Sunday, January 2, 2011
Be Healthy, My Friend
This is due to a number of factors, but one of the chief ones, I suspect, is marketing.
It helps to sell things as "healthy" if there is no clear idea what that actually means.
I will resist the temptation to get into that whole topic...
What I do want to do is try to remove some of the abstraction, by breaking it down into its constituent parts. While the term itself eludes a single precise definition, there's a list of components that are part of it, and those parts are reasonably concrete.
-A lack of, resistance to, and/or ability to recover from injury
-Longevity (how long you live)
-Mental/emotional health - I wholeheartedly acknowledge that this is a very important part of overall health; however there is so much to cover just considering physical health that I won't mention mental/emotional here any further than this sentence.
Many people seem to get obsessively caught up on just one or two components, sometimes to the complete exclusion of considering the others. And as a result there are raw-foodists who can't do a single push-up, athletes who eat junk food, people who take all manner of drugs and vitamins, and others who take herbs and supplements and "superfoods", both thinking health can be reduced to just what you ingest.
When someone, be it a friend or an ad or even a doctor, claims that X food, Y herb, or Z activity, is "good for you" or "unhealthy" or whatever, ask exactly in what ways does it contribute to health? Which of the above elements does it affect, and how? Personally, I suspect that extremely few of the millions of things passed off as "healthy" stand up to that sort of test.
Since some components can be considered in conflict with each other, it would be hard to say in absolute terms what is the healthiest a person can possibly be. None-the-less, there is clearly a range, from someone who is sick all the time, can't walk far without being winded, and dies at 50, to the people who are still running marathons at 70.
There was a time when pathogens were the single greatest threat to human life. Undeniably, since the advent of cities, modern sanitation has made all the difference in human health. Closely following sanitation in significance would be the discovery of vaccines. Between these two, communicable disease has gone from the largest threat to all human existence to (at least in the developed world) mostly just an annoyance. While there have been times in the not-all-that-distant-past that viruses or bacteria might have killed 1 out of every 3 people you knew, about the only experience we have with them today is getting a cold or flu for a few days a year. Modern medicine has effectively eliminated the risk of death, allowing us the luxury of fighting symptoms instead of the disease itself, and even of (ironically enough) rebelling against modern medicine and deliberately returning to the superstition cures of yesteryear (so-called "alternative medicine")
For viruses there is nothing. Cold medicine does not fight the cold itself. It fights the symptoms. And the symptoms are actually your body's way of fighting the virus. You get a fever because viruses thrive at 98 degrees, and don't operate as well at 101 degrees. You get a runny nose because the mucus helps block any other viruses from getting into your body while it's busy fighting whats already there. You feel tired because your body's energy is going into fighting the cold. Your body wants you to lie in bed and recover. When you take something - whether its OTC cold medicine, herbal tea, grandma's secret recipe, or even a netty pot, which reduces the symptoms so that you can feel better (in the moment) you are actually fighting your body, not the virus. Which means, essentially, that you are helping the virus. The more you fight the symptoms, and try to carry on with life as though you weren't sick, chances are, the longer it will take for you to actually get better. For some reason we have gotten it into our minds that it is absolutely imperative that we feel comfortable at all times, even to the point where treating our symptoms leads to us actually staying sick. The full list of substances which actually make you better, faster, is extremely small. The evidence for each is not terribly strong - they work in some trials, and not in others - and they only seem to work when taken immediately at the first signs of symptoms. They are zinc, and echinacea. . That's it. And when you take it, you won't feel better (in the moment) at all.
Any other medicine or remedy you take is either fighting your body, or its just a placebo.
While we can't actually cure sickness, what has been shown to prevent it, and minimize it when it does occur, is overall health and fitness*.
However most of the common ones - heart disease, stroke, diabetes, asthma, and many forms of cancer - are determined primarily by individual choices.
One of the largest factors that determines how quickly a person recovers from a broken bone or a deep cut is age. But overall health is a significant factor as well. In addition, the stronger and more flexible a person is - at any age - the less likely they are to suffer injury in the first place.
Obviously longevity can not be definitively determined in advance. It is, none-the-less still a measure of how healthy you were.
*Fitness is a component of health. But the word has become just as abstract as the term "health" itself. What is "fit"? How do you determine who is and who isn't? Well, to start with, consider the word itself. In any other context, it is meaningless without context. Something can be fit for a particular purpose. A compact car is fit for commuting. An SUV is fit for traveling off-road. It would make no sense to ask "is this car fit?" without knowing what task you have in mind for it.
In the same manner: who is more fit: a power-lifter who can bench-press 400lbs, an ultra-marathoner who can run 52 miles in one day, a gymnast who can do a double back layout, or a sprinter who can run a 100meters in 10 seconds?
It's a silly question. What would be more telling would be to ask whether the sprinter would be better at lifting weight than the power-lifter is at running; vice-versa and etc.
But what ultimately matters is what a person can actually do in real life. Outside of competitive sports, there is no reward for extreme specialization. The reality is day to day tasks require strength AND stamina AND flexibility AND agility AND balance. Emergency situations even more so.
Going back to the question of "fit for what", the answer is: "fit for real life. Fit for emergencies. Fit for everything."
Fitness means not hurting your back when you carry something heavy up the stairs.
Strength training builds not only stronger muscles, but also stronger tendons, ligaments, and bones. As a result, being strong and fit means your entire body is tougher, and when you get into a minor car crash, you are less likely to get injured, and/or sustain lighter injury and recover faster.
Fitness can mean the difference between escape/fighting back and being a victim. Fitness can mean the difference between saving lives in an emergency, or being one of the people who needs saving.
-Strength (of ALL of the major and minor muscle groups, including stabilizers)
-Agility, Coordination and Balance
Being fit means having ALL of them. Having a lot of one does not imply having the others. Which means it is very possible to have a power-lifter, ultra-marathoner, or sprinter who isn't really "fit" in the general sense of the word. A great many exercises - including many that are very common - won't improve general fitness. Some don't improve any area of fitness at all.
That truth right there eliminates a whole lot of excuses. You just have to do it! I can't make you do it.
Most people - especially those who are sedentary - would be surprised to find out just how much exercise is recommended, not for athletes, but for regular everyday people, just to maintain minimum levels of general health and fitness. Not for competing, not for losing weight*, just to be an ordinary healthy person. The CDC recommends a MINIMUM of 75 minutes per week of intense aerobic exercise, in addition to regular strength exercise. They go on to say that what would be better is 150 minutes of vigorous exercise in addition to strength training. This breaks down to 20 minutes a day, 7 days a week (or 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week), of running, swimming, basketball, etc, plus weight-lifting and/or calisthenics a few days per week, for at least as much time. I say that this should be the minimum everyone demands for themselves.
Every single day?
Like, not just until I lose 5 lbs or can run a 5 minute mile, but, forever?
Like clock work. (I mean, you do brush your teeth every day, right?)
Really, it's not that bad. Think of it as preventative health care.
That volume is to maintain health. If a person is trying to get stronger, or faster, or lose weight*, or whatever, that amount needs to be increased even more.
We want it to be something we do every now and then, when we feel like it, when we "have time".
It doesn't work that way.
The truth is, everyone, no matter how busy, has time. 30 minutes a day really isn't that much. Even if a person has a full-time job, is a student, and has a long commute, there are three 10-minute slots of free time somewhere in a day, currently filled by TV or internet or getting ready a little slow or waiting for something or someone. Spend 15 minutes eating on a lunch break, and it leaves 30 minutes for a little exercise. Riding a bike to work or running to the bus instead of walking combines commute time with work-out time.
But simply spending enough hours isn't enough either.
Those 75-150 minutes of cardio and 45-90 minutes of weight-lifting or calisthenics exercises per week need to be intense.
A lot of what passes for exercise isn't challenging enough to stimulate improvement in the body.
As the great Hunter Thompson said, if a thing is worth doing, it's worth doing right. No where is that more true than fitness. If you don't put forth the full effort, you won't really improve. And in that case, what really is the point? You end up sweaty and tired, with nothing to show for it.
That's a lot of benefit.
-lifting weights so light that you can easily do 15 or more reps without rest
-anything which is supposed to encourage "tone, not bulk"
-treadmill, elliptical, or stationary bike at a low resistance or low speed
An efficient exercise gets you as tired as possible in your limited work out time. It activates major muscle groups, core stabilizer muscles, and the cardio-pulmonary systems all at once.
A short list of examples of real exercise, (along with the calories they burn in an hour of continuous activity):
running (600-1000 depending on speed)
rock climbing (650)
jump rope (600)
boxing / martial arts (400-600)
elliptical/stationary (400-600 on high resistance, at high speed)
mountain biking (500 cross-country)
rowing (500 roughly 2min/500m rate, level 5/med)
aerobics (450-500 depending on the class)
moving furniture (400)
bicycling (250 road, flat-lands, non-racing)
Maybe it is another symptom of our 'easy answers' culture. If health is just a question of eating the right superfoods, we make sure to eat some of it each day, and blam, instant health!
Sometimes it seems that there isn't much room for middle ground - either someone is obsessed with nutrition, or else they don't give it a second thought. Which is unfortunate, because its really important, and its also really simple.
Until relatively recently, most foods which exist in the world weren't available in most places. For most of human history cultures have survived on a small variety of local staples, and for the most part they lived perfectly healthy lives. No one food can possibly be vital if people in most places for most of time have got along just fine without it.
It is possible for an adult human to stay alive for years on nothing but glucose drippings. It would not be an ideal life, nor would it be healthy by any definition of the word, but it demonstrates that we will not simply drop dead from a few days without any specific nutrient. People have gone on fasts for various health, religious, and political reasons throughout history with no ill effects if done for a moderate amount of time. The human body evolved in a world where no one food source was ever guaranteed, and so, at least to some extent, it evolved the ability to ration. Over the long-run it is important to get all of the vital nutrients. Getting each and every one in every meal is not.
There was a time when nutrition deficits were a genuine threat. Before the days of refrigeration sailors on long sea voyages would get scurvy, from a lack of vitamin C in the diet, because they would eat no fruits at all for months at a time. A severe lack of vitamin D, especially in childhood, will cause rickets. A lack of iron causes anemia and lack of iodine causes goiters. Not having enough B3 in the diet leads to pellegra. Chances are you have never heard of pellegra. This just goes to show how small the threat of malnutrition actually is in this country, even though we have the worst diets in the world.
What those nutritional needs are has been known for a long time by nutrition science, but is still often misunderstood by lay people.
We need two essential macro-nutrients: Protein and fat.
Protein, in particular, gets a lot of attention as an essential nutrient, especially by athletes and vegetarians. Its certainly true that we need a certain amount of protein daily. What fewer people know is that American's actually consume far too much protein, at a level which is actually mildly toxic. A full grown adult only needs 60 - 120 grams of protein a day (depending on age, size, and activity level, with the high end only applying to hardcore athletes). There is protein in almost every food, not just the meat and soybeans that immediately come to mind.
That's without eating a single so-called "protein source"!!
Unless you are vegan, pregnant, a bodybuilder, or anemic, there is never any need to make a point of eating a "high-protein" food with every meal, or even every day.
As this pyramid notes, the foods highest in nutrients just happen to be those lowest in calories. Another thing to notice is that it is almost the exact inverse of the typical American diet! Then we make up for it with vitamins and supplements. Or, we make up for it by eating a whole bunch, because even with junk food, once you eat enough of it, you get your nutritional needs met. Eating food which is low in nutrients (even if it is low-calorie "diet" food) means you need to eat more to get the minimum intake of vitamins and minerals.
- Get enough sleep
(This varies by the individual. The average is 8-9, but anywhere from 6 to 10 is in the range of "normal". If you need to use an alarm clock to wake up, you aren't getting enough sleep. If you sleep in on the weekends, you aren't getting enough sleep. If you need coffee to feel awake in the morning, you aren't getting enough sleep)
- Exercise a lot more. For most of us, a whole lot more.
(For a few - those who workout so much as to cause occasional injury - a little less. You know who you are.)
- Eat lots of healthy food, and minimize unhealthy food.
- Don’t smoke, and avoid most or all alcohol and drugs.
- Avoid stress.