February 16, 2020
I was told of a doctor who once complained that he could cure 99% of the patients who came to see him if they would only be willing to change their diet, change their lifestyle and get exercise. However, that is not what his patients were seeking. They wanted him to give them a pill that would help them continue with their current diet, lifestyle and lack of exercise. This doctor felt his job devolved to simply providing prescriptions, while true healing required his patients to do the work, not him.
This little anecdote led me to develop a personal map to well-being that includes these 3 main domains, each of which comprises 3 sub-parts. At the top level is
While reducing the complex topic of health to 9 subcategories is simplistic, I have personally found the process valuable and effective. It is worth delving deeper into each domain.
- Avoid sugar
- Reduce meat
- Eat less
1.1) Sugar is one of the several dangerous white powders that exist in our society. From talc to cocaine, white powders seem to be bad for us. It is not news that sugar is bad. It hacks into our brain’s circuitry and drives us to make bad choices. Any product that has added or concentrated sugar is not good. Unfortunately, sugar masquerades under many innocent sounding names. Natural occurring sugars as found in fruits are okay but avoid fruit juices, any soda pop, processed foods, etc. (It is even added to most breads!) Read labels. Problems due to added sugar range from heart disease to diabetes. What we do once in a while is rarely fatal (having a slice of pumpkin pie at Christmas is not a problem); it is what we do regularly that causes issues. Avoid consuming sugar every day of every week. Leave the occasional taste to be a rare luxury!
1.2) Reduce meat, and this includes dairy. Eat more plants. While we are omnivores and can eat meat, we have not evolved to be big meat eaters. Look at our teeth: there are no sharp, ripping incisors like predators have. We have grinding teeth, like vegetarian animals. We have no claws but do have a long large intestine and many other adaptations to eating plants. With the exception of vitamin B12, which you should use supplements to get, beware of myths that say we must eat meat to get enough proteins. Where do you think our food animals get their proteins? From plants! (Reducing your consumption of meet will also help the planet’s environment enormously!) To review a lot of the science showing the benefits of increasing plants in your diet, visit NutritionFacts.org. I am not saying, “never eat meat”, but rather reduce. You do not need meat daily to be healthy, but you can eat it occasionally if desired.
1.3) Eat less. One of the ways gerontologists (scientists who study aging) agree we can improve our healthspan (which is living longer without the morbidities of aging) is to restrict calories. This simple act has been shown to work in countless animal studies and recently indications have shown it to be effective with humans too. (Check out the work of scientists like David Sinclair.) A simple way to achieve this is through intermittent fasting. Only eat during a 4 to 8 hour window each day, fasting for the remaining 16 – 20 hours. One study found that fasting only 13 hours a day reduced breast cancer mortality by 21%. Personally, my normal routine is to finish dinner by 6 pm and delay breakfast until after 10 am, which is a 16-hour fast. Many scientists, like David Sinclair, prefer to forgo breakfast altogether. (No, breakfast is not the most important meal of the day! Feel guilt-free to skip it.)
- Build strength,
- Improve endurance
- Develop and maintain mobility.
2.1) Strength training has so many benefits. We lose muscle mass as we age. It starts slowly once we hit 30, but picks up steam after that. A lack of muscle strength is linked to functional disability, falls, decreased bone density, glucose intolerance, and heat and cold intolerance in older adults. Curiously, calorie reduction has been shown to slow down the loss of muscle mass. To regain strength, working out with weights (resistance exercise training) not only helps to rebuild muscle mass, it generates a host of other benefits, from increasing growth hormones that can help the whole body to improved nervous system function. My routine is to do push-ups, handstands, pull-ups and swing kettle bells twice a week. Another two times a week, I work on core strengthening.
2.2) Endurance training basically means, get your heart pumping. Work up a little sweat. (It is good to be hot sometimes and it is good to be cold sometimes. Get uncomfortable once in a while and that includes breathing hard.) Endurance training not only improves metabolism and cardiovascular health but it has a systemic benefit on the whole body. While the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends adults aged 18–64 years get 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week (or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity) even lower amounts have been shown to be helpful. Go for bouts of heart pumping exercises of at least 10 minutes at a time. More is better, as long as you don’t go crazy, but the biggest benefits come from the effort at the start of your workout. Walk briskly, run sprints, climb stairs. You don’t have to run a mile or a marathon. Do whatever elevates your heart rate. I like to do sprints or climb stairs for 20 ~ 30 minutes twice a week. When that is not possible, I ride a bike machine for 30 minutes.
2.3) Mobility training becomes more important as we age because when we don’t use it, we naturally lose it. Motion is the lotion of life. While flexibility can be defined as one’s range of motion, mobility is one’s ease of motion. Both flexibility and coordination is important. Yin Yoga can help maintain or regain range of motion as we age, while yang forms of yoga such as the Golden Seed or Mini-Sun Salutations can keep or develop coordination. Simply sitting down on the floor and rising back up multiple times a day can be therapeutic. Personally, I like to do my Yin Yoga practice after my strength training or endurance training sessions. At least twice a week, however, I do a more vigorous, yang yoga practice.
- Work with passion
- Sleep well
- Meditate regularly
3.1) Stress is not good or bad per se; it depends upon the type of stress. Eustress is good stress, which helps us grow, but habitual distress becomes debilitating. Knowing this, it makes sense to develop a lifestyle to increase eustress while decreasing distress. Work with passion to increases your eustress. Work is stressful, but if you love your work, your work will be fulfilling and healing—eustress. There is no need to retire if you love what you do. It won’t feel like work; it will feel like you are getting paid to do what you love. Long ago the Buddha warned us to avoid jobs that deal with arrows, intoxicants or poisons. Choose an occupation that brings you joy and does not cause harm to others.
3.2) Sleep is yin to the rest of the day’s yang. It is essential, but often we cheat on it. Getting 8 hours of sleep is important for both mental and physical health, and most people know this. (One hundred years ago, the average adult was getting 9 hours of sleep!) What most people don’t know is that lying in bed for 8 hours a night is not the same as getting 8 hours of sleep. We are awake quite often during the night, usually without noticing. To get 8 hours of sleep we may have to be in bed for 9 hours. Also, not everyone can get by with just 8 hours; some need much more. Additionally, most of our sleep is light. The refreshing aspects of sleep occur during deep sleep and REM sleep. Dreaming is important. To improve your sleep, develop good sleep hygiene. Set standard times to go to bed (10 pm) and rise (7 am). Avoid stimulants later in the day (both ingested like alcohol or caffeine and environmental, like bright lights and computer screens at night.) And, one final tip, be a little bit cold when you get into bed! (Personally, I also take a maximum of 1.0 mg of melatonin before bed.)
3.3) Meditate regularly. Can you imagine a day without brushing your teeth or having a shower? You’d probably feel weird all day. Your meditation should be equally integrated into your life. We cannot always control the type and levels of stress occurring in our lives, but we can learn to control how we deal with those stresses. Meditation is an excellent way to cope with distress. Its health benefits are legion; ranging from stress reduction to pain reduction; lessened anxiety to improved emotional regulation; higher cognition to greater creativity. Meditation’s psycho-emotional benefits become physiological benefits leading to a longer, healthier life. If you aren’t meditating regularly yet, find a teacher and get started. Personally, I formally meditate first thing in the morning for 20~30 minutes before the day gets busy, but then remind myself to be present and mindful through out the day.
There you have it: 3 by 3 – or 9 easy to remember “hacks” to improve healthspan. Adopting these may allow you to, in the immortal words of Mr. Spoc, “live long and prosper.” (Or, if you are a grandparent, “May you live long and pamper.”)
 There are more recent studies showing the benefits of calorie reduction, but I wanted to introduce David Sinclair. He is the author a 2019 book “Lifespan”, which distils his research findings on the biological processes underpinning aging.
 There are two possible approaches to intermittent fasting: “daily time-restricted feeding, which narrows eating times to 6–8 hours per day, and so-called 5:2 intermittent fasting, in which people limit themselves to one moderate-sized meal two days each week.” See Intermittent Fasting: Live ‘Fast,’ Live longer?, published Dec 26, 2019.