How to Get Healthier

We’ve spent the last few weeks reviewing what we’ve learned around these parts in 2018.

We started with some big picture lessons on life planning, personal finance basics, and time management and productivity. Then we went into happiness and the intersection of money and happiness.

June was an exploration into how to live a healthier life. It was also a bit different from our other topics.

Learning Anew

When we dove into the topic of health we went well beyond my field of expertise. This means that I was learning as much as I could and applying it directly to my life. It was more of an experiment than an authoritative review of science.

I’ve spent years studying happiness, psychology, finance, investing, cognitive biases, and many of the other topics that I write about. My time studying health has been much more limited.

I’ve been lucky to lead a relatively healthy life with relatively little attention paid to the topic. This means my experiments come from a place of privilege and may not apply to you.

On top of that, health advice varies from person to person anyway. Keep that in mind as you read here, but also as you read health advice pretty much anywhere.

Planning for Better Health

Instead of diving straight into health experiments, I first spent some time planning. I decided to focus on nutrition and exercise.

As I researched nutrition, I realized that pretty much everything that I ate was on the naughty list. This comes from the book Thinner This Year, which I leaned on after a recommendation from Vicki at Make Smarter Decisions based on the scientific explanations for the nutrition advice:

“Bad Stuff represents about 50 percent of the average American diet—and by that I mean fatty cuts of meat, especially red meat, fried foods, overly processed and refined grains (white bread and pasta), fast food, ice cream, butter, pizza oozing with cheese, heavy salad dressings, and many kinds of crackers and chips. Oh, and let’s not forget the obvious—candy—from the beloved Twizzler to the infamous M&M’s.”

The book also recommends eliminating “Dead Food” which it breaks out into fillers, processed foods, and fast food. “Fillers include refined grains such as white or refined wheat flour, white rice, white pasta, and corn products. It includes almost all bread, bagels, chips, crackers, croissants, pancakes, breakfast cereals, muffins, cakes, cookies, snack foods, and pasta.”

I knew that I would not be able to stick to any diet that gets rid of all of this bad food, so I planned for gradual and sustainable changes instead. I planned on gradually cutting out bad foods and adding in good by cutting a bad food in Week 1, adding a healthy food in Week 2, cutting a bad food in Week 3, and on and on.

I thought I was starting from a somewhat better position on the exercise front. I had previously had an okay exercise routine before the baby was born. After that I still got a lot of steps in but didn’t get my heart rate up. At least not in a good way.

My plan here was to gradually build up to two days of cardio, two days of strength, and two days of yoga per week. The yoga part may be unnecessary for most people, but I felt that flexibility was a particular weakness of mine that was worth addressing.

Eating Better

Next it was time to start eating better. I’ve been very up and down on this over my life. One thing that I knew was that this time I needed to make sure I didn’t let the perfect become the enemy of good enough.

A surprising number of times during previous attempts at eating better I have been chided for ordering a Caesar salad.

“Caesar dressing is bad for you!”

Which…sure. But is it worse than the double quarter pounder and fries that I was going to get instead?

The goal is to eat better. If I can replace the worst stuff with some less bad stuff, then I can come back and build on that foundation later.

I started this experiment while I was on paternity leave. I was exceeding expectations like crazy at first. Then I hit a period of baby not sleeping well and I fell back into old habits.

This pattern has repeated all year. I got into good habits at home, then went back to work and lost them. I got into good habits at work and then started a new job and lost them.

My two big takeaways from this: Planning and Defaults.

If you plan meals ahead of time and buy the groceries you need, then it is easier to stick to the plan. If you can’t stick to the plan, what is the default you fall back on? On my work-from-home days I throw together a salad or brown rice and chicken. On days that I’m in the office I go to the McDonald’s downstairs. You won’t always be able to stick to the plan, so work on setting a good default.

Better Exercise

Next, it was on to exercise.

Here’s what I learned about exercise: Finding time for exercise is a whole lot more difficult with a baby

My old job had a gym, so I would be able to go into the office early and get a quick workout.

My new job does not. I wake up at 6, am showered and at my desk by 7. I generally leave around 4, come home, play with baby, give him a bath, and put him to bed. By that time a workout would wake me up too much to get a good amount of sleep.

With food, you can set up good defaults for when your plans fall through. With exercise, the defaults don’t really work that well and the planning is even more important. You need to schedule your exercise.

I am now at a point where I work from home twice a week and make sure that I get at least a short workout in on those days. I also play hockey once a week. On the days that I don’t do either, I make sure that I get at least 10,000 steps.

It’s not ideal, but it is something.

Get More Sleep!

The next topic was one that I am much more of an expert on: sleep.

I am a huge evangelist of sleep. This is partly because we already don’t get enough sleep and people keep pressuring us to sleep even less to get more done, and partly because of how powerful research shows it to be.

We already learned that sleeping more actually makes us more productive – enough to make up for the lost time from sleeping. But for health month we explored how a lack of sleep harms your physical, emotional, and mental health.

People who sleep less have a weaker immune system, get sick more often, and spend more on healthcare. If that risk isn’t enough to convince you that you should sleep more for your physical health’s sake, then consider this: driving while tired has a very similar effect to driving while drunk and kills 1,500 Americans every year.

Lack of sleep also amplifies negative emotions and reduces the positive effects of good things that happen to us. We bounce back more slowly and don’t get as much of a boost from the things that would normally help us when we’re tired.

Lack of sleep also impairs your short-term memory and makes it harder to learn new facts and new skills. You are literally undermining your ability to learn and grow. This is on top of the negative impacts on our moods that lack of sleep has.

New studies even suggest that lack of sleep contributes to the development of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and Alzheimer’s Disease.

So do yourself a favor and go back to bed.

Join the Conversation!

And that was our June! What do you think of our exploration of health? What have you found helps you stay healthy? What exercise or nutrition tips do you have? Let us know in the comments!

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