Have you ever thought about how many sensors are on our cars? The speedometer measures speed, the fuel gauge measures fuel, and the TPM system measures tire pressure. While those sensors might be the first that come to mind, they are just the beginning. There are sensors that measure the temperature of the air coming into the engine, and the temperature of the exhaust going out. Sensors also measure the pressure of the air coming in. And its density. And volume. And the temperature of the fuel. And the pressure of the fuel. And the pressure of the brake fluid. And the pressure of the transmission fluid. And the temperature of the coolant in the cooling system.
In all, modern cars have approximately 200 sensors. And all of these sensors are designed for one single purpose: To keep us safe.
What’s especially intriguing to me is that although our cars have 200 sensors to keep us safe, we so often don’t keep ourselves safe.
Several years ago, I heard a thought experiment that stuck with me. Imagine that you could only buy one single car for your entire life. How would you treat it? Would you ever ignore the check engine light? Would you ever forget to rotate the tires? Flush the fluids? Replace the belts? Imagine just how much you would care for your car if you knew it was the only one you could ever have.
Given how much we would care for this hypothetical car, it’s surprising to think how frequently we neglect our bodies…the only one’s we’ll ever have. There are no do overs, no replacement bodies, and spare parts are hard to come by. Sadly, we frequently treat our bodies worse than our cars. And even worse for us, our bodies don’t have flashing-light sensors screaming at us to take care of them. Given that we don’t have digital sensors constantly reporting on our health, we need to be proactive in taking care of our bodies.
Which leads to the question, how should we take care of our bodies? What should we prioritize when it comes to our health?
One way to think about this question is to invert it, and ask ourselves which organs, if damaged, would harm us the most? By inverting the question, we quickly come up with two organs we cannot neglect: our heart and our brain.
The Mayo Clinic, one of the world’s most respected hospital systems, recommends three things to take care of our heart. The first two are obvious: eat a good diet and exercise. The third one surprised me though: Get enough sleep.
And then I was in for another surprise when I learned their top three recommendations to take care of our brain: eat a good diet, exercise, and, once again, get enough sleep.
I think it’s interesting that the two most important organs in our bodies require the exact same three things to be healthy. Given that heart health and brain health are the ultimate indicators of overall health, and that sufficient sleep, a healthy diet, and adequate exercise, are the most important factors in keeping our heart and brain healthy, I believe that for most of us, there is nothing else we should prioritize more in our lives than sufficient sleep, a healthy diet, and adequate exercise.
Regarding sleep, one of the most important things we need to do for our overall health is to spend enough time doing nothing: we need to let our heart and brain get the rest they need. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, children should get 9-12 hours of sleep each night, teenagers 8-10 hours, and adults 7-9 hours. While some people need slightly less sleep than others, it is simply impossible for us to consistently be at our best if we are sleep deprived.
The problem with sleep deprivation is that its consequences are not always immediate, and the negative consequences of poor sleep add up over time. Lack of sleep can lead to diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, obesity, and even death. Another problem with lack of sleep is that it’s hard to ever make it up. Some people sacrifice sleep during the week and then try to catch up on the weekend. While trying to catch up is better than not, the average hours slept hides the fact that not all sleep is equal. Research on sleep suggests that catching up on sleep during the weekend doesn’t undo all of the negative impacts of insufficient sleep.
Bragging about sleeping 5 hours per night is like bragging about driving a car without ever changing the oil, or ever refueling it. Eventually you will run out of gas or destroy your engine. Our goal in life should be to maximize health for the long run, not skimp on it. Both our present selves and our future selves are depending on it. Some of the best advice I’ve heard was that all self-help can be boiled down to one phrase: choose long term over short term. Please choose long term health.
Of course doctors, emergency workers, military service members, and others sacrifice their own health for ours. But for the rest of us, if you have a job that doesn’t let you get enough sleep, try to find a new job. If you have a study schedule, social schedule, or hobby schedule that requires you to sacrifice sleep, please reorganize your schedule. When thinking about managing our time well, I’m reminded of the first meeting I had with my college football coach Ed Larsen: he said that in college you have three lives: your school life, your football life, and your social life. But you only have time for two of them. So choose wisely. Living a healthy life involves tradeoffs. And when it comes to sleep, please prioritize it, and fit everything else around it. When choosing between sufficient sleep and almost everything else, choose sleep.
The second way we take care of our heart and our brain is to eat healthy. For 1000s of years our ancestors worried about not getting enough food. But now, for the first time in human history, one of our greatest challenges is that we eat too much. Thus, the most important rule for most of us today is to limit calories. And surprisingly, one of the best ways to limit calories is to get enough sleep, because sleep deprivation leads to overeating.
But we also need to make sure we’re eating healthy when we do eat. But what’s healthy? Food science is always changing, as demonstrated by the changes to the food pyramid over the years. Fad diets tell us to avoid fats, and to eat fats, to cut carbs and to eat carbs, to reduce protein and to only eat protein. While it’s not easy to figure out the exact right diet, we can look to the tried and true advice spanning decades. And the advice that seems to remain unchanged is to limit calories and eat a variety of foods. And it’s probably a good idea to prioritize vegetables and drink plenty of water. Of course we should consider what the latest science says about healthy diets. And we should find what works best for us. But focusing on variety, and limiting calories is a great start.
The third way we take care of our heart and our brain is to exercise. In high school I was obsessed with finding the exact right work out. Should I do 4 sets of 10? Or 10 sets of 4? Should I focus on cardio? Flexibility? Strength? Endurance? For years I floundered. I worked out, made some progress, but never hit my peak. Until I made it to college. And then I found the secret: Once I found the secret, I lost 30 pounds in one year, while simultaneously gaining probably 25 pounds of muscle. I also got below 5% body fat. So what was the secret?
Well, I worked out a lot. And I worked out hard. That was the key. It was that simple. Because I was playing football, I had to lift 4 days a week for over an hour each time, and then do cardio 5-6 days / week for approximately 90 minutes each time.
The actual exercises, repetitions, strategies, techniques, were essentially the same as I’d been doing for years. But in college, I pushed myself harder. In hindsight the secret was obvious. If you exercise 15 hours per week you’ll be in great shape.
To this day I still get asked about the “best” workout plan. Although my advice over the years has changed, I’m now finally convinced that I know the answer. Simply put, the best workout plan is the one you’ll actually do. There’s no replacing time and effort.
That’s not to say the program doesn’t matter. Of course it does on the margin. If you want to get from the 99th percentile to the 99.99th percentile, then the specific program matters a lot. But for most of us, what matters is that we put in the time. Work out hard 6 days / week, and you’ll be pretty healthy.
Given that we’re all busy, it’s certainly worth spending time trying to find the program that helps us maximize our returns based on the time we put in. But always remember, the best exercise program is the program that you’ll do. You only have one body, so please exercise it, a lot. Both your heart and your brain are depending on it.
While sleep, diet, and exercise are necessary for a healthy heart and brain, a healthy brain requires two additional things that the heart doesn’t require. To have a healthy brain we also need to be mentally and socially active.
To be mentally active we need to read books, take classes, listen to podcasts, and have stimulating discussions. In my job as a researcher I’m always intrigued by the predictors of job satisfaction. Time and again, one of the strongest predictors of job satisfaction is whether people are learning new things on their jobs. If we’re progressing mentally we’ll be more satisfied both in our professional and personal lives.
We also need to progress socially. Consider for a moment that one of the most severe punishments for criminals is solitary confinement. Our brains need positive interactions with other people. John Wooden, the UCLA basketball coach who won 10 NCAA championships, was also renowned for his simple, inspirational messages. One of his recommendations that I’ve never forgotten is to make friendship a fine art. It’s easy to be passive in our friendships, to take them for granted. But deep friendships, like happy, healthy marriages, require effort and sacrifice. Friendships are precious and we need to treat them as such. And we need to prioritize friendship to be healthy. Our brains are counting on it.
In summary, we’re continuously making decisions about how to spend our time, so we need to set priorities. If we set the wrong priorities, every other aspect of our life will suffer. So in my mind nothing is more important in this world than prioritizing our own health. Because every other aspect of our life depends on us being healthy.
When our heart stops beating or our brain stops working, it’s curtains. That’s it.
So kids, please prioritize the health of your heart and your brain. The formula is simple: sleep, diet, exercise, education, and friendship. Please treat your body like it’s the only car you’ll ever have. Because it is.
It’s a simple idea, please take it seriously.
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