A high-profile paper published earlier this year identified 5 “healthy lifestyle factors” which can have a major impact on health and longevity. By analysing data from the Nurses’ Health Study (78,865 women over 34 years) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (44,354 men over 27 years), they concluded that the adhering to the following 5 behaviours could add up to a decade of extra life expectancy:
- Eat A Healthy Diet
- Maintain A Healthy Bodyweight
- Exercise Regularly
- Minimise Alcohol Consumption
- Don’t Smoke
You can find a good breakdown of the study here on Science Based Medicine.
I’m not going to delve deeply into the findings, after all, they are for the most part pretty much common sense (except perhaps when it comes to actually defining a “healthy diet”).
The only part I find a little odd is the inclusion of “Maintain a Healthy Bodyweight” as a separate “Modifiable Lifestyle Factor” in addition to eating a healthy diet and exercising.
The other four are all actionable behaviours.
You can choose between the apple or the doughnut, the car or the bicycle, the beer or the sparkling water, or whether to light up that cigarette or not.
Bodyweight is in a different category however, as it’s not a behaviour in itself, rather a product of other behaviours (combined with your genetics of course).
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not in the camp that says we should ignore bodyweight altogether. Though of course we should never shame or stigmatise anyone for being overweight, I think it is also important not to normalise it, or pretend that it is not an issue.
I personally argue that gaining excess body fat is a visible warning sign that manifests in lucky individuals that their current eating habits and/or exercise patterns need to be modified.
Bodyweight correlates with health and longevity simply because it often correlates with good diet and exercise. Neither striving for it by other means (e.g. starving oneself, purging, drugs, surgery), nor patting oneself on the back simply because your genetics enable you to stay slim while eating badly and living a sedentary life, help anyone.
So personally, I’d consider cutting “Maintaining a Health Bodyweight” from the list, but aside from that, you can’t really argue with the rest as solid, actionable advice with significant impact.
So by putting a figure of 10 more years on the planet with friends and family if you tick all the boxes this study has done a nice job of quantifying the effect of these behaviors, but eating well, exercising, drinking moderately and not smoking are not exactly breaking news.
I think there are probably very few people gasping in shock and horror upon reading this study while sat on the sofa with a kfc bucket, 12 pack of kestrel superstrength and fag in hand saying, “But I’ve been doing it all wrong, why did nobody tel me!”.
If you’re reading this blog, my bet is that you already do all of these things. Well done. Give yourself a pat on the back.
My thoughts are, however, that there’s still always room for improvement, so this is my list of 5 MORE big impact lifestyle factors that one can consider to help maximise our time (duration and quality) on this little blue dot.
- Sleep / 9 Hours of TDT
- Change Your Mind
Perhaps the most overlooked of the high impact, and relatively low hanging lifestyle fruits.
There is an every growing body of research showing that getting a good night’s rest is incredibly important for both physical and mental wellbeing.
Anecdotally, I’ve found when working with clients, that focusing simply on going to bed earlier often has a domino effect on all other aspects of health. They wake up earlier in the morning and have more time to make a healthy breakfast, and prepare something for lunch. Better rested they have more energy to exercise, and more willpower to resist unhealthy temptations throughout the day.
I have titled this section “Sleep / 9 Hours of TDT”, as rather like bodyweight, sleeping isn’t a behaviour over which you have direct control. That is to say, you can’t make yourself fall asleep or stay asleep at will. If anything, an attempt to do so will have the opposite effect.
What you can do, however, is ensure you get 9 hours of rest in the dark (TDT = Total Dark Time). The Harvard Institute of Healthy Sleep also has 12 sleep hygiene behaviours you can implement that may help you improve your sleep quality during this time.
Bizarrely, however, there is also a fair amount of research that appears to indicate that it is actually “perception of sleep quality” rather than actual sleep quality which is important.
People who believe that they have insomnia/have had a poor night’s sleep (that they take a long time to fall asleep, are awake for long periods during the night, or both) suffer from reduced performance on multiple tasks of concentration as opposed to those who report good sleep. When actual sleep is measured however, there is often little to no correlation between actual sleep patterns and perceived sleep patterns. I.e. there are people who believe they have slept little, feel tired, and perform poorly, but who have actually had a normal night’s sleep, and others who feel fine, perform well, but actually slept a lot less!
Strange findings indeed, from which it’s hard to draw any firm conclusions. My take however, would be that you can be content with 9 hours of TDT. Don’t worry about what proportion of these 9 hours you are actually asleep for; even if you’re lying awake in the dark, your body and mind are still getting a well-earned rest.
Human beings are social animals. We evolved to live in close-knit groups with strong bonds between members. Collaboration, sharing and trust was always essential to our evolutionary success as a species.
I’ve talked before about the famous “Blue Zones” – 5 diverse populations across the world with unusually high concentrations of centenarians (Sardinia – Italy, Okinawa – Japan, Nicoya – Costa Rica, Loma Linda – USA, Ikaria – Greece). Undoubtedly, these communities owe much of their longevity to the First Big 5 Lifestyle Factors, but what gives them that extra edge?
Though culturally, each zone is very different, they all share in common extremely strong senses social networks, with very tight bonds between both family members, and other members of the community.
Sadly, this is something that is all too often missing from modern society. Though most of us now live in incredibly densely populated cities with millions of others, more people than ever a feeling lonely and isolated. We (as a species) are doing an amazing job at reducing deaths from malnutrition, disease, violence, pollution and accidents, so it’s a very sad statistic that suicide rates have been steadily rising over the recent decades.
I am an atheist, and strongly believe that a secular world is something we should strive for. That said, I also think it’s important that we recognise that despite their many flaws, religion isn’t all bad. On the contrary, religion can server many useful purposes, for example providing a strong sense of community, moral guidance, and a sense of purpose. I’m not for a second suggesting that religion is necessary for any of these things – Only that as up until now it has been the major source, if we are to dispose of it, we need to put alternatives in place.
The good news is that there are of course already many alternative ways to find yourself a group to which to belong. My top pick would be to join some kind of sports club. This way, you’re going to kill two birds with one stone – you’re ticking the exercise box from the Big 5, plus you’re going to get the social benefits too.
I’m not talking about necessarily taking up a team sport (though that too of course is an option); any physical activity you can think of will probably already have a group in your area you can go along and join. It could be a running club, zumba group, crossfit gym (though I’m no big fan of the training, they nailed it on the community front) – the activity really isn’t important, it’s the community that comes with it. If there are a few options available for your chosen activity, try them all to see which makes you feel the most welcome, which group also meets up for extracurricular activities such as after training drinks and meals together etc.
If you don’t find a group for your favourite activity in your area, start one!
If you’re not sure what activity to try, I’d highly recommend giving Capoeira a try. In addition to being very well-rounded physically, requiring a great balance of endurance, strength, flexibility, balance and agility (I should say “developing”, anyone can start regardless of current fitness levels), community and camaraderie are an integral part of Capoeira.
I find the topic of music deeply fascinating – why do certain frequencies sound harmonious to us? Why does a major scale sound happy, a minor scale sad, even though they’re the same notes in the same order just starting from a different point? Why does rhythm make us want to move and dance?
Though how and why humans evolved to love and make music may remain a mystery, it has become an integral part of who we are, and making it part of your life can pay dividends.
Just listening to music can have many benefits, from improving mood, reducing anxiety, increasing sports performance and more, but to really get the most out of music I strongly believe it’s worth dedicating the time and effort to learning to make music yourself.
There are numerous purported long-term health benefits to learning an instrument. As always, however, possible long-term benefits alone don’t cut it here on Live Now Thrive Later. Fortunately, learning an instrument starts to pay dividends early on. Yes, the beginning can be painful (in all senses of the word), and you may briefly lose popularity in your household from anyone with ears, but as soon as you start to be able to produce sounds vaguely recognisable as music, the sense of achievement and joy is immense.
Learning an instrument is all about the journey, rather than the destination – there is always more to learn, always room for improvement.
Combine with Factor 2 – Community, and start making music with others, and the dividends multiply exponentially. Join a drum circle, or a choir, or learn 3 chords and start a band!
“But I have no musical talent, no rhythm, and I can’t sing” you say? The truth is, anyone can learn to play an instrument, anyone can sing. Without a doubt, some people have more natural ability than others, but everyone can learn to play an instrument to a reasonable level, and everyone can learn to sing in tune.
Musical ability is like athletic ability. Just as not everyone can expect to make it to the Olympics, not everyone is going to make it to Wembley Stadium or the Royal Albert Hall, but this doesn’t stop you from enjoying learning, playing and singing with friends.
Again, I have to plug Capoeira, the fact that it combines physical activity, community and music and singing all in one makes it an incredibly complete pastime (let’s not think about the many “festas” contributing to increased alcohol consumption and sleep loss…).
There are many benefits to living in cities, and I certainly wouldn’t want to give up my house altogether to go live in the forest permanently, but I do think it’s important to recognise that in order to thrive, I believe we need time in the wild.
Let me be honest – I can’t say I’ve ever seen a robust scientific study proving that time in nature has significant effects on health or wellbeing. This page here has many links to numerous studies indicating a multitude of benefits, but as is often the case when there’s no real money to be made, the studies are all small and weak. Where’s Big Forest when you need it?
Like having fun with good friends or playing music however, spending time in nature provides instant joy and stress relief in the moment. If in 40 years it contributes to a better quality of life, a few more years or wards of Alzheimer’s, that’s an added bonus!
Try and get as much time in nature as you possibly can. On a daily basis, this might be just the local park, or even your own back garden. At least once a month try to get a bit further immersed with a weekend away in the countryside.
If you can, once or twice a year really get into the wilderness. Try some through-hiking to really get in touch with your wild side, it’s a powerful experience.
It’s also another great opportunity to find a community – there are plenty of hiking groups out there you can join if you’re not sure where to start.
Eating well, exercising, minimising alcohol consumption, not smoking, sleeping well, having a strong social support network, spending time in nature, and immersing yourself in music are all behaviours that not only have strong evidence of long-term benefits for physical health and mental well-being, but also provide (pretty much) immediate benefits in the here and now.
Sadly, however, there are no guarantees of a long happy life.
The high-profile cases of the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade have brought the topic of suicide into the media spotlight recently.
Perhaps the aforementioned claims of a “suicide epidemic” are to some extent sensationalism – Suicide is creeping up the list of main causes of death, now just into the list of top 10 killers in the US, but this is largely due to decreasing numbers of deaths from other causes. The numbers of people actually taking their own lives has remained pretty stable over the last century. While it is reassuring that the absolute numbers haven’t risen, it is also disappointing that numbers haven’t come down. We’ve done an amazing job at reducing infant mortality, wiping out diseases, reducing murder and accident rates, saving people from terrible injuries and afflictions, so why haven’t we been able to make a dent in suicide?
No doubt, there are a multitude of factors. I’d recommend checking out this episode of the Very Bad Wizards podcast for an interesting discussion on suicide with a Harvard Psychologist who’s an expert on the topic.
I am certainly not an expert on the topic. I mention it only as Anthony Bourdain for example was someone who (as far as we are aware) had health, wealth, success, family – and yet it appears that these alone weren’t enough.
Happiness, well-being, self-esteem, these are all outputs of your own brain. While you can’t control the inputs, perhaps you can exert influence over the outputs?
Is it easier for your brain to output these states if you are healthy, wealthy and successful? Yes, very probably it is, but it’s not guaranteed. Equally, however, there are examples of those who have found peace and joy in the most adverse of circumstances.
“What was once called the objective world is a sort of Rorschach inkblot, into which each culture, each system of science and religion, each type of personality, reads a meaning only remotely derived from the shape and color of the blot itself.”
— Lewis Mumford
By “Change Your Mind” I mean it’s a good idea to constantly question, analyse and reevaluate your beliefs, attitudes, priorities and perceptions.
Personally, I have found great utility from the philosophies of Buddhism and Stoicim, which I have written about before here. I don’t believe they are the be all and end all, I don’t agree with all their ideas, and would strongly recommend reading widely around the topic of philosophy in general, but these two are a great place to start, and there are lots of easily accessible information sources out there on both.
More Than Happiness by Antonia Macaro is a great starting point for an overview of the two schools of thought.