Being and staying healthy is priceless. Too often, we just take it for granted. With all the distractions out there, it’s easy to keep forgetting about our future wellbeing. We often make choices simply because of convenience or impulses. Indulgence and health are not principally at odds with one another. However, we are all the artisans of our own health and the choices we make - even the small ones, add to the larger picture.
We are artisans of our own health
Our modern times have empowered every one of us to take health matters into our own hands. Yet, we are enticed to believe that our doctors, the pharma industry or the medical system will take care of us if anything goes wrong. There will soon be a pill for everything, right?
Quite the opposite may be a solution for the big challenges public health is facing today. The future of health care is less of it. The future of medicine is in disease prevention which means taking measures so that illness doesn’t arise in the first place. Even though it sounds logical, unfortunately, preventive care these days still doesn’t have a strong lobby. A population that suffers from all kinds of chronic ailments is seamingly more profitable and strangely tolerable enough for those in charge in order not to put heavier emphasis on structural and political changes. The dictum in public health still is: why not settle with prescribing a pill everytime something no longer works?
Humans are born to be healthy
In fact, we humans are born to be healthy and chronic disease is something that has come up in our history only recently. We have more power over our individual future than we are made to believe. Freedom from illnesses is absolutely a possibility which can be achieved through diet, mindset and lifestyle. It's our true human baseline. A proper attitude towards everyday choices can make the difference between having to deal with disabilities or living up to old age virtually without illness at all.
What’s a healthy lifestyle?
However, with all the gurus, trends and latest fads out there, it can get quite overwhelming. What are healty lifestyle choices, in the first place? What and whom can we trust? Do we need anyone telling us how to live our lives, anyway? Within all the noise, what’s a proven guide to living a health-conscious life? And what’s a healthy life, after all?
There are obvious conflicts within what is generally considered „healthy“ in diet, fitness and lifestyle. Let’s take running as an example. Going for a jog surely sounds a like healthy choice: it’s an easy and convenient sport to start and seemingly everybody does it these days. So it’s most likely a good thing, isn’t it? And if it is good for your health, than more running - maybe even up to the extend of a marathon - will perhaps be even better. However, recent scientific evidence suggests that running less and slower may be the key to better health. Running is technically harder and more demanding, not only on joints and tendons, than many people think. It requires proper form and preparedness that many inexperienced joggers lack. While running sounds dedicated and focussed, walking might just be the way to go for most of us. It’s the original human movement that many of us indoor dwellers are constantly forgetting about. There is no reason not to integrate it into your training even if you already work out regularly and consider yourself fit. Walking may be the one key ingredient in a workout regime that can help you push training plateaus, reach fat loss goals and achieve better recovery. There hardly is any better recommendation one could give to improve upon numerous health markers - from boosting your intelligence to increasing your lifespan - than walking. In terms of health improvement, take it over running anytime.
But then there is the curious case of enjoyment and having fun. If running as a sport may shorten your overall lifespan in statistics but if it makes you a happier person in the end - aren’t you personally better off doing it against the scientific evidence? Isn’t happiness a key marker for longevity? Recent evidence has questioned this notion, but I still strongly believe so.
Where is your health bias?
If someone wants to give you advice on how to live healthy, better ask him where she stands, first. As your health advisor, which key outcome does she aim for? Does she value happiness over longevity goals? Does she allow for compromises? What is her health bias?
The final word on what’s the healthiest way of living will most likely never be spoken. For example, you could try to emulate a lifestyle from one of the Blue Zones - where people have a higher chance to live happier, more fulfilled and medically healthier till age 100 than anywhere else in the world - only to find out that the lifestyles of another Blue Zone differs highly from the other.
Apparently, there are different ways to being your healthiest self. Yet, there are probably patterns that you can learn from.
Naively, my own bias is in favor of a rose-colored ideal where people grow very old, keep their fullest capacities for the longest duration possible, live slowly, have a purpose and don’t regret the choices they made. One day, you simply drop dead, bypassing the ailments and end-of-life realities of the 21st century like intensive care and chemotherapy.
Most of those who live to a hundred probably haven’t given too many conscious thoughts about longevity in the first place. Most likely, they follow an intuitive route towards health that occupies little time and effort.
Probably, your best bet on living healthy is to follow the pattern of life that nature has laid out for human beings and that has withstood the tests of evolution. There is a community within medicine that focusses on our ancestral heritage and that tries to learn about health from where we have come from.
The notion is that, strangely, we have managed to alter our present day world, so that it longer produces the healthiest versions of Homo sapiens.
What you can do
Below you’ll find a few of my everyday suggestions to improve upon your wellbeing. Try them for yourself and see whether they work for you. As easy as most of them sound, they are a challenge to put into daily pratice. A strong focus on diet and lifestyle choices has propelled me personally forward on numerous levels. Yet, I am still constantly learning and tweaking my own habits along the way. More often than not, I struggle to follow all of the suggestions consistently. However, health is all about the journey and less about the destination. It’s ok to fail from time to time and - as so often - just getting started makes all the difference. At least, it will make you more aware and more mindful. This can foster habit change which is one of the fundamental pillars of longterm health.
- Give up on intensively processed foods. Question everything that comes in a package. If it needs a label for all the additives, added sugars, artificial (and natural) flavorings that industry has put into it, it’s not for eating. Make unaltered real whole foods a lifelong, non-negotiable commitment.
- Don’t eat GMO and non-organic produce. Even if it doesn’t come in a foil wrapper but only it’s natural skin, still give a thought to what’s on your plate. The health consequences to Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO) are yet to be fully understood. Consuming GMO may have deleterious health effects, most of which we are only uncovering right now. Foods may also be problematic due to the amounts of toxins, pesticides and antibiotics they have been exposed to. Try your best to minimize your exposure towards these pollutants by buying seasonal, locally grown, pasture-raised and organic whenever possible.
- Live less clean. Now that’s unconventional. Isn’t sanitation one of the great achievements of man over nature? Aren’t disinfectants and antibiotics saving countless lives on a daily basis? Don’t we have to gear up against bacteria and viruses? As great an achievement as antibiotics and our ways to kill germs are, they also pose new and potentially undiscovered problems to our health. If you look more closely at the matter, we as humans and the earth is general belongs primarily to microorganisms. In fact, there are more than 10 times more bacteria on your body (and in your gut) than actual human cells. The energy generators within our cells that sustain all human live called mitochondria are also derived from ancient bacteria. Bacteria probably dictate more of the ways we behave and feel than we are comfortable with. At least, consider our relationship with the majority of germs symbiotic rather than hostile. Instead of fearing them, get in touch with them and pay some respect. Maybe it’s perfectly fine to get your food a little dirty, play in the mud and not take an antibiotic with each sneeze.
- Turn off artificial lights. As a human being, we are a highly sensitive light receptor in the true sense. Our body’s internal clock, which is essential for the body’s proper metabolic and hormonal functioning, is aligns itself with nature via our exposure to daylight. Receptors in our eyes, our skin and our blood recognize light and thereby convey powerful biological messages into our system. Today, we are flooded by the beams of artifical light sources that were never part of human evolution. Before the dawn of the industrialization, there was just the sun and fire and it’s been like that for aeons of human development. As research suggests, the amount of our yearly exposure towards artificial light sources like TV and smartphone screens is growing. It turns out that artificial light has a strong impact on all kinds of systems within the human body. The reason for your mood swings (or your belly fat that just won’t go away) may be your impaired quality of sleep. Sleep just so happens to be derailed by the blue-light blasting tablet screen which you gaze into each night before bedtime to check Twitter and Facebook. If you want to experience a strong change to your sleep quality - and thereby to your overall happiness, mental clarity and productivity, literally try waking up with the chickens and winding down to bedtime once the sun has set.
- Hide less behind walls. Over the last century, we have succeeded in building ever growing walls around us. These walls shut us off from our intended connectedness with nature. We live our lives in big cities that lack spaces of green. We spend most of our days inside buildings, crouched into chairs. We avoid sunlight because we have been told it’s bad for our skin. And not the least, we don’t want to get to know our neighbors because who knows what they are up to. You can greatly improve your health if you make an effort to tear down these modern day walls. Take walks in the forest. There is a whole science behind the beneficial effects of being out there in the greens. It’s called shinrin yoku and it demonstrates that even short forest walks can have numerous impacts on things as far reaching as immune cell response to pathogens. Get out in the sun. It doesn’t have to be long. This helps you produce vitamin D which is essential and a key nutrient for a long life in good shape. Be social, make contacts and allow close ones more intimate access to your emotions.
- Vary your training routines. The tide is changing in personal fitness. For many people, classic gyms with running machines, crosstrainers and dedicated training apparatuses have lost their appeal. I believe that’s a good thing. We are meant to enjoy movement in a broad variety, unlimited by the boundaries of this or that machine. Movement is how we are supposed to live and it’s grounded in variability and playfulness. Becoming fit is about challenging yourself in a fun way. It’s about becoming an allrounder and attempting yourself at many things. It’s about trying something new. Training is supposed to be a preparation for what we face in everyday life. Deadlifts and overhead presses for example, will get you prepared for the day you have to lift your grandchildren to your shoulders. Make your training more fun. Ditch the chronic cardio like jogging, indoor cycling or machine running. If you really want a strong heart and get jagged, use a kettlebell for short and simple high-intensity workouts and maybe season your training with a bit of a sprint session once a week.
- Balance out everyday distressors. Stress is an important factor for humans in becoming stronger and more adapted to our environment. All kinds of stress, even those like injury or pain, are to a certain degree a beneficial thing - if they can be counterbalanced and turned off again. The problem with stressors these days is that too many of them tend to become cumulative and chronic. All kinds of different stressors are ever present in our daily lives and they drain our resources and overwhelm our systems. This is why it’s more appropriate to call these distressors. Distressors won’t help you grow, but put your wellbeing at risk if you don’t succeed in keeping them in check. Distressors come in all shades and varities. They can be physical, mental, environmental, financial, social - you name it. Speaking in medical terms, distressors are closely linked to inflammation which is a vital part of our body’s defense mechanisms. Inflammation is essential for us humans as long as we have enough off-switches in function to keep it at bay. The amount of distressors that we face in our lives easily adds up and has an inherent tendency to grow out of hand. This is why we have to make a conscious effort to cut back on common distressors. Even small changes can make an impact.
- Stop ruminating. Stop all that thinking and constant worrying. Not knowning all the answers where life will lead you is perfectly normal. Only through the rhythm of life of trying, of falling down and of failing, can we find true purpose. Give your mind a break once in a while and focus on being present. Just let your thoughts come and go without clinging onto them and getting dragged around by them. Practice mindfulness and meditation. (There are great apps out there that can help you get started. The one I use is called Headspace.) Don’t have doubts about the future and don’t regret your past.
If you get into any of those suggestions, let me know what they work out for you!