Wellness Heuristics

24 April, 2018

I spend a lot of energy sifting through information on the internet about how to take better care of my health. I'm also passionate about experimenting and tweaking my behaviour in order to feel healthier and hopefully increase my health span. The latter is very likely motivated by an overwhelming fear of death.

Here are some of the heuristics, mental models and tactics I'm currently using. There are 4 categories of health I pay particular attention to – Sleep, Nutrition, Emotional and Activity.

The heuristics and tactics which make you feel healthier are pretty definitive and robust. You can try them and your mileage might vary slightly, but if you do them properly and with enough intensity you're probably going to feel pretty great afterwards. The heuristics and tactics around increasing health span, though, are far more speculative. It's amazing how little we know definitively about what makes you live longer. I believe this is because it's so difficult to track a lot of individuals over the course of their lives. This looks like it'll improve as we continue to carry more sensors around with us on devices like smartphones.

Sleep
  • Take baths – recently I noticed my sleep was qualitatively worse. I woke feeling less rested and often woke up in the night. I noticed this was particularly the case when my mind was very busy before going to bed. It's tough when you work at home alone and there's no natural breakpoint between work and going to bed.

    Something which has made a significant difference has been taking baths before bed. Immediately after the bath I feel much fresher and relaxed in my muscles. I also wake up feeling noticeably better-refreshed the next morning. I tried this recently and remember thinking "wow, I haven't felt this well-rested since I was a child".

    I think baths are good because there's something innately relaxing about being immersed in water. There's less physical pressure on your musculo-skeletal system so your muscles start relaxing themselves.

    But there's more to it. When you're in the bath you can't use a computer. Computers, smartphones in particular, are really bad for relaxing. They have powerful associations with work – you're always one shortcut away from whatever you're working on at the moment. This works away on your mind and builds tension even if you have no intention of actually doing any work. Baths are also an escape from mindless browsing – of social media sites for example.

    I have been tempted to stick on a video or Netflix show when in the bath. I don't do this anymore. I find watching shows and movies to generally be pretty mindless. Mindless in the sense that they take you away from whatever you're experiencing right now. This is almost never desirable. In fact I often dial up my mindfulness in the bath by throwing on a audio-guided meditation or the Breathe watch on my Apple Watch.

    I experiment with keeping the light off in the bath, to further minimise sensual stimulation. Not sure if this makes a big different, but I like the idea. Sometimes, I'm not ashamed to say, I enjoy to light the odd candle. This is genuinely out of convenience though – it's pretty difficult to get in and out of the bath with zero light whatsoever.

  • Check tonight's temperature forecast before going to bed – I pretty consistently sleep badly when there are big shifts in temperature. Particularly when it gets cold. I've started to check the weather before I go to bed each night. If it's going to be cold I wear clothes to bed – got some trusty PJs these days.

Nutrition
  • G-BOMBS – this mnemonic has almost become synonymous with 'eating' for me. It stands for Greens, Beans, Onions, Mushrooms, Beans and Seeds. The idea is that you should eat these as much as you can.

    Greens are basically kale and spinach for me – maybe a bit of watercress or whatever. I often throw these into a NutriBullet with a Granny Smith apple for a bit of sweetness.

    I heard about it through Blue Zones – it wasn't their discovery but I've grown to trust them.

  • Per meal nutrient density – every meal I look at the options and see how many G-BOMBS ingredients they contain. More G-BOMBS, better meal.

    I find decisions around food to be slightly-anxiety inducing because the evidence suggests food is so critical to health and because there are so many options to choose from. I've found that deploying this tactic reduces that anxiety because it's an easy-to-apply visual heuristic which very quickly reduces the number of available options when shopping or eating out.

Mental
  • Meditate – I'm kind of surprised I've never put my thoughts on meditation into writing before, but here we are. Out of all the things I've listed here, meditation has probably had the biggest impact on my overall well-being.

    One of the biggest benefits I've seen from meditation is mood-regulation. I used to fall prey to a downward cycle in my mood which led to bouts of depression. Never clinical depression, but it was really pretty miserable for a good while towards the end of secondary school/beginning of university. Honestly I don't know how it worked but I did about a thousand hours of meditation and haven't had a serious bout of depression since.

    Another big thing I've experienced through meditation is a new benchmark for calm. The most tranquil I have ever felt is about 2 thirds through a Vipassana retreat after 70 hours of near-consecutive meditation. It felt like I'd melted into a different universe – a really warm, still one. I was hyper-alert and totally relaxed. I think of that experience from time to time and make concrete decisions to bring myself closer back to it more regularly. For example, my ambition for years has been to start a lifestyle business to take more control of my time and spend more time meditating.

    The final thing which is remarkable about meditation and how it contributes to health is in its ability to 'reset' my mind. One of the best analogies for this is the build up of clutter around your home. If you don't clean your home or tidy up, your house gets all dirty and messed up. The mind works in exactly the same way. People find this extremely difficult to grasp or ignore it because without an experience of extended meditation it's difficult to picture how different their experience can be. But the mind truly can be de-cluttered and it makes you feel great. It makes you feel mentally lighter – maybe that's where the use of the word 'enlightenment' comes from in Buddhism. Something that will get all you productivity nuts going is that an experience of this gives you this incredible natural productivity boost. I did a full-day retreat last year and the following weekend completely restructured my personal productivity operations and started shipping like crazy. I feel a bit weird recommending it for that reason, maybe because I'm just suspicious of productivity as an end in itself, but it's an undeniable effect of meditation 🤷‍♂️.

  • Spend time doing stuff with and for other people – I assert that helping other people with their goals is one of the best ways to get and stay mentally healthy.

    I think you can find this in your work or with family and friends or in your local community.

    I feel like a bit of a fraud writing more about this because I'm mostly pretty "help myself first". But it's something I'm thinking about a lot and working on because I actually think it's one of the best ways to bring mental wellbeing to yourself.

  • Social games – I think there's some evolutionary mechanism by which humans are rewarded for taking into consideration what other people are experiencing.

    I once heard that people in their 90s who miss one week of their weekly bridge game are significantly more likely to die the following week. I don't know if it's true or not. But the idea has really stuck with me. I think what's going on is that games like board games and cards are really powerful models for interacting with the thoughts and experiences of others, and our minds recognise that as some kind of source of energy.

    One of my favourite activites is playing board and card games. I'll regularly meet up with friends here in London at the Draughts Board Game Café. I also play a fair bit of poker. I particularly enjoy social deception games like The Resistance and strategy games like Catan. Poker's great obviously.

    In general I find it super relaxing to play games with people. It really helps me break out of the loops I get into when working in isolation. They're also a great way to make friends for a dweeb like me.

Activity
  • Cardio/Strength/Flexibility – these seem to be the critical areas to focus your physical activity on. As a 31 year old, I currently do so much more in aid of feeling good rather than in the interests of health span. I do think it'll eventually help boost my health span by building my knowledge and habits in these areas, though.

  • Run every other day – I got into running when I was going through some personal difficulties. I was pretty overwhelmed emotionally and somebody on the internet said it would make a difference. Sure enough, it proved to be extremely effective for extinguishing negative moods. Now that I think of it I'm not sure precisely which negative mood it is good for eliminating, probably because I just haven't experience those moods in several years, since I started running regularly.

    Running isn't just good for not feeling bad. It's also a way to feel good. It's quite addictive. After a good run I feel what you might call a 'buzz' – a sort of mild euphoria. My head feels light and I am less aware of physical aches and pains which bothered me before the run. I often take a freezing cold shower after running, too, and the combination makes me feel warm. I also notice that my face skin looks a lot more smooth and takes on a nice slightly-red colour.

    If you assume that exercising your cardiovascular system increases your health span then I do not believe there is a better form of activity than running. This mostly comes down to its balance between ease-of-use and how good you feel afterwards. All you need for running is some sports clothes, shoes and an idea of where to run. Yoga's pretty simple in terms of equipment, but you have to learn and remember how to do it. You feel bloody great after a heavy-squats session, but it's kind of dangerous, there's actually quite a lot of technique to it, you have to pay for a gym membership and often waste time waiting for other plebs to get off the machine.

  • Yorpees – Yorpees are a simple exercise routine. I like to think I invented this but recognise that's improbable. Yorpees are my simple answer to getting some regular strength/cardio/flexibility action into my day.

    Here's how to do a yorpee—

    1. Do 2 press ups
    2. Jump as high as you can like a pencil
    3. Land and go into downward dog
    4. Do upward dog
    5. Jump as high as you can like a pencil

    I do yorpee sets as a break between work sessions. A yorpee set is 3 repetitions of a yorpee. I usually throw in a 2 minute breathing meditation afterwards.

    It's really pretty simple but I'd be happy to put together a little video of a yorpee –{' '} [let me know](j.kou.bowles@gmail.com?subject=Do a yorpee instructional video pls) {' '} if you're interested.

  • Hit the sauna if you can – there was a big study recently of Finnish sauna goers which indicated that your risk of dying from heart disease and developing neurodegenerative diseases is significantly lower if you use the sauna regularly. Their recommendation is 20 minutes 4 times a week at a temperature of 80–90 degrees celcius.

    Honestly, I find 20 minutes 4 times a week to be really difficult to achieve. At least I did with a full-time office job – could be worth trying again now that I'm responsible for my own time and location. These days I don't even have a gym membership so I'm not using the sauna. I wish I could get access to a sauna without a whole bloody gym membership.

  • Don't drink absurd amounts of coffee – this past week I changed my coffee machine from an espresso machine to one of those Italian mokas/mochas (sp?). I didn't really consider how much I was consuming at the time, but in hindsight it must have been the equivalent of 8 espressos a day. And it was a bloody nightmare. Couldn't sleep; stress built up like a mofo. I probably shouldn't have to put this here but it's remarkable how often I repeat this mistake.

  • Cold showers

General
  • Overlap – or 'aiming for the lollapalooza'. All the areas I list below are connected in counter-intuitive ways. Much of the time, doing an activity in one area will benefit another. For example, eating well improves your nutrition but it also boosts your mental and emotional state, and can help you sleep better. Sometimes I try to plan for that – I've gone through periods of doing yoga because it's this great blend of exercise and calm-building.

  • Always Building Appropriate Momentum (ABAM) – I beat myself up a lot for not acting more on these heuristics and tactics. For example, I know how profoundly better I will feel and operate if I do an hour or more of meditation a day. But I very rarely do that much. And so I strain and tense to try to make it happen, and when I don't get it done I feel bad. Something which has helped with this recently is the idea of ABAM.

    The principle of ABAM states that we need to respect our current degree of momentum with a particular habit. For example, it would be a huge effort for me to do 2 hours of meditation today. That's because I'm just not in the way of meditating. I've been traveling in Milan and I haven't done any meditation for several weeks. On average I've probably done about 2 minutes a day for the past 2 weeks. So ABAM proposes that you take an incremental towards your end goal. Instead of trying to launch into 2 hours of meditation today, just go for an increment of your current average. If you've been doing about 2 minutes a day, try and do 5 minutes today. If you're averaging and hour, push yourself up to an hour and a half, or whatever feels like a manageable challenge.

    Another application of ABAM is if you're trying to completely restart a habit, or start something new. Say you haven't gone for a run for 6 months. You keep telling yourself to get back to it, and you keep failing and are feeling less and less effective. To build momentum from scratch is very different to building upon existing momentum. In the case where you have no momentum I find I often need to do things which would seem like ludicrous baby steps from the outset. In this running example above, which is a representative recent example for me, rather than pushing myself to run for the first couple of days I just put on my running gear and walked around the route I usually run. I don't know how it works but it's super effective in building that little bit of momentum and it ends up getting me back to running very quickly. I often have to do this when I'm moving to a new place. In fact, one of the first things I do when I travel to a new place now is to do 2 minutes of meditation and walk around the nearest park on Google Maps, just to starting greasing those new habits right away.

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