Over the last six years I have tried to answer the question “What is a Healthy Lifestyle?”. The following is a brief summary of what I have learned. By applying what I have learned I am in better condition in my 50s than I was in my 20s.
Sleep At Least 7 Hours
There is ever increasing evidence that sleep is absolutely critical to a mentally and physically healthy life. It is believed healthy adults need between 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night and children require even more sleep. While we don’t yet fully understand all of the ways sleep impacts our health, there are a number of important processes that are primarily activate while you sleep, particularly during the deep, delta wave stage such as:
- Release of human growth hormone which is critical to fighting the effects of aging and repairing damage
- The glymphatic system clears toxins and “trash” from the brain which are likely responsible for Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders.
- Interplay between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex which is critical to long term memory
I experienced the importance of sleep first hand when my body rebelled after a nine month period when I was averaging less than 4 hours of sleep / night. It took years for me to fully recover. I was further convinced of the importance of sleep by the book The Promise of Sleep written by one of the pioneers in sleep research. Since this book was published there have been numerous studies that have strengthened the case for sleep.
Eat Healthy Foods
Lifehacker’s the only three things everybody agrees on is a good starting point when developing a healthy diet. I would elaborate / expand their list slightly
- Eat as many non-starchy vegetables as you can, especially those that have deep colors. The caloric density of these vegetables is small enough that you will not eat too much. The vegetables are packed with health promoting micro nutrients and good quality nutritional building blocks. This will also get your fiber consumption up to an healthy level. Fiber is critical to your micro-biome health.
- Limit or avoid highly processed food including white flour based bread & pasta, food filled with ingredients you can’t pronounce, and fruit juices. A combined Stanford and NIH study found that when it come to weight lose, the quality of food was the single most important factor.
- Minimize the sugar in your diet, and eliminate any products that have added sugar. There has been significant evidence since the 1960s that sugar is directly linked to a number of health issues including heart disease.
- Eliminate all “foods” which are high in trans-fats. There is significant evidence that trans-fats have only negative impacts to health.
- If you eat meat, focus on cold water fish and free-range / grass fed animals
- If you need additional calories: eat whole foods which contain resistant starch such as beans, lentils, nuts. Eat fresh fruit in moderation. I believe berries and pomegranates are some of the healthiest fruits. Be aware of what food will make you feel more satiatied.
A great resource for thinking about healthy eating is Reframe Health Lab’s Healthy Eating page which contains links to a short screencast and several resources available on the Internet. It’s worth noting shifting to a mostly plant based diet (eat your vegetables!) is not only good for your health, but for the planet as well because of the inefficiencies of animals converting feed into tissue we eat. For example, cows require at least 8x the amount of feed as we get by consuming them.
Stay Active… Move!
Our bodies are made to move and our brains are made to direct that movement. One of the most natural and health promoting activities is walking. We should walk at least 30 minutes each day, getting a total of 7,500 steps. There is a huge advantage of getting to just 5-7K. rather than they typical sedentary 3K. Ideal would be walking several hours to accumulating 17,000 steps / day. Besides the physical benefits, walking engages our brain, strengthen our creativity, and ability to focus. It’s best if you walk outdoors to get the benefits of movement and the exposure to nature.
Vigorous exercise has many positive impacts. It helps control stress hormones, strengthens the circulatory systems and metabolic systems. It is often recommended that we should engage in at least 30 minutes of physical activities that raise your heart rate to above 80% maximum 3-5 times a week, with 2-3 of these exercise periods to include strength exercises. My personal experience is that sessions of 60 minutes (rather than 30) produce significantly better adaption / results.
Have Strong Social Connections
The Harvard / MassGeneral Adult Development Study started in 1939 has studying the the lives of two cohorts and now their children found that one of the strongest predictors of a healthy (and happy) life was an individual’s quality of social relationships. Researcher Susan Pinker found that the secret to living longer may be your social life due to the correlation between social connections and people who are 100+ years old / live in the “Blue Zones”.
Spend time in Nature
One of the best things you can do for your health and wellness is spend some time outdoors among trees and other sources of natural beauty. USDA&USFS jointly published Health and Wellness Benefits of Spending Time in Nature cites a number of studies which have shown time spent in nature, especially when combined with walking has a significant, positive impact to people’s physical and mental health. The podcast Hidden Brain episode Our Better Nature: How The Great Outdoors Can Improve Your Life covers similar material in greater depth. They found that a three day retreat in a forest made significant improves in a number of bio-markers, and that these improves persistent for several weeks. People who got a three day vacation in a city saw no improvements in their bio-markers.
Thanks to Paul Roy to mentioning that something should be added…
There is a growing body of scientific evidence, not to mention millennia of traditions / wisdom that a intentional mindfulness in the form of meditation or contemplative prayer literally re-wires our brains for the good producing improved physical and mental health. There is stunning imagery from fMRI scans while people practices these disciplines showing changes in the areas of the brain that are activated. Mindfulness can improve empathy and gratitude which in turn leads to more joy in everyday life which results in a significant protective effect to health. Gratitude and joy, unlike happiness are not dependent on external circumstances, but rather are an internal response which we can choose. Though I am not Catholic, I found the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius to be very helpful. A while ago I wrote about how start with the mind and spirit might be the best way to improve the human condition.
Push Beyond Comfort Zone
Humans are the most adaptable species on the planet. Our adaptability comes from our bodies natural ability to physiologically adapt to highly varied conditions as well as our ability to transform the environment we live in. Civilization has favored adapting our environment to provide a “comfortable” experience rather than encouraging people to exercise their physiological adaption “muscles”. I believe we need to periodically move outside our comfort zones so our body doesn’t “get lazy” and adapts to changes. Example of the adaptability we should cultivate:
- High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) produces better performance improvements than more static training in short periods of time.
- Short duration exposure to heat (sauna) and cold (ice baths)
- Periodic fasting reset several human systems and can be an effective treatment for several conditions.
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.I Corinthians 6:19-20