Being Healthy Is Not Exciting

If you think being healthy for the long haul requires you to do anything extraordinary, I have news for you, it doesn’t appear that way.

What you do to be healthy is likely not very exciting.

Ask anyone who has maintained their health over a long period of time what they have done over the course of decades and you probably won’t hear anything about supplements, specific workout programs, crazy off the wall diets, IV injections, super fancy lights, exposing themselves to extreme temperatures, or anything else that we are marketed day in and day out.

What they would probably tell you they did would sound quite underwhelming.

I often think about what it means to be healthy…

The person that continuously pops up in my mind is my grandfather.

My grandfather was not some kind of physical specimen but he wasn’t your average elderly man in his 70s and 80s. He wasn’t overweight but he didn’t have a crazy physique either. He was always active. He LOVED golf, he would play every opportunity he could. As a kid I know he was walking18 holes and some days 36 holes. He also liked gardening and woodworking.

He never retired. He loved his job and the people he worked with loved him. He was well respected not only at the company he worked for but in the industry as a whole. He was also an entrepreneur, and ran his own business as well.

He was always learning and reading, and never fiction. If he read it was something tangible he could put to use.

He had TONS of friends and acquaintances. He was a very social guy.

He loved his family very much. He was there for everyone in the family whenever they needed something.

I grew up around my grandfather and observed his lifestyle very closely. His diet was not bad by any means but he also indulged. He was Italian so Italian food was his favorite (and mine growing up!), and he would frequently have a glass of red wine with dinner. He would also frequently have a bowl of chocolate ice cream, and I am pretty sure he taught me how to perfectly dunk an Oreo in milk. Don’t get me wrong though, outside of these indulgences his diet was mostly meat and vegetables, not a ton of heavily processed food.

He always went to bed when he was tired, frequently calling it a night before me or my grandmother were ready for bed. And he woke up with energy to go to work and play golf everyday.

In his late 80s he experienced a freak accident where he had a bleed in his brain. Doctors could never figure out why and after the accident he pretty much lost his ability to walk. Unfortunately due to his lack of physical ability to take care of himself he ended up in a nursing home. At that point his health declined quickly until he finally passed at 89.

Obviously the lifestyle he was living prior to that was in stark contrast to how he was living at the nursing home…and his health reflected that.

The contrast between my grandfather before and after the nursing home is how I like to think of health, what it means to be healthy and what it means to be unhealthy.

I believe part of the reason he was not healthy after he ended up in the nursing home was due to the stark change in his lifestyle.

He was no longer physically active.

He was no longer socially connected.

He was no longer working.

He was no longer eating the diet he had eaten for 80+ years.

He was no longer around his family.

He was no longer sleeping the way he was used to.

He was not able to be outside.

All of those things in that list are incredibly basic parts of our lifestyle, nothing fancy at all.

I think we get caught up in the flashy things that we can do to improve our health when 95% of what makes us healthy has nothing to do with how long we fasted, the amount of carbs we ate, how long we spent in the cold plunge, or what fancy workout program we followed.

There is a study that I think illustrates this point very nicely.

In the study researchers looked at the impact of adopting 5 simple lifestyle behaviors and then calculated the years it added to their life beginning at age 50 (Impact of Healthy Lifestyle Factors on Life Expectancies in the US Population, 2018).

The 5 behaviors researchers looked at were not smoking, not drinking excessively (5-15 g/day for females and 5-30 g/day for males), getting at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day, staying within a normal BMI (18.5–24.9 kg/m2), and having a high quality diet.

The diet was measured using the Alternate Healthy Eating Index score, and “high quality” was defined as being in the 60th percentile or higher. From the supplementary material of the study we can see how they calculated the score.

“Briefly, points were assigned for intake of each component on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 indicating adherence to the recommended levels of servings per day. We included 10 components of the index in our diet score: high intakes of vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, polyunsaturated fatty acids, and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids and low intakes of red and processed meats, sugar sweetened beverages, trans fat, and sodium.”

Obviously we can debate whether certain aspects of this score are healthy or not, but on the whole I think we can agree that following this diet would be much better than the standard Western diet.

And if you think that 30 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous exercise is excessive, it might seem that way until you consider that a brisk walk of 30 minutes would satisfy that requirement.

Researchers estimated that women at age 50 would live another 29 years and men would live another 25.5 years if they adopted none of the 5 lifestyle habits. On the other hand if they adopted all 5 lifestyle habits women could live an additional 43.1 years and men could live an additional 37.6 years!

Unfortunately the number of people adopting all 5 of these lifestyle factors has decreased from 15% in 1988-1992 to only 8% in 2001-2006. Researchers attribute most of this decline to the rise in obesity.

There are certainly a couple of things I would add to increase health, namely sleep and social connection. However I also think if you are adopting all 5 of these lifestyle factors they are going to have positive impacts on both of these. That said, having a specific focus on getting a good amount of sleep and making sure you have meaningful relationships in your life can’t hurt either.

There is also one more topic that I think often gets overlooked when it comes to health…until it’s too late…and that’s mental acuity. One of the things I called out that my grandfather did well into his 80s was that he was always reading non-fiction. He was always curious, always wanted to learn, always challenging his brain. That not only served him well in other areas of his life, but he was always mentally sharp. I think having a never ending drive for knowledge and learning new things is also very important for our overall health.

You can go a long way from a health perspective just by following some pretty basic lifestyle habits. You don’t need to eat “the perfect diet” (not that one exists anyways), you don’t need to workout like a professional athlete, you don’t need to get on a crazy supplement regime, you don’t need to restrict your calories, you don’t need to avoid animal products.

Can you do these things if you want?

Sure…but I think the gains in health will be marginal compared to nailing down the basics.

If you are interested in what those basics are, I have been running a YouTube series on this exact topic over the past several weeks. You can see the past videos here on my YouTube channel, and sign up for my newsletter below to keep up with the rest of the mastering the basic series below.

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