Here are more of my working notes for part of my new book: You Don't Need Medicine - To Be Healthy.
The central thesis of the book is that our health is directly connected to the environment. That is why you and I can make the changes that we need to be healthy.
This post is a sketch for the chapter in the book that will be about our body. My Notes on the choices that we face for Diet are here. My notes for the ideal Social World will be here. My notes on all the science that supports this thesis are here.
It's all a system. See the connections to the rest as we look today at your body.
The Body and the Natural World - Make the ideal fit
Today, most of us sit for 10 to 15 hours a day, do no heavy physical work and live in an environment where night and day have no meaning. Most of our lives are spent inside. We think that this is normal. We think that this is progress.
But our bodies were designed for a very different way of life.
For millions of years, so long as we were awake, we moved. We did not take exercise, we were active. We carried a baby all day. We carried wood, water, animal carcasses and our possessions. We used our bodies as tools. The sun and the moon were our main sources of light. They, and the seasons, drove when we went to sleep or woke up. We lived outside. We lived in the sunlight of the day. At night, we felt the pull of the moon. We were integrated into the natural world and our bodies were linked into all the signals of that larger world.
We are still that person. All our "wiring" is designed to operate in this kind of environment. If we live like this our bodies do well. If we don't....
Think for a moment how different your life is today from even your grandparents. Think of how little you use your body in the normal course of the day. Think of how unimportant the dark is. Think of how the clock and not the sun rule your day. Think of how different your children's life is. They are inside all the time. They hardly ever move. They know nothing of the natural world. Think how normal this all feels!
It is very hard for us to see how massive these changes have been. We don't see the huge gap that has opened up between what we do and what our bodies need. All we might hear is "Take more exercise". The gym, sport or even a marathon is not the issue.
The gap is not about what we add onto our daily lives. The gap is to be found in our daily lives.
So let's see what this gap is. When we see it, we can see what to do to close it. We can see what is in our control to be healthy again.
Activity - Don't sit!
I used to sit at work for more than 8 hours a day. I was in the car for 2 hours a day. And, when I got home, I sat all evening and watched TV. 8 hours at the office, 2 hours in the car. 4 hours watching TV. I was a blob.
Every day people exhort us to "Take More Exercise". We understand this to mean "Go to a Gym"; "Train for a Marathon" ; "Play Sport" and "Get a Personal Trainer". I could never do this. As with diet, I could not do what all the experts told me to do and I bet this may be hard for you too. I did not have the time and I hated mindless exercise. But the real issue is not "Exercise" but "Activity". Sitting all day is the big mismatch.
So now I saw that sitting all day was my life, what did I do to change this?
Move when you work
Who 150 years ago sat all day? Who 200 years ago even had a chair? Chairs are something that only Kings sat on. Here is Professor Michael Rose talking about how novel chairs are and why they are bad for us.
So how do we do modern office work without a chair?
This is an answer. This picture is of my standing desk. As you can see I hacked it out of my old desk and a box. I now only sit down at the end of the day and have a drink and read before dinner. And that is when it is not my turn to cook and so keep standing.
So I work, as most of us do today, in front of a screen. But, because I stand, I move all day. At first this was hard. By 10.30am my legs would ache. But, after 3 months, this became my new normal. It is like taking sugar out of your coffee. At first, you hate the new taste. But after a while, you can never go back.
This one decision not to sit all day at work is a game changer.
Choosing a Desk
You can do what I did and hack a desk or just go out and buy one. Here is a link to a review of desks and how to adapt to to them.
I work at home and for myself. It was easy for me to choose to work this new way. It also cost me nothing. If I had more money I would add a treadmill. The ideal is to walk at 1 1/2 miles per hour all day.
If you have a job, you have to convince your employer. There is good evidence that this works well and that organizations that are getting behind this gain benefits very quickly. If they struggle with this idea, get them to set up a small experiment at work and measure what happens. Like this:
"Take Salo, a financial consulting firm based in Minneapolis. The company has 12 treadmill desks, and encourages walking meetings and a mini-breakaway game — a mixture of pingpong, tennis and a bit of squash.
Throughout the day, employees rotate on and off the available treadmill desks. Craig Dexheimer, Salo's director of operations and administration, loves his. He's lost 25 pounds since he started using it. If employees get distracted while walking, he suggests they stop or slow down the treadmill.
A few years ago, Salo took part in a Mayo Clinic study headed by Levine to see what happened when employees used treadmill desks. The study was small — just 18 participants. For six months, they rotated on and off the desks, walking, on average, about three hours a day. Everyone lost weight. And overall, Dexheimer says, health improved. "Total cholesterol decreased, plasma triglycerides dropped on average 37 percent in total for all 18 participants.
"Remarkable," he says. "We didn't even go to a gym. We just went to work!"
And productivity didn't suffer. In fact, Dexheimer says, during the six months of the study, Salo's revenues were the highest ever. The environment, he says, was simply "more dynamic." (Source: NPR)
This story has it all. Make moving at work the new normal. Activity is not an add on. It must be how we live.
So, now you don't sit at work, what about the rest of the day?
Most people commute. The average American spends 18 1/2 hours a week in their car. They spend 2 months a year in the car! (Source)
2 months a year sitting in the car! Ideally, we all have to reduce the time we spend sitting in the car. And, apart from the downside of sitting in the car for so long, think of all the other things you might do in this 2 months? Think about what this 2 months in the car also costs you? (See You Don't Need a Job)
I solved my commute time challenge by working at home. I work as a writer. My commute is a 20 second walk to the home office. But working at home has its draw backs too. We get lonely. We get interupted. We lose momentum. We are not designed to work alone. Do you have a Co Working site near you? Co Working sites are in many locations now. Here is a directory. There will likely be one closer to you than your office. When I lived on Prince Edward Island, the Queen Street Commons, my co working place, was 10 minutes away by car. It was a welcome break from home.
But what if you have a job and live far away from work? Can you negotiate a telecommuting deal? Progressive employers are getting behind telecommuting. It's not for everyone and it is not for every job or employer. But neither is 2 months in the car. Some jobs have to be at the plant too. So in the end, we have to decide what on balance is best for us. Many of us don't have jobs anyway. Most of us will lose our jobs. (See You Don't Need a Job)
The Job and how that system works is of course the centre of the problem of the health breakdown of modern society. As you will, see throughout this book, the Job adds risk factors to our health. At some point, we all will have to confront this.
But for now, ask yourself how can you reduce the amount of time you spend sitting in the car commuting?
TV - Get rid of it
The average American watches 76 days of TV a year (153 hours a week Nielson) I cannot stop thinking about the 2 months in the car commuting and 2 months on the sofa watching TV. No wonder we don't have any time.
It's not just the time spent sitting watching TV: which is such a long time anyway. But I think also of how TV drives all sorts of additional poor health factors. TV acts like a sedative. We don't just sit, we slump. We go into a zone. It also isolates us. Each family member has their own TV and schedule. So it affects how we eat and with whom. We tend to eat alone and to make the TV schedule the home schedule. TV also is a major factor in why so many sleep so badly. We stay up too late and we upset our circadian clock by its light.
TV is like junk food. It is a pivot of the culture that is making us ill. And of course Junk food and TV go together don't they? Getting rid of junk food and TV are the two easiest actions we can take for this choice depends on no one else. It is all in our control. Both are hard to do at first but, after only 3 months, you will feel so much better and this good feeling will spur you on to do more.
My wife and I have been disconnected from the TV for 3 years now. At first, this was hard. TV was so central to our lives. But soon we felt the difference. I don't slump for hours at the end of the day. I am not assaulted by all the ads and jabber. Meal times are social again and they drive the evening schedule. We have time to cook real food. We talk! We read. And we go to bed early. More on that in a minute. Oh and cutting the cord to TV saved us about $90 a month or $1,000 a year. It just about pays my wine bill.
But what about the web? We spend a lot of time there too. The great thing about the web is that it is not passive. We do not just collapse before it. It does not force us to break our attention every 4 minutes. We don't have to be slumped in a lazy boy to use it. I stand to use my computer. It has no schedule. It's not perfect but it is much better than TV.
Get rid of your TV. I promise that you will not regret this decision.
Walking is the best exercise
When I hear the words "take more exercise." I think of gyms. I think of good looking, young and thin people in expensive outfits. Then I think of the cost, the time and how old I am and then I get put off. So here is the good news. While going to the gym is good for you, there are simpler and cheaper alternatives to ensure that you are fit.
We have to build activity into our daily lives and not make it an add on. Walking is best exercise that we can take. And, to make this even easier, 30 minutes a walk is the optimum amount of time. That's not too hard to fit into a day is it?
So here is my "gym".
Here is my Personal Trainer! Having a dog is a wonderful motivator. Rain, snow or sun: every day the dog calls me to walk. Not just once a day but at least 3 times a day. There need to walk like this is an important reason why I choose to have a dog. Dogs are like children. They demand a lot for us. But I think they are worth it and I plan always to have one.
But you don't need a dog, you only need to make walking your normal. Walking is why people in cities are now much more healthy than rural folks. The difference is walking. City folks walk more.
I have chosen to live in a small community where I can walk to all the important parts of town. The General Store is 5 minutes away. The bank, post office and restaurants are maybe 8 minutes away. This choice was very deliberate on my part.
Chose to make your car less important in your life. Once you make this choice, other avenues open up for you.
We have to be strong
It is important to be strong. As we get older, we lose strength. As we get weaker we can do less and less. It's a vicious cycle. In the end we can do next to nothing to help ourselves live a normal life. So again do we all have to go to the gym to get strong? You can. This is an area where the gym can be a big help and again, you don't have to spend hours there. My Crossfit friends spend very little time at the gym but their time there is very intense.
Intensity is important in strength training.
But I don't go to the gym. I have instead tried to build strength into my daily life. Just as I have tried to build activity into it as well. After all our paleo ancestors did not workout. They just worked.
Here is a big part of my strength building activity.
The joke about heating with wood is that it keeps you warm in three ways. First of all there is the sourcing of the wood. Cutting and stacking. Secondly there is the moving the wood inside and stacking it there for the winter. Lastly there is the moving of the wood every day to the stove. Oh and yes the stove gives off heat too!
You can find your own way to be more active around the home. This is my answer but there are many others. Gardening would be a big help. All that lifting and bending.
What helps is to find something that has a high utility and that forces you to work with your body. It can be anything but the test is "Is it part of your life?' or "Is it an add on?"
Can you see the pattern I am drawing?
An active life is a life where all that you need to look after the bio mechanical needs of our body is built into the life that you live every day. It is the same as eating differently.
Just as food is not a pitstop, so sleep is not just a rest. Sleep is a major part of how our body and mind restores itself. But modern life makes it hard to get the sleep we need.
The most important factor in how you sleep is light. Our circadian sensors are acutely sensitive to light.
It's the same kind of process with Leptin and appetite. If we eat grains and sugars, we block the Leptin channel that tell us that we are full. Our light sensors tell us to get sleepy is the light goes away. If we stimulate them with light well into the night, they get confused. We lose our internal clock.
So how best to get our clock running properly again?
Here is what works for me. Never have the TV in my bedroom. Even better, don't have a TV as it can keep you up in the light long after you are ready to go to sleep. Read before bed in another room in low light. The bed is for sleep or love.
Keep off social media in the later evening (OK I do cheat here sometimes) NEVER read email late at night.
Go to bed early. I am usually asleep by 9.30pm in the winter. So if I wake up at 3am, as older folks tend to do, I can know I have already had nearly 6 hours sleep and don't fuss.
Have blackout curtains. Many of us live in urban settings with high intensity street lights. If they shine into your bedroom, they will confuse your clock.
Diet plays a role in a good night's sleep too. I used to suffer from heartburn and apnea. My dad died of apnea. Taking grains and most carbs out of the diet has ended this. I regret that I find drinking less is a huge help too.
You don't have to have all your sleep in one go either. We are not designed to sleep for 8 hours straight. We are designed to sleep in batches. A good nap is also very restorative.
The job plays a large role in our not sleeping well too. The job works on clock time and we work by circadian time. Knowing that we have to get up at a fixed time every day puts "Performance Pressure" on our sleep. How I remember waking up and looking at the clock and worry about how I only had 2 hours left. How wrenching the alarm could be. How wonderful it is not to have to get up at a fixed time! I still get up early but now I wake naturally and there is no pressure. Now when I wake in the middle of the night, I can go back and have the kind of dream filled sleep that I had as a teen. It's a joy to go to bed.
Make sleep as important a priority as good food and activity. It's worth it I promise as you will find out as you sleep better.
The Sun and Vitamin D
The sun has become our enemy. When we go outside, we are told to lather on the sunscreen. But the reality is that we are designed to be outside. The sun is how we get most of the hormone that we need to stay well. Many of us live in zones that make it all but impossible on the best of days to get this vital benefit from the sun.
The problem is that we are now starved of a key hormone, Vitamin D.
” Vitamin D is by far the greatest deficiency in the civilized world. Surveys show that at least 70% of all Americans are vitamin D deficient, and up to 85% of African-American women of child-bearing age are deficient. 48% of young girls aged 9 to 11 are deficient. 76% of pregnant mothers are severely vitamin D deficient causing widespread deficiencies in their unborn children. 90% of all hospital patients are deficient, and 99% of nursing home residents are deficient. 65% of Chicago residents are deficient and even doctors living in southern Florida are 42% deficient. It is estimated that at least 1 billion people worldwide are deficient.” Saunders Vitamin D Deficiency (Link pdf)
It is hard enough to get enough D naturally in the North. But now we live indoors, many of us get next to none.
"Caucasian skin produces approximately 10,000 IU vitamin D in response to 20–30 minutes summer sun exposure. This is over 16 times higher than the US government’s recommendation of 600 IUper day!
This high rate of natural production of vitamin D3 cholecalciferol(pronounced koh·luh·kal·sif·uh·rawl) in the skin is the single most important fact every person should know about vitamin D—a fact that has profound implications for the natural human condition.
Technically not a “vitamin,” vitamin D is in a class by itself. Its metabolic product, calcitriol, is actually a secosteroid hormone that is the key that unlocks binding sites on the human genome. The human genome contains more than 2,700 binding sites for calcitriol; those binding sites are near genes involved in virtually every known major disease of humans.
Current research has implicated vitamin D deficiency as a major factor in the pathology of at least 17 varieties of cancer as well as heart disease, stroke, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, depression, chronic pain, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, muscle weakness, muscle wasting, birth defects, periodontal disease, and more.
Vitamin D’s influence on key biological functions vital to one’s health and well-being mandates that vitamin D no longer be ignored by the health care industry nor by individuals striving to achieve and maintain a greater state of health.
If well adults and adolescents regularly avoid sunlight exposure, research indicates a necessity to supplement with at least 5,000 units (IU) of vitamin D daily. To obtain this amount from milk one would need to consume 50 glasses. With a multivitamin more than 10 tablets would be necessary. Neither is advisable." (link)
I am not advocating sun bathing. Just as I am not saying we have to be at the gym all day. I am saying that we need to build the sdun back into how we live our lives. This means being outside a lot more and wearing less clothing and NOT putting on tons of sunscreen.
Back to walking the dog. Playing with the grand kids. Wood cutting and stacking. Gardening. Biking. You choose: but get outside as a matter of routine in the summer and take Vitamin D pills in the winter. How much to take? I take 8,000 units a day. This is the equivalent of 20 minutes outside in summer.
I find that bringing how I live every day back to how I use my body is the best way to look after it.
I can design how I live today to meet the needs of how evolution has shaped my body. I can also do that with how I eat. But can I also live socially as I was designed to live? Can I bring the tribal life and all that comes with that back into my reality too?
I can and have done that.