Healthy, wealthy, and wise. Well I can’t help with the last two, but maybe I can share some insight on the “healthy” part.
About 9 years ago they took a rather large cancerous brain tumor out of me. It was an ependymoma which is less deadly than the much more common glioblastoma so I was given a 33% chance of surviving for 5 years.
Not bad odds, but not great. Happy to say I’ve apparently beat ’em and am approaching the normal population again in terms of risk of cancer.
That episode got me thinking about how to manage health, something I’d never really concerned myself with before. I did a moderate amount of reading, not an obsessive amount, but some. I came up with what I think are maybe the four main factors which can influence health.
- Mental well-being. They say your mind controls your body, and while there are certainly random things that happen to random people, evidence suggests that having a mind which is happy and at peace definitely contributes to your state of health. Now the 3 year old kids I saw in the hospital, probably not so much. They just got an abysmal roll of the dice. There’s not much you can do about luck or genetics.
- Exercise. This is one of the things you can most easily control, and keeping your body strong helps in a number of ways. A strong body is obviously more resilient, but also by staying active you are telegraphing to your immune system that you’re vital and engaged.
- Sleep. I used to be a proud card-carrying insomniac. I’d get up in the middle of the night and work. I liked the peace and uninterrupted nature of the time. But personal experience suggests that getting enough sleep is actually pretty critical to staying healthy. Sometime my binges of sleeplessness have ended in colds and flus and the like. You don’t need to look hard to recognize sleep’s contribution to staying healthy.
- Diet. This is the most common thing that cancer patients obsess about. Suddenly they’re interested in eating lots of greens, orange foods, maybe spices like turmeric that have ostensible anti-cancer characteristics, and then maybe they venture into concern about organic or non-GMO foods, phytochemicals, clean eating, or even into uncharted alternative waters like ultra-diluted homeopathy.
Let’s discuss these four areas and see if we can arrive at a sensible approach for balancing things.
Grading on the curve
As with many things, we can look at the distribution of folks in each of these areas with the black dot being approximately where I felt I probably fit in.
I’m a pretty happy guy in general so my well-being wasn’t bad, although I had a fair amount of stress at work. Sleep was bad and exercise was non-existent. Diet was pretty good before as we have nice, simple home-cooked meals every evening and don’t do much of that “nuke some lasagna” processed food.
Making some changes
I opted to try to balance all factors rather than focus on just one or two. I wanted to get them all into the “good” zone, but not really worry about being in the absolute top percentile. I’ve got a family, a busy life, and many things going on, after all.
I walked away from a career path and job that were more stressful. Somehow climbing the corporate ladder seemed less important after the brush with life threatening disease. My diet was already pretty good but I strove to cut down even further on the junk. I was helped by the fact the doctor also diagnosed me as pre-diabetic so I was encouraged to reduce sugars and starches.
Instead of proudly getting up in the middle of the night to work, I started taking Ambien and trying to get a solid night’s sleep. That aspect is still not perfect, but it’s much better. I don’t get up anymore although I might not be solidly asleep the whole night through.
And I joined a gym and began working out three days a week. I’m not trying to become a muscle-bound guy, but I am trying to build and maintain basic core strength.
A bit more about the diet component
As I mentioned, cancer patients pretty frequently choose diet as the thing they focus on. And even regular folks can decide to get pretty particular about their diet. Let’s look at the classic curves which represent the cost of improving quality in anything:
The failure component is probably not directly applicable to diet. It might be more applicable for something like a vacuum cleaner or a car, but in terms of food, that might be the presumed “cost” of poorer quality food leading to health problems.
It’s not totally evident on the graph above, but usually trying to get the nth degree of quality results in an exponential increase in cost. In the book Predictably Irrational, the author discusses the human tendency to associate cost with quality when in fact it may have far less correlation than we’d imagine.
As such, we can conclude that we can get into the “pretty good” zone for a moderate price, and still be eating way better than most of the planet. Looking at our typical Western diet these days, we are eating so much better than past generations (setting aside the increased tendency to eat absolute junk of course). On average we’re getting the basic vitamins we need and much more protein than has been typical over the centuries.
Everyone draws their own conclusions and I don’t pretend that my way is The Right Way. But it seems to work for me. I decided I wanted to make changes in all the main areas instead of focusing on just one. Sometimes I fall off the wagon and eat some free junk food at work, or miss a day or two at the gym, but overall I’m pretty darn consistent these days.
Let’s close with a common adage in fitness circles:
“If you don’t make time for exercise, you will have to make time for illness.”