Do you want to live a healthy lifestyle? The answer is probably yes--we all want to be alive and active and feel as well as we can for as long as possible. But what are you actually doing to be healthy? Chances are, like most Americans, your answer to that question is all about what you eat and whether and how much you exercise.
In fact, those are only two pieces of a much, much larger puzzle. Although I've been writing for years about study after study that shows the importance of a wide variety of variables to our health and longevity, I never really considered the disconnect. Despite the research I was reading, I, like everyone else I knew, only considered food and exercise when trying to stay (or get) healthy. I started thinking about it, though, after reading this illuminating essay by writer and former distance runner Rosie Spinks, who thinks that in college she had a recently-named eating disorder called orthorexia, an obsession with eating only healthy food. After Spinks described a conversation with a nutritionist who told her food is only a small part of what determines overall health, though, I started putting things together.
It's particularly worth considering Dan Buettner's fascinating research on "Blue Zones"--places where people routinely live into their 100s. None of these people are obsessed with diet, and they place few restrictions on themselves, although they tend to eat little or no meat. And not one of them seems to have a gym membership. Instead, they mostly walk and work in their gardens.
If, like me, you've had a two-dimensional view of what makes you healthy or unhealthy, it's time to take a more fully rounded view. Here are some things you should pay attention to because there is strong evidence that they can affect your health and lengthen your life. They have nothing to do with what you eat or the exercise you get:
This may be the one thing besides eating and exercise American health-seekers consider, partly thanks to Arianna Huffington's sleep evangelism, partly because many fitness trackers these days report on the quantity and quality of users' sleep. That's good, because lack of quality sleep is proven to be bad for brain function and to raise your risk of Alzheimer's. It will also make you fatter, by the way, because sleep deprivation leads to carbohydrate cravings. If you've stayed up late at work or with friends, sticking to your morning routine and getting up early for a workout might seem like the responsible thing to do. But you're probably doing yourself more harm than good.
You probably know, in an abstract sort of way, that stress can lead to health problems that actually kill people. You may or may not have taken the next step and considered what the stress in your own life is doing to your health. If not, consider it now. Stress can damage just about every system in your body, but there are lots of things you can do to lessen your stress.
3. Time off
How late do you work every day? How many days a week do you work? How often do you take a day completely away from work (including email and messaging)? How often do you take a week's vacation? If you're like most entrepreneurs and busy professionals, the answers to these questions add up to too much work and not enough time off. That's bad, though, because overworking your brain inhibits its ability to function, including its ability to recognize when it's overworked and no longer productive. And not taking enough vacation time can literally kill you. With that in mind, taking at least one full day off a week and at least one week off every six months should be part of your healthy lifestyle routine.
4. Air quality
When you think about your health, do you consider the air you breathe? You should. Air pollution accounts for 6.5 million worldwide deaths every year, and a recent study found that here in the United States it can increase the risk of mortality by more than 13 percent. Unfortunately, there may not be that much you can do to improve the air you breathe, beyond the obvious steps of avoiding both first-hand and second-hand smoke. One of the few other things you can do is monitor the air quality in your area and avoid vigorous outdoor workouts when the air is bad.
There's plenty of evidence that being happy and optimistic makes for a longer, healthier life. But how many of us consider happiness as part of our healthy lifestyle? We really should, because not only will happiness extend our lives, it will mean we enjoy the extra time we get to spend on this planet more. You should consider a making-yourself-happy regime, right along with your diet and exercise plan. If you're not sure how, here are 11 ways to make yourself happy that will get you started.
Are you lonely? That's bad. Not only will loneliness harm your health by lessening your happiness (see above), it's bad for you in itself. Surprisingly bad: Research shows that loneliness is as bad for you as smoking. So it's pretty clear that making sure you regularly spend time with your friends, family, and/or significant other should be part of your health maintenance routine. Or if that isn't possible, making the effort to go out and meet new people should be a priority. Your healthy lifestyle demands it.
Buettner noticed this about the centenarians in the Blue Zones: They all live in tight-knit communities. The incredibly long-lived residents of Okinawa, Japan, actually have a cultural tradition of forming Moai, which translates as a group for common interest. If one member of the group gets a windfall, they all share. If one faces an unexpected financial strain, they all chip in. You don't have to go that far, but Buettner's research makes a powerful case for the health effects of participating in a community of some sort, whether an extended family, a religious group, a club or even a professional group. So make sure to be an active part of your community. If you don't have one, find one that fits. It may be just as important to your long-term health as getting to the gym.