources page which has many other quick videos focused on reframing pain. In order to heal pain we must understand pain processing... KNOW PAIN --> KNOW GAINS!

Bonus book for clinicians - Explain Pain Supercharged

Neuroplasticity - the body's superpower! What is it? Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to form and reorganize connections, especially in response to focused learning, new experiences, or following injury. I personally think neuroplasticity is the coolest thing about the human body. For centuries scientists believed the brain was only moldable early in life and even during that stage still fairly static. In the book, Dr. Norman Doidge explores the new science of neuroplasticity, coining the term, "neurons that fire together, wire together". I am lucky to see the miracle of neuroplasticity at work on a daily basis with the many neurological conditions I treat. So if you are looking to experience or gain insight into the world of neurorehabilitation, please give this book a read. And be sure to check out his other NYT best-selling book The Brain's Way of Healing.

Dopamine Nation by Anna Lembke

I mentioned above how I think neuroplasticity is the coolest thing about the human body. Well the coolest (and scariest) molecule in the body may be dopamine as it is one of the main drivers is promoting neuroplasticity. But, as Dr. Anna Lembke explains in the book, dopamine is not just all fun and games. It has a dark side as well. Dopamine is a delicate teeter-totter of pleasure and pain. This is evolutionarily necessary for out species, but in today's hyperconnected society it can reap havoc on our dopamine... opioids, alcohol, gambling, sex, shopping, scrolling, gaming, tweeting, tik-toking, facebooking, etc. She even describes the smartphone as the "modern day hyperdermic needle providing nonstop dopamine". Repeatedly pushing this metaphorical pleasure/pain teeter-totter in one direction leads to it tanking, creating a chronic dopamine deficit state (aka depression, anxiety, fear). If you are interested in learning more about managing your dopamine teeter-totter give this amazing book by the brilliant Dr. Anna Lembke a read. (And if this book gives your dopamine a rush to learn more about dopamine, be sure to check out the book Molecule of More)



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