A handful of DON’Ts for better health

There are a thousand things you should be doing to get in better shape. There are a thousand more you shouldn’t be doing and maybe rightfully so. Time and resources are limited, however, and personally, I like to cut through the crap.

In this article, I’ll name 4 DON’Ts on my mind and stop right there. I’ll purposefully miss out on a whole bunch of others. Maybe it’ll still make for some sticky health advice.

Don’t think your doctor has all the answers

As a gastroenterologist, I work with patients who suffer from lifestyle-related, reversible disorders like obesity, fatty liver disease and irritable bowel syndrome on a daily basis. In many of these cases, physicians like me are to prescribe diagnostics, procedures and medications — it’s business, after all.

Some people believe that aging, sickness and visiting the doc go together and that their physician will somehow fix them if it comes to it. If that is your thinking, you should think again and reconsider. Modern evidence-based medicine, its miracle pills and demigods in white are still surprisingly impotent in the light of today’s major public health problems like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. It might just be that your doc won’t really be able to help you if it comes to that.

On the other side, you have a lot of power in your own hands. I believe that lifestyle changes make all the difference in health. Nutrition, movement, sleep and stress management are pillars in preventing disease and they should always be addressed when dealing with health issues. Habit change is the white whale in modern medicine and doctors should strive for it in all of their patients (even though it doesn’t sell like Nexium and Lipitor).

In my experience as a physician, only simple advice sticks and even then, lasting habit change is hard to come by. That’s why I sometimes prefer to be polemical in health matters and paint the picture with rather simple strokes.

Be good at the basics — nutrition, movement, sleep and stress management — and you might not need to visit your doc so soon.

Don’t screen yourself to bed

This particular “don’t” might be he hardest of them all. It is to me, at least, and I am forever struggling with it. (It’s been my grandma’s daily reminder when I was a little boy: “Now, you turn off that tube and go to bed, already.”)

It’s about getting better sleep. Sleep is king for health and sleep quality (not just sleep duration) is affected to the worse by light-emitting screens.

Screens have taken over our lives and our eyes are glued to them 24/7. I make a point of writing about iPhones and iPads and how to organize your life with these, so I am more than guilty of fueling the matter.

Even if you love your devices — and they may be vital for you in your day — there is a point to be made about their potential to disrupt our internal bodily processes which are heavily regulated by (sun-)light exposure. We are primed by evolution to tire and wind down to sleep at sunset. It’s then when we are the most vulnerable to screen-emitted light.

Going against our internal clocks is always a bad bet in terms of health. As much as we need light during daytime, we need darkness at night. Our internal clock is easily tricked by artificial light — blue light waves in particular, which are strongly represented in the light spectrum emitted by LCD screens.

If you want to up your sleep game (it will make you stronger, happier and more productive, I tell you), don’t stare at screens within the last two hours before bedtime. It doesn’t matter so much when exactly you go to bed (I am a lark and go to bed early) but aim for a screen-free transition time.

If you absolutely can’t avoid late-time screen exposure, try to cut out blue light waves as much as possible. Personally, I use a combination of Nightshift mode on iOS (set to maximum, often combined with dark modes like in Safari Reader or Ulysses) and industrial-grade blue blocking glasses (these unsightly ones made by Uvex). The lamenting and the arguments against this approach (“It’s all orange now.”, color accuracy, etc.) simply don’t hold up. Your vision adapts and, even better, your melatonin stays up.

Don’t just run for fitness

Running is still portrayed as the thing to do if you want to get fit. It’s the big selling point for all the Fitbits and Co. out there and it features heavily on the new Apple Watch. It’s a multibillion dollar industry.

Running is (supposedly) easy and accessible. Everybody can step out the door and give it a try. After all, it’s the original human movement, isn’t it?

While the latter is absolutely true and you should include running in your days, it’s just not the case that the more you run the fitter you’ll get. On the contrary. If you run too much and if you make it too central a building block of your training, you will compromise your fitness.

Marathoners (and including all runners highly specialized in distances above 800 meters) aren’t examples of peak health. Excessive endurance running compromises vital muscle mass which is key to longevity and disease prevention. These runners suffer disproportionately from all kinds of health issues like heart disease and inflammatory disorders which are directly linked to their sport.

If your training focus is on running only, you will not build but degrade the capacity you need to perform best till old age. And that capacity is what we want, don’t we?

(Notabene: Long distance runners also don’t look too good naked.)

Running is a skill that requires proper technique and not everybody is a good runner. (Maybe give race walking a try.)

Speaking as a former solo urban concrete jogger, a running routine can be become boring quickly, too.

Here is how to change it up: Your running should be a part of a larger, more inclusive fitness program that is built upon variety, community, playfulness and fun. The key elements of your training should be functional movements — lifting, pulling, dragging, throwing, jumping, swimming,…including running — that move (heavy) loads quickly, performed at high intensity.

To that only-jogger out there: When was the last time you climbed a rope or lifted a heavy weight off the floor? How would you have stood a chance to survive in primeval times, then? (Say what you will, but human evolution is always a good measure in terms of health and fitness.)

If you want to change up your jogging routine, condense your running into daily intermingled short sprints (up a few stairs, for example), 2–3 fast laps of 200–800m 2–3 times a week and a rare longer distance run (5k) every once in a while. And the next time you go for a run, take a heavy backpack with you.

Don’t drink caloric beverages

We’re learning a lot these days on how the sugar industry has manipulated nutritional science and medicine over decades to sell us sugar water and low-fat yoghurt for their premium. These folks turned us into overweight couch potatoes suffering from depression, heart disease and tooth decay.

The tide is swinging against big soda and their allies and gladly so. (Who still drinks sodas today, anyways? Really?) If you agree on the benefits of not ordering a coke, maybe it’s time you start questioning that fruit juice habits of yours, as well. In terms of sugar (and belly fat, carotid plaques and caries, for that matter), juice and pop aren’t that much different, after all. And so is that latest craft beer and smoothie fad.

You should stop drinking beverages that contain calories in general, including milk, alcohol and juices. Liquid calories are handled worse metabolically by your body than their solid counterparts. If you want fruit and veggies, eat them and don’t liquify them. (Red wine for health? I would argue you get more nutritional value from real grape peels instead.)

Make water your main (if not only) source of hydration, supplemented with the occasional coffee or tea for antioxidants. (Yes, I don’t drink coffee for the caffeine but for the flavonoids and polyphenols. Now, ain’t that hipster?)