6 Pillars of Health

Modern Lifestyle and Our Health

According to some models of healthcare, many of the common diseases Americans suffer, including heart disease, cerebrovascular disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disease are largely unrelated conditions, and therefore treated differently.

I’d argue that these diseases do share a fundamental theme: 21st century lifestyle.

*(If you want to really delve into how the modern world is killing us, and you desire a radical, piercing, chilling, brilliant perspective on illness and “wellness,” forget about the rest of this post, and just read this.)

One hundred years ago, we didn’t die from the same things we do now (see  What Killed Us, Then and Now for an overview). Of course, there are variables that need to be taken into account, including vaccines, regular health screenings, and other advances in medicine that have reduced the incidence of now treatable (or avoidable) ailments that once might have sent a person to their grave. But why the increase in heart disease? Why the increase in stroke? Diabetes? What it is about our modern lifestyles that increase the prevalence of these diseases? And what can we do about it?

Staying healthy in the 21st century is a multi-faceted endeavor that includes diet, movement, sleep, stress, community, and purpose.

1. Diet & Nutrition

You’re heard it a billion times, I’m sure.

“Eat real food.”

“Don’t eat junk.”

“Avoid toxins.”

An ideal diet incorporates real, nutrient rich, whole foods, and limits the amount of processed and refined foods that are associated with the Standard American Diet (SAD). How to pull this off, especially if you’re strapped for time and cash? Check out 10 Simple and Sustainable Dietary Guidelines for straightforward, practical advice.

2. Movement & Exercise

Ain’t no question about it. The human body is designed for movement.

But Americans have an increasingly sedentary lifestyle; in fact, many of us spend an 8 hours sitting at work, then come home and…sit some more. After-dinner activities include watching TV or scrolling through Facebook. If you’ve done this kind of thing (and most of us have), I’m sure you’ve felt it. Things get stagnant, fast.

Daily movement is an essential part of health. What kind of things do you love to do, that also include movement? Is it dance? Long urban walks while listening to your favorite podcast? Gardening? Yoga? Soccer? Going to the gym?

And by the way, you don’t have to beat yourself up when you’re exercising – for real. Here’s a really great podcast episode about exercise, and how much we really need to do in order to stay fit. (It might surprise you.)

Side note: See here for some great instructive yoga videos in which instructors acknowledge ableism and teach yoga from a place in which body diversity is recognized and supported.

3. Restorative Sleep

Prioritizing sleep is difficult. Especially for Americans, who feel like they should work harder, make more money, look hotter, and smile more. 1/3 of Americans are getting fewer than 6 hours of sleep each night. But here’s the deal – you need 7 to 8 hours of sleep to function properly, and sleep deprivation has been associated with a long list of chronic diseases.  So, yes, getting good sleep is important.

Here’s 3 simple things you can do to sleep better:

  1. Limit your exposure to artificial light at night (i.e. no electronics for two hours before bed).
  2. Create an environment conducive to sleep (comfy, cool, and dark).
  3. Avoid eating too close to bedtime (my rule is if it’s two hours before bedtime, then it’s tea with honey).

4. Manage Stress

It doesn’t matter how healthy you are – if you don’t have ways to manage stress, you’re at an increased risk for modern degenerative conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and thyroid issues.

Here’s the deal. Maintaining your health involves homeostasis, which is the body’s ability to regulate its inner environment (i.e. your bodies ability to return to baseline after a stressful event). If you’re exposed to unmanaged and/or chronic stress, the body can lose the ability to return to homeostasis, and this sets the stage for disease.

Finding what stress management tools works for you is essential. It could be yoga, mantras, meditation, music, long strolls in a green space, or simply hanging out with a good friend. Whatever it is, do your best to identify it, and incorporate it into your life as much as possible.

Chris Kresser (one of my favorite people out there writing about health) recommends two books on this subject: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky and When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection by Gabor Mate.

5. Community

Group of old people walking outdoor
“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” – Dorothy Day

Whether it’s family, friends, a housing co-op, or a support group, people who feel part of a social group or community increase their chances of living longer. In one meta-analytic review, researchers reported that people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships. From this review:

Humans are naturally social. Yet, the modern way of life in industrialized countries is greatly reducing the quantity and quality of social relationships. Many people in these countries no longer live in extended families or even near each other. Instead, they often live on the other side of the country or even across the world from their relatives. Many also delay getting married and having children. Likewise, more and more people of all ages in developed countries are living alone, and loneliness is becoming increasingly common. In the UK, according to a recent survey by the Mental Health Foundation, 10% of people often feel lonely, a third have a close friend or relative who they think is very lonely, and half think that people are getting lonelier in general. Similarly, across the Atlantic, over the past two decades there has been a three-fold increase in the number of Americans who say they have no close confidants. There is reason to believe that people are becoming more socially isolated…

These findings indicate that the influence of social relationships on the risk of death are comparable with well-established risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity. Furthermore, the overall effect of social relationships on mortality reported in this meta-analysis might be an underestimate, because many of the studies used simple single-item measures of social isolation rather than a complex measurement.

6. Purpose

The research is growing. If we can access our “metaphorical compass” and let that provide direction in our day-to-day lives, we’re increasing our chances of living longer. Here for a reason? Is there something in your life that drives you? If so, you’re likely to be here for longer. Check it out.