Building health, physical and mental
Next to my activity as independent consultant I have helped myself and a few others to eat better, lose weight and build up good physical and mental health. Such health is not just the absence of disease, but the good working of mind and body, so that we can do what we like (whatever that is) for as long as we like and in the way we like to do it. Health is being able to run to catch a tram without effort and fitting into the clothes we want. Health is managing our mood: being effective in meetings and staying calm in negotiations. Health is being aware of ourselves and respectful of our needs. Health is achieving many of the things we want.
What is the point of our everyday efforts? There are many answers. Earning a living and having family and friends are important to most of us. I also try to get better and be happier with myself. For you, the answer will be different. It depends on how you express, to yourself, what you and your life are about. In my case, I’m much about learning, exploring seemingly unrelated things and making connections. I love to understand, and then to find new things to get curious about: metabolism, brain plasticity, organizational psychology, decision-making, group thinking. Luckily, I have a small family to love and care for. I have a few friends and many acquaintances. Sometimes I win work and commit to clients, who I also care for. Some people inspire and help me get better. My getting better has mostly to do with myself, but it is not selfish. Figuring me out helps me show up better for others. I think that is extra important in times like these, when work and everyday life are disrupted and many of us have to reinvent ourselves.
This page contains my conclusions, so far, about how to gain greater control of how to be healthy and do better in life. It’s anchored in sets of small, everyday things. I group them into the three main areas of thinking, eating and doing; by that I mean thought practices, knowing about food and nutrition and being intentional with actions. Extending it, I add more areas that have to do with awareness of our bodies; they are breathing, relaxation, sensing mood and correcting posture. How it fits together is dynamic – with several areas affecting other areas. I map them this way:
The day is a cycle and I do my best to start and run each day well. I collect the experience of many days in order to stay motivated for being (even more) purposeful about my coming days. My habits, the ones I’ve conquered and the tiny ones I’m implementing, help me shape my identity and render my life easy and positive. Sometimes I am on a streak and I extend my good habits and achieve more than I planned. Other days I fall behind and wonder when next I will get really going. I recognize that focusing on these things makes me a bit of a health-freak, but I also genuinely believe that respecting these basic things about eating, thinking and doing puts them into focus, which helps in crafting sound habits and collecting good days.
One of my favorite neuroscientists is Andrew Huberman at Stanford. He researches on vision and neuroplasticity (learning) and uses a five-element framework to explain the brain and nervous system: sensations, perceptions, feelings, thoughts and actions.
Sensations are technical in nature and always on; you sense all of what’s in your environment even if you’re not paying attention. The way to influence them is to choose where you are and what you do. City-life sensations are different to sensations from the suburb.
Perception is about what sensations, feelings and thoughts you become aware of and process. They are highly selectable, especially with training. Life can be so much better by just choosing a little bit more what we pay attention to. There is no fully controlling it, but continuous work on selecting some of your perception is an effective way to improve how life feels.
There is much research on feelings but we know few things for sure. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book “How Emotions Are Made” argues it’s all about nourishing ourselves (hydration, salt levels, nutrients, bacteria, endorphins) and then putting some thought into the process of intraception, the sensing of internal states in the body. Combine this idea with the fact that you can steer the nervous system (more below) and you get a powerful tool for living better.
Thoughts, as products of mental activity, build on perception, are influenced by feelings and are highly influential to our actions. I think the essence of thought development is greater consciousness and attention to thought, combined with better selection of perceptions and active insertion of thoughts. With that, you can choose your way to improve your thinking and your actions.
Actions, in turn, is what ultimately matters for both survival and change. No matter the crispness of your thinking, it is by talking, moving, doing that all of us “are” in the world, for ourselves and to other people. One good book on this, from a business context, is “Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader” by Herminia Ibarra. It is by experience and by seeing the effects of our actions that we learn. Another great new book is that from BJ Fogg, “Tiny Habits – the Small Changes that Change Everything“, which helps you to convert challenges into tweaks in your life that you value and are proud of.
It turns out the autonomic nervous system isn’t so autonomic after all. Well it is, because we do not have to worry about it. But if we do, it works better. The front lobe in our brains where executive functions reside is far better than the rest of the brain and body to pick up on the fact that we live in 2021, with access to (almost) everything and with a completely different set of opportunities and challenges compared to the times we humans were adapted for. Pandemic or not, we do have marvelous control over our lives and it is rare that our existence is seriously challenged. (When so, it most often has to do with health, which is why caring proactively for health makes so much sense.) Generally, we overuse our sympathetic nervous system (alertness) and often neglect or forget to access the parasympathetic (relaxation) system. That is a pity for our wellbeing and for learning. It turns out, as adults we learn when we focus on something with high level of attention. We learn best when we care and when we are under pressure to learn. Entrepreneurs, immigrants and children learn fast.
The way to develop a healthy thoughts practice starts with putting time aside for it, time when you aren’t expected to do other things. Put up some visual or habitual cues in order to trigger thinking about thinking. Then I recommend you to be kind to yourself (observe, but not judge) and that you get some quality input to your thinking, for example from Andrew Huberman or other neuro-scientists, and professionals in psychology or from other fields. Trust your intuition a bit but anchor your thoughts in things that are known. If it helps you, find out about your MBTI, what energizes you and what your learning style is. Recognize how you work, how your brain takes you through life. Build on that. Develop practices that work for you.1
Setting and keeping a purposeful diet is a skill, worth to learn. It involves finding the right sources, taking in and processing information, analyzing habits, testing results, drawing conclusions, and refining what you know and what you do. Take my example. I am a consultant and problem-solver who decided to solve the problem of my weight. I lost 10 kilos, 14% of my weight. I keep my shape. It’s with effort, a very reasonable effort that I choose to make. I never think that I am on a diet. But I am. I decided in 2017 what my diet is. Through trial and error, I refine it. I continue, slowly, to lose weight. Eating with purpose is part of who I am.
Diet is a long-term game. Even though it may be trivial at each moment, it matters what your diet is. By learning about food and eating with purpose you improve your life and influence people around you. You gain control, and change becomes much easier. Once a body adapts to better eating so does taste, encouraging healthy eating! Hunger reduces. Energy levels go up. Isn’t it a nicer problem to look for nutrient-rich foods at mealtime than it is to be disturbed by bursts of hunger during the day?
Does learning about food automatically mean to change diets? It depends. We have different lives, preferences, health states, motivation and ability to control and change how we eat and live. For some people food is very central in life. Others have given up caring. Some of that depends on how we think about it. If we choose to make eating a topic, we dedicate and release resources to change it. For those of us that have, will have, or would have diabetes type 2, it makes every sense to set and keep a purposeful diet. If you don’t know whether you are on the – wide – path of getting diabetes, get one of those cheap glucose meters and find out.
Learning about food and nutrition has multiple parts. There’s biochemistry and metabolism: macro-nutrients, enzymes, cell mitochondria, and more. There’s physiology (how the body works), and in particular endocrinology (hormones and messaging). There’s diabetes and obesity. There’s exercise. There are toxins, and immune responses. You don’t need to study all these topics, but you should, I think, learn more about how food carries information to our bodies and our bodies react and adapt. The food we eat affects us from within and we react and change based on that. Therefore, once you make it a topic for yourself to learn about food, you will get the cause and effect of how your body works much better. We are not doomed to slowly gain weight and loose health year by year. Our bodies love us, and do their best, whatever we do. Learn, so you can help yourself to feel and live better.
Interested? Read more here.
It matters a lot what we do and it makes a lot of sense to work towards things that we care about, however small the individual steps may be. Tiny habits are fashionable, and it does work to purposely change in small steps. As for goals, it is difficult to identify truly own goals, things that aren’t induced to us by what we see others achieve and pursue. For some of us, it takes half a life to figure out what our goals really are. Sometimes, goals change over time. Which goals to pursue is entirely individual and I have no wish to influence you with yours. If you do have health goals similar to mine, I’m hoping this site will inspire you and move you to action.
We often say that things are easy to say and not as easy to do. That is only partly true. With all of us there are areas of our lives where we do, or did, really well, and have done so over time. Many of us have a very high work ethic, are always on for customers and work to improve experiences, products and services. Almost all parents have superb family ethics, putting child and partner needs high and engaging ourselves for others. We quit smoking and drinking when pregnant. We stand up for our friends when they need us, and we help our parents. There is no reason this care cannot be applied to ourselves too. It starts with thinking highly of ourselves, that we are important. Not at the expense of others, but as in “I am important, too”.
Shaping habits has become a trendy self-improvement topic. For good reason. Actions grouped into habits happen without effort, freeing the mind of using both thought and willpower. Rich Roll has a good podcast on this when speaking with Dr. Rangan Chatterjee. “Make change easy” is the message. Adding habits is much easier than removing others; the effect is the same.
Having figured out which actions are good for us, what we need is a plan. To some personality types, like mine, plans are boring. Writing them down is annoying; I much rather do things on the go. I will admit, though, that it actually does help to express and retain goals, both in the short and the long term. Having a plan makes sense. Memory and repetition can partly replace writing things down (if you, like me, persist in your ways). If words like goals and plans don’t fit well in how you think about shaping your days, consider to use the words “aspiration”, for the direction of change, and “steps” taken in that direction. Again, the effect is the same, which is that you use your time and design your actions in a way that is helpful, for you.
A good plan is:
thought through, with risk assessment of difficult parts and a repertoire of mitigating actions, and
sustainable, with kind respect to energy levels and with built-in mechanisms of gratitude or rewards.
A plan is of no use if it is not lived.
That’s it. Think about and drive your thoughts, food and actions for greater control and achievement in your life. Do it your way, and don’t hesitate to raise your arm if anything seems off, or is too difficult.
If your interest is about food and weight loss, read what I’ve published and consider personal coaching on eating, which I am confident to offer. If your challenge is the stress of work and life and family, I am a person who has learned to manage all that, who is curious about others and might be able to help. If you have thoughts about thought practices and crafting your days and think we would enjoy a conversation, contact me.
If this appeals to you and you also care about how our moment-to-moment physiology matters, read on.
There are many ways to relax. Some people meditate. Spirituality helps others. I breathe. I got into breathing through heart rate variability measurement (HRV), which reads the degree of excitement in the ANS. HRV came after learning about neuro-feedback training, which is another cool way to “hack into” wellbeing and ability. I learned how slow, deep, but not voluminous breathing – through the nose – keeps me calm, which lifts what I can do. The Corona epidemic and the wearing of masks further helped me get interested in this and I learned to be a pure nose-breather. It took perhaps a month. Ironically, it was when I did both types of breathing, before, that I spent time in the morning to clean my nose – now I somehow don’t need to. I recommend anybody that isn’t sure they are a nose breather to find out, and to switch if they’re not.
Nose-breathing is one of the most under-appreciated and simple things we can do for greater health, wellbeing and performance (under-appreciated habit No. 2 being to drink plenty of water). When breathing in through the nose air gets warmed up and is cleaned and nitric oxide, which is used for a number of systems in the body, is produced. A number of things contribute to that many people no longer breath (only) through the nose. You can read James Nestor’s book “Breath” if you want to learn more. In short, we chew much less now and as a consequence our teeth are crowded in a mouth that is now too small. Even people who are not overweight can get sleep apnea, which causes scarce blood oxygenation at night and a number of health problems during daytime and over a lifetime. It often goes undetected.
Breathing much is actually not the way to nourish cells with oxygen. Breathing deep, using the diaphragm muscle between the chest and stomach, is. That muscle can be trained, for example with the Relaxator. The deeper the air goes, the more of it goes to the right place: the bottom, where gas exchange takes place. The gas exchange is important. Normal air that we breathe in has 21% oxygen and 0.04% carbon dioxide, CO2. The air we breathe out has 16% oxygen (5 percentage points less) and 4% CO2 (10 times more). Since the saturation of oxygen in our red blood cells is normally 95%, we are not that dependent on getting much new oxygen into the system with every breath (unless we exercise heavily). We do need to get rid of the CO2 that our metabolism produces, but we mustn’t go too low on it either. With less of it, our arteries narrow and the oxygen doesn’t unbind as well to nourish cells. Low CO2 also increases the blood PH level. The kidneys take care of that, but it is an imbalance that causes other problems. A simple oximeter, which costs very little, is useful to test yourself from time to time on how well your cells get oxygenated. It’s good to have one at home in case Covid infects someone in your family.
Not all pumps of blood go to all cells in the body but it’s rather a targeted blood flow whereby oxygen is delivered where the body thinks it is most needed at any specific moment. This is strongly controlled by the ANS. If you stress, your less critical cells will be starved of oxygen. If this goes on, mitochondria (used for metabolic function) will begin to give. Cells will be fine with some oxygen disruption so long as it is not chronic. Chronic hypoxia can lead to or aggravate multiple diseases, like the microvascular degeneration in eyes, fingers and toes of diabetics. Other than to steer the ANS, you can train your cells to be more comfortable with more CO2 and less new oxygen so that they operate well when you breathe less. Divers have trained this.
Here are a few tricks:
A way to calm down the ANS and to quiet the amygdala (the brain’s warning center) is to breathe out slowly, keeping breaths per minutes few. This can be reinforced if you do it while walking, of course with your mouth closed. A brain trick is that you can simulate walking by quickly alternating between looking left and looking right, without moving your head.
Another way to calm the ANS is to breathe in through the left nose and breathe out through the right, for a minute or so.
A way to get going (upregulate the ANS) is to breathe in and out with deep breaths in quick succession