It seems that everything is out to kill you these days. Mobile phone radiation, sugar, chemicals, global warming! It’s hard to know what to prioritise. Here are my top 5 tips on how not to kill yourself in today’s hectic society.
Let’s start with the easiest one. If you think you’ll be ok cause your cousin’s great-uncle’s sister smoked until they were 90 years old, you’re just kidding yourself. Obviously, everybody talks about lung cancer – the most obvious risk, which you’re 25 times more likely to get by smoking. But it actually increases your risk of getting nearly every cancer. Bladder, colorectal, esophageal, liver, stomach, even cervical cancer and to make it worse, you’re more likely to die of them than somebody who doesn’t smoke. Smoking also doubles your risk of heart disease and stroke. It has proven to cause and increase complications from asthma, COPD, bone health, teeth, cataracts, rheumatoid arthritis, the list is nearly endless. The only good news I have here is that smoking is one of the most readily reversible risk factors. Every year that goes by without smoking dramatically decreases all of these risks. Nothing else on this list will have as much impact as getting rid of those cigarettes!
Now on a slightly more positive note – exercise! Literally, any type of exercise has proven health benefits. Whether your goal is to lower blood pressure, increase bone density or simply not die at 50… there is something for you. A little research can point you in the right direction but the most important thing is that you are doing something and it is something you can keep doing for a long time. I’ll spare you the list this time because, just like smoking, exercise affects a plethora of diseases but I will point out some underestimated benefits of exercise. It will make you younger! Being physically active ‘makes your body function on the inside more like a young person’s’ and will decrease the impact of all the inevitable changes of age. Of specific interest to me is the quality of life – two individuals may both live to 80 years old however there is a significant difference to me between spending the last years of life sick, in and out of hospital or still independent and capable of doing things you enjoy. If you want to be that fit 70 year old, start by being the fit 40 year old!
Prolonged sitting is associated with higher mortality in general but also increased incidence of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. That sounds similar to the list of things exercise protects against right? And it makes sense; people who sit a lot don’t exercise. So really this is similar to the last point, don’t sit – exercise, easy? Wrong! So much wrong! Low-moderate exercise levels failed to ameliorate the effect of siting for long periods. So if you think that a 40-minute pump class is saving your heart, unfortunately, that’s just not true. Don’t get me wrong; if you do no exercise at all you’re doubly screwed. However, a recent study has shown that to overcome the effect of sitting at least 7 hours of walking or 5 hours of jogging were needed. If you can avoid sitting – do! If you can stand for at least a few minutes every hour – do! If you can exercise every day, then you should be. Exercising 3 or 4 days per week may not be enough to overcome your sitting habit.
Don’t stress – life’s too short. And if you do it will be even shorter! The tricky thing here is that the easiest thing to measure is ‘perceived stress’ which is very subjective. This makes the evidence very patchy and inconclusive on exactly how stress impacts health. In young women with cancer you can even find research that suggests stress decreases mortality (ps. I may have found some holes in that study –point being it’s important to understand how to interpret research!) Overall though having a resilient mindset and effective stress coping strategies will improve your mental health if not also your physical health. I don’t mean that you will always feel happy and there will be sunshine and rainbows. I mean that when huge life stressors inevitably happen, you won’t end up dead or in hospital with clinical depression. It sounds dramatic but that’s the reality –sometimes people don’t “just get over it” and sometimes they can’t move forward. I can’t say it enough times – make close connections with others and avoid social isolation at all costs.
Ahh diet – this decade’s hot topic of health. This diet cures cancer. This diet minimizes obesity. This food will absolutely 100% kill you tomorrow. There’s a ridiculous amount of information, hardly any of it has good supporting evidence and the information that does is stupidly obvious. ie. if you have diabetes, perhaps you should cut down on your sugar – revolutionary! All I will say about diet is that it doesn’t need to be that complicated – stick to the absolute basics (unless you have a specific disease) and you’ll probably be doing pretty good. Vegetables are healthy. Domino’s Pizza is not. Don’t eat too much. The health benefits of diet aren’t massively different between that guy eating paleo and that woman who has gone vegan. But they become very obvious when compared with the guy eating 10,000 calories a day to maintain his 200kg bodyweight. All you need to do is not be that guy!
To me, everything else you do for your health is just icing on the cake. It’s not worth worrying about buying organic vegetables if they’re sitting in your trolley next to Coke and chocolate. Those cigarettes ‘keeping you skinny’ are not preventing your heart disease. And unfortunately if you’re sitting on your butt for 9 hours a day, your hour long workout didn’t make up for that.
Fill the jar with the big rocks first and prioritise things that will have the biggest impact on your health.