What you should know (Part 1)…

I’ve been wanting to write today’s post for some time (and eventually turn it into a book). Over the years, through a lot of time in academia and private practice, I’ve picked up some great, evidence-based tips for being an effective, healthy person. Some of them are really obvious, and some less so, but I thought I’d try and get some of them down today.

Let’s start with the basic stuff, and look at the things affecting your physical and psychological health. Assuming you don’t fall victim to a nasty disease, have an accident, or other trauma, your physical and psychological health is largely dependent on your diet, your hygiene, your physical activity, your sleep, your interactions with other people, whether you do something to deal with stress, how much fun you have, and whether you feel you have any purpose or meaning in your life (yup, that’s pretty much it).

So, diet and hygiene. You probably know this already, but here’s some things that you should pay attention to if you’re not already. Stop eating lots of sugar, reduce your caffeine and alcohol intake, eat less meat, and wash your hands (a lot). The first three should be pretty obvious. Refined sugars (including sucrose, fructose and glucose) are fine (and delicious), but we consume far too much of them. Overdo it and eventually your risk of Type II diabetes goes up (along with your girth). Remember that if it tastes good, there’s probably sugar in it, and just because it has the word smoothie in front of it, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Similarly, caffeine is awesome (my drug of choice), but it does some unpleasant things to your heart and brain over about three cups of coffee a day (and be particularly wary of ‘energy’ drinks that combine stupid caffeine doses with large amounts of refined sugars). Alcohol should go without saying, but again, the worst way to drink it is in spirits and in binge sessions (oops). Any health effects from glass a day are removed when you have more than three standard drinks in any given drinking bout. Meat consumption more than three days a week, and especially red meat and processed meats, is probably the best way to give yourself bowel cancer.  Last, get into the habit of washing your hands thoroughly as often as you can. Do you get sick a lot (especially if you work in an office or large organisation or catch public transport)? Wash your hands more. It’s the easiest way of reducing your exposure to pathogens.

OK, now for the more interesting bits.

We’ve all been told that exercise is good for us, but few of us have any information on how (or even why) we should exercise. Here’s some stuff you should know. First, what most of us consider to be ageing (i.e., getting slower, getting weaker, loss of cognitive function, etc.) is actually called Type II ageing. Type I is the stuff you can’t (at this stage) do much about and involves progressive and cumulative damage to your DNA. Type II ageing, on the other hand, usually comes from a lack of physical activity. Most people stop exercising in their 20’s, and by their 40’s are substantially out of shape. Track that person to his 70’s and there’s been 40+ years of physical inactivity. So, apart from maintaining a healthy weight and cardiovascular system, here’s what regular exercise will do for you:

1) It will keep your brain functioning. Forget about ‘brain training’ programs. The one activity that enhances cognitive function throughout life is regular exercise.
2) It will provide bone, joint and muscular integrity. Falls and breaks are a part of Type II ageing. Regular exercise increases bone density, increases joint mobility and function, and keeps the supporting muscles strong. It also improves proprioception, increasing balance.
3) It maintains mitochondrial function. As we age, the mitochondria in our cells are less able to provide energy. Exercise (endurance and weight-bearing) can regenerate mitochondria in aged muscle (here and here).
4) Exercise reduces the risk of pretty much every disease. This includes heart disease, many cancers (including bowel and prostate), diabetes and, interestingly, infectious diseases (because of its positive effect on immune function).
5) Exercise increases psychological wellbeing and is associated with a substantial reduction in depression and anxiety. In fact, regular exercise is more effective than anti-depressant medications over the medium and long-term (>6 months).

But, here’s the kicker. You will get the most benefit from exercise using the following guidelines:

1) Make it fun. The psychological benefits from exercise vanish when you’re not engaging in exercise voluntarily, or not enjoying yourself. Slogging away on a treadmill to work off cake might have some physiological advantages  but it won’t give you any psychological benefit. Likewise, the best positive mood effects from exercise occur at a moderate intensity (Goldilocks exercise – not too easy, not too hard), and alongside an activity that requires some skill (again the treadmill is looking like a poor option). Ideally, find something that allows for a challenge/skills balance – just hard enough to challenge you, without being scary, and that allows for skills progression (so you can improve over time).
2) Long endurance exercise sessions are only useful if you’re training for long endurance events. Otherwise, you’ll get a lot more benefit from short, high-intensity bursts (HIT).
3) You should be physically active every day, but only need three medium to high-intensity sessions per week.
4) You must vary your exercise routine. Doing the same run every time will mean you plateau rapidly, reducing any increasing benefit.
5) Exercise is more psychologically rewarding when done with other people. As well, anything that makes exercise more interesting will make it more likely that you’ll do it more often.
6) Outdoor-based exercise (preferably somewhere green) is substantially better for you. We’re not sure why, but people who exercise outdoors get more psychological benefits (including increased mood, greater motivation, and reduced anxiety) and even physiological benefits (like lowered blood pressure and reduced circulating cortisol).

OK, let’s keep going. Sleep – it’s really important, and most of us either don’t get nearly enough of it, or the sleep we do get is of poor quality. Human adults need, on average, eight hours of sleep a night to function properly. Sleep occurs in five stages or cycles repeated throughout the night. Stage 1 and 2 sleep are the early phases, where we can be easily woken. Stage 3 sleep is the intermediate, leading to Stage 4 where the body repairs itself through the release of human growth hormone (among other things). Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, is the dreaming phase, in which the brain encodes information from the previous day. When our sleep is interrupted (noise, snoring partner, too much light, not enough..), we tend not to get enough Stage 4 or REM sleep resulting (initially) in crankiness and irritability, followed by reduced immune response, poor coping, heightened stress response, poor memory, and a higher propensity for injury or accident. Taking sleeping pills also suppresses Stage 4 and REM sleep (bad idea in the long term).

You can enhance your sleeping by:

1) Getting plenty of regular exercise, but not within a few hours of sleep.
2) Going to bed and getting up at approximately the same time every day. Staying up and sleeping in on the weekends just makes you jetlagged on Monday morning.
3) Try to limit outside distractions like noise and light. Ear plugs and eye shades can be very effective (but make sure your alarm can still wake you up).
4) Watch your caffeine intake, and try not to eat for at least three hours prior to sleeping.
5) If you’re struggling to get to sleep, or wake up during the night, try a mindfulness and relaxation exercise (I’ll go through these next week).

Right, that takes us halfway. This was the obvious stuff. Next week, I’ll have a go at the not so obvious (but equally important) stuff. All up, I’m hoping to put together a recipe for being a healthy human being. As per usual, feedback is always appreciated!

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