Ten Wellness Lessons from 2013 Worth Carrying Forward
The media is ripe with health information this time of year, offering millions tips, ideas, facts, regimens, and deals to help people kick-start their “healthiest year yet.” Now, and throughout the year, the volume of health and wellness information can be overwhelming, making it hard to find signal in the noise. RUN INTERVALS – SLOW AND STEADY – GO PALEO – FAST – DON’T FAST – FAST TWICE A WEEK – EAT BUTTER – EAT COCONUT OIL – MEDITATE – DRINK JUICE – DON’T DRINK JUICE – BE HAPPY – EEEK, THOSE CARBS MIGHT RUIN YOUR BRAIN!
I’m relatively new to the wellness game, just a year into blogging and 1% of the way toward the magic 10,000 hours it takes to become an expert in any discipline. But during this year, I’ve started to train myself to cut through the clutter – taking note of trends, but staying focused on the core elements that are more likely to stand the test of time. Here are ten of the things I learned during the past year that I think are worth paying close attention to.
1) Limit sugar. After reading about and trying lots of different diets (paleo, raw, vegan, gluten-free, juicing), I’ve decided that it takes some trial and error to find the diet that’s right for each of us. We’re all beautifully different and need to make our own choices based on our baseline health and goals and lifestyle and body composition and a host of other factors. But there’s one universal that does apply to everyone: limiting sugar is a good move. The loudest voice in this year’s dialogue about sugar has been Dr. Robert Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist at UCSF, who asserts that sugar is poison, and the main culprit in our rising global obesity rates. Rather than subscribing to the “a calorie is a calorie” philosophy, Dr. Lustig makes a strong case that some calories are worse than others – and the ones that come from fructose are the very worst. Am I giving up chocolate when the clock strikes twelve tonight? Nope. But do I think carefully about how much sugar I put into my body every day? You bet I do. Takeaway for 2014: minimize sugar, maximize nutrients. In other words, practice common sense.
2) Focus on exercise quality. The quality, not quantity mantra is applicable across lots of different facets of health – relationships, food, work, etc – but the message was loudest this year regarding exercise. The New York Times published the 7-minute workout, a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) regimen that spread like wildfire. Experts corroborated this research throughout the year, encouraging shorter bursts of high-quality exercise. My personal feeling is that I need more than seven minutes – both for my body and for my soul – but I have taken the quality message to heart for the long-term. Takeaway for 2014: it’s doesn’t hurt to count your workouts, but the most important thing is making your workouts count.
3) Don’t skimp on sleep. Despite stories of hugely successful people surviving on very little sleep, only 1-3% of the population is known to truly live happily on just a few hours of sleep a night (Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Leonardo da Vinci fit into this camp). But for us mortals, sleep is an incredibly important component of well-being. It helps our brains work better, keeps our weight in check, builds our immune systems, and improves our overall quality of life. In my list of anchors, optimizers, and things I can let go of, sleep is an anchor. Takeaway for 2014: aim for a consistent sleep schedule that ensures you get whatever amount of sleep is right for you (most people need 7-8 hours of shut-eye each night).
4) Kiss multitasking goodbye, say hello to unitasking. In a time when social media is dominating more and more of our mindshare, articles about the impact of multitasking abounded this year. A Stanford study reported that “people who chronically engage in media-multitasking exhibit certain cognitive deficits: specifically, they have more trouble ignoring distractions, keeping irrelevant memories from interfering in their present task, and switching from one task to another, mostly because they can’t help thinking about the task they’re not doing.” Mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn says it best: “there will never be another now.” Takeaway for 2014: strive for focus, working in 90-minute increments and minimizing distractions.
5) Strive for meaning, not just happiness. If 2012 was the year of happiness, 2013 emerged as the year of meaning. The Atlantic covered a study in August that convincingly argued that meaning (“an orientation to something bigger than the self”) has a greater impact on well-being than happiness (“feeling good”) does, boosting immune response and reducing inflammation. Happiness is a great thing to seek and find, but not enough – humans need both meaning and pleasure to thrive. Takeaway for 2014: in work, in life, or in both, pursue actions that relate to something bigger than yourself.
6) Say thanks. There is a growing body of research showing that people who practice gratitude have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, higher levels of positive emotions, and fewer feelings of loneliness and isolation. I feel like I read something about gratitude every single day in 2013, and the value of gratitude was the biggest personal learning during my first year of writing at Wellfesto.com. The more I read about gratitude, the more I found myself taking time to focus on it. The easiest way I did this in 2013 was taking a few minutes every Friday to note thing things that I was grateful for each week. Takeaway for 2014: start and end each day with some sort of a gratitude practice.
7) Nurture relationships. Late in 2012 (ok, this one wasn’t quite in 2013), The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on a Greek island called Ikaria – “the island where people forget to die.” The article featured one of the Blue Zones, or an area where people have outsized lifespans and health outcomes. One of the core elements of Blue Zones is a deep focus on community and strong relationships. Speaking of relationships, a talk by anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher reminded me of three ways to keep my marriage healthy: have sex, stay romantic, and stay connected. Takeaway for 2014: love your friends and family…and really, really, really love your partner.
8) Make progress every single day. I spend a lot of time during my day job thinking about what engages people at work, and there are a few known drivers across people and industries, including having a best friend at work, having a sense of higher purpose, and making forward progress. As I’ve focused on personal well-being as part of my “passion project” (wellfesto), I’ve realized that these drivers are the same around the dinner table as they are around the boardroom table. Life is not about the big “aha” or the massive breakthrough; it’s about the small steps that lead to forward progress (toward things we care about) every single day. It’s about watering the carrots so they can grow…knocking out a training run…writing a page of a book, not the whole thing…knitting the arm of the sweater…writing more of the code than you did yesterday…eating a few stalks of broccoli every day. Takeaway for 2014: move something forward every single day…make things…leave the world a little bit better than you found it.
9) Sit less, move more. A famous 2011 infographic made the rounds again this year, inspiring dialogue about our unnatural migration from an active lifestyle to a sedentary one. The most startling statistic: sitting for more than six hours a day makes you up to 40% more likely to die within 15 years than someone who sits less than three. Technology proliferated this year to help us track our movements, calculating our steps and rewarding us for meeting our goals. The media is definitely talking the talk about moving more, but the jury’s still out about whether it’s making us walk the walk. Takeaway for 2014: integrate more movement into the workday, focusing on walking meetings, a standing desk, a focused mid-day workout if you can squeeze it in.
10) We still have a long way to go. Despite the abundance of wellness info in the media, our numbers still don’t look great. The U.S. obesity rate is holding steady at 26%; parents are more likely than those without children to be overweight or obese. Seventy-five percent of Americans are chronically dehydrated. 62% of Americans of Americans eat lunch at their desks every day. And the average 40-year-old laughs just four times per day. Takeaway for 2014: Be the change you want to see in the world. A different world — for you and for all the little eyes that are watching and ears that are listening — begins with you.
May 2014 be your healthiest year yet.
And if you’re looking for a way to formalize your intentions on New Year’s Day, consider scribbling down your wellfesto. If you send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, I’ll post it on the site! Happy New Year!