High Efficiency Lifestyle Changes
At Autonomous Medicine, we’re always looking for the big wins in terms of effort versus reward when it comes to our health. So we’ve compiled a list of the easiest ways to get the biggest gains when it comes to disease prevention and well-being.
So let’s apply the Pareto Principle to our quest for big lifestyle wins to keep us healthy and happy.
American Health (or lack thereof)
The top 2 causes of death in the United States make up almost half of all US fatalities every year. If we can take some simple steps to mitigate these two causes, we’ve already made some huge gains.
It may come as no shock to you that the top 2 culprits are Cancer and Heart Disease. Fortunately there’s a lot we can do in the prevention of both of these, and even more encouraging is that there is a lot of overlap in effective strategies for the prevention of many of the things on this list.
Here’s a chart of the top 10 causes of death in the US.
- Heart disease: 614,348
- Cancer: 591,699
- Chronic lower respiratory diseases: 147,101
- Accidents (unintentional injuries): 136,053
- Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 133,103
- Alzheimer’s disease: 93,541
- Diabetes: 76,488
- Influenza and pneumonia: 55,227
- Nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis: 48,146
- Intentional self-harm (suicide): 42,773
The thing about heart disease is that it’s largely preventable. Not only is it preventable for a lot of people, just some simple adjustments in their lifestyles (without even taking meds) can stave off heart disease for a lifetime.
So we’ll apply the Pareto Principle to target what we can effectively do to mitigate the most common diseases. Focusing on getting the biggest wins for the least required effort.
1.) Quit Smoking
Without a doubt, smoking is one of the most detrimental things you can do for your health. Of the top 10 causes of death in the US, ALL 10 are impacted by smoking. ALL 10! Even accidental death.
So, this is clearly the biggest win there is, for making lifestyle changes. If you’re a smoker, quit. Forget everything else on this list for now, stop smoking and you’ll be way ahead of the game.
I know that we said minimal effort, and quitting smoking is definitely hard and not something to be considered minimal effort. But if you take a smart approach to it, perhaps it might not be as inconceivable as you think.
There have been a million studies done on quitting, and a lot of available treatments, but one of the most effective strategies may be one of the least well known. It’s called aversion therapy, and it’s shown to have success rates over 50%. Which is 10x the rate of people who try to quit with no help at all.
Reddit has a great community of people who are quitting and is a great place to find others with the same struggles. Trying to quit alone is tough, and having a community that supports you and understands what you’re going through is one of the most important aspects of putting together a plan to quit.
If you’re new to Reddit, you may find that your smoking addiction has been replaced with an addiction to Reddit.
2.) Exercise (you knew this was coming)
Hear me out… As with smoking, exercise is a mitigating factor in most all the causes of death in the US. Not only does it help you stave off debilitating disease, but you’ll feel a lot better as well. Your life will not only be longer, but considerably more enjoyable. You’ll realize both quantity and quality upgrades, what’s a big win! It’s an incredibly important aspect of our daily lives and most of us totally neglect to make time to do it at all. .
Fortunately for us to realize the benefits of exercise, we don’t have to wake up and jog 10 miles every day. The minimal recommendations request only 150 minutes of moderate activity a week.
That’s sooooo easy, just take a 20 minute brisk walk each day, and you’ve met your requirements. 20 minutes is nothing! It’s the same amount of time you probably spend throughout the day watching food heat in the microwave. And doesn’t have to be hard exercise, just something as simple as brisk walking.
What do you get for your 20 measly minutes? A Lot! The benefits are astounding, you’ll have physical, cognitive, even cosmetic gains. You’ll look better, feel better, be smarter with more energy. What an easy win, for soooo little time and effort and cost.
You don’t need to go to the gym every day and spend 90 minutes killing yourself on a treadmill to reap the rewards of exercise (though if you do, you’ll be handsomely compensated). If we’re applying the 80/20 rule, you’re going garner most of the health benefits of exercise by just doing 20-40 minutes a day. No need to beat yourself up because you’re not doing more. It’s enough, and if you’re currently not getting any, then it’s a HUGE improvement and you should feel good about yourself for taking the time to care for your body.
It doesn’t have to be a miserable experience, make it something you want to do.
Find a nice place to go walking,
Find a sport you enjoy playing or a place that you like to go walking. Get some music with good headphones and comfortable shoes. Focus and enjoy perhaps the only time of the day that you don’t have distractions and can be actually be alone with your thoughts.
If you’re in a comfortable relationship where you spend every evening stuffing your face and Netflixing on the couch. Try to change things up a bit, take your partner out for a walk before you settle in for the night. You might find it helps your relationship as well. Those walks are great for communication, and the endorphins released from some exercise will improve both your spirits. Just walk, it’s super easy, and you’ll feel better for it.
You’ll probably find that 20 minutes will easily turn into 30 or 40, and then you’re already exceeding the minimum recommendations.
Also, if you live or work on the 2nd, 3rd of even 4th floor, take the stairs. This is a no brainer, it’s typically faster than the elevator, and will keep your legs strong.
This is a big easy win, tons of health benefits for only 20 minutes a day.
3.) Diet (of course)
Dieting is complicated, there are a million different ideas on what people should be eating and when. If you want to take a more scientific approach to your diet, checkout our post on blood glucose monitoring.
This is a complex one, lets look for some shortcuts here…
The absolute simplest thing to do here is to just eat less. (simple, not easy) Without even changing what you’re eating, you can just eat less of it.
It’s really simple, no calorie counting, no weight watcher points, no complicated carb/protein ratios to figure out. Just take what you would normally eat, and cut out 1/3. Learn to enjoy the taste of the food, and try to ignore the urge for that stuff overly satiated feeling. This can be accomplished by learning to eat more slowly.
You can still enjoy all the foods that you do, just eat less of them. If you learn to chew more and slow down, you will likely start to have the same satiated feeling as you did before. You just have to be patient and know that it will come.
There is a growing mountain of evidence that shows calorie restriction to be one of the cornerstones of longevity. This may be more important than any other diet advice, and a whole lot less complicated.
Honestly, for all the health gains that calorie cutting offers, for such a simple change in eating habits, the rewards are large and the lifestyle change is quite minimal.
Here is a something that is often overlooked, but also has a large body of research that shows how important it is. Getting sleep is also something that is quit simple in theory but somehow proves to evade most of us that lead normal lives.
You know, when I was 20, I felt like people who were older than me (35+) stopped going out at night because they were tired and didn’t have the energy. What I didn’t realize is that it isn’t an energy thing, it’s more of an issue of priorities. Now that I’m almost 40, I still want to go out with my friends for an occasional pint. After neglecting my body for so long, I’ve realized that if I don’t sleep, I don’t feel as well. It was the same when I was 20, but I just didn’t think about Tomorrow Kevin so much. But now I do, and I prioritize sleep, above a lot of things that used to take precedence. Reddit, trying to solve some endless programming problem at work, watching one more episode of my latest netflix addiction, etc…
The point is, that if you want to reap the rewards of sleep, you simply need to prioritize it. Give it some stronger weight, when you’re debating on having one last pint at the bar, or when scrolling to the next page of reddit. Think about Tomorrow You, and trying to set them up for success. Getting consistent sleep will not only help Tomorrow You, but will also keep Retired You living long and happy. Lack of sleep causes a whole plethora of health problems and has been associated with obesity, diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer.
Also, as far as sleep hacks go, understand that sleep cycles are 90 minutes and you should try and set your morning alarm to coincide with the end of a sleep cycle.
For example, if you go to bed at midnight, you want to set your alarm to coincide with the end of a sleep cycle, so your cycles would look like this.
- Midnight -> 1:30am
- 1:30am -> 3am
- 3am -> 4:30am
- 4:30am -> 6am
- 6am -> 7:30am
- 7:30am -> 9am
You’ll notice that your available alarm times to wake up are 6am, 7:30am and 9am. That’s when you’ll be at your lightest sleep (end of sleep cycle) and it should be easier to wake up.
If you’re having trouble getting to sleep earlier. Try a few things.
- No caffeine after noon.
- No naps longer than 20 minutes
- Spend 2 hours before your intended bed time, slowing down. Dim the lights, turn down the brightness on your electronics, soothe your music, get your body prepared for the notion of sleep.
This is another easy win, it requires little effort, except some will power to actually prioritize sleep over other meaningless activities.
5.) Get regular health screenings
This is something that we really take a look at here at Autonomous Medicine. If you’re new here, you should take a look at some of our articles on screening yourself at home.
However, if you’re not into the whole manage your health at home thing, the very least you should do is get a thorough checkup at least once a year. If your insurance covers it, then besides it taking up an afternoon of your time, it costs you very little and could possibly save you a lot in the future.
If you’re like me, and always between insurances, then it may be an expensive option in the US. There are alternatives, never fear. If you’re planning to take any overseas vacations within the year, you can use that as an opportunity to get some affordable health checks done.
Outside the US, you can get excellent personalized health care for a really reasonable rate. Last month I got a full workup done in a Taiwan hospital for $200USD, it included ultrasounds/x-rays/full blood work/urine and fecal tests and an examination from a doctor as well. For an extra $100 you can get an Endoscopy and Colonoscopy, which I think I’ll partake in next year when I’m 40.
All that information cost less that a single month’s insurance premium in the US.
Most countries will have the same kind of service at reasonable rates in hospitals with English-speaking doctors and staff.
6.) Enjoy Sunshine in Moderation
Sunshine is great and in moderation it has a bunch of health benefits. The production of vitamin D and a positive impact on the immune system are just some of many . However, you only need about 15 minutes of exposure each day to reap the benefits.
The primary negatives are premature aging of the skin and of course, cancer.
There are a variety of skin cancers that afflict people Actinic Keratoses, Squamous Cell, Basal Cell Carcinomas and Melanoma. There is still some uncertainty about what causes are for these cancers but there does seem to be general consensus that too much sun exposure (burns) is a factor.
There is some evidence that sunscreen doesn’t protect against all forms of skin cancer, so you can’t really rely on it fully.
There is also research that suggests that some of the ingredients in sunscreen can be quite harmful. The US seems to have less strict regulations than it’s European counterpart in regards to sunscreen, which also means that if you’re based in the States, you need to be more particular when choosing a sunscreen.
The Environmental Working Group has a great website with relevant information on how to pick the right sunscreen.
So the best thing you can do is to cover up when you’re going to have extended sun exposure. Long sleeves, hats, sunglasses, etc…
However, if you can’t feasibly cover up, then the next best thing is to have a good sunscreen available to use.
This is another easy lifestyle win. Just be careful about your sun exposure, and pick good quality sunscreens. If you have little ones, MAKE SURE you reduce their exposure, childhood sun burns are exponentially worse in regards to cancer development.
7.) Get Immunized
This is another easy one, it’s just a matter of going in and making sure you’ve got a few key immunizations. Hepatitis A & B and HPV vaccinations are available and can mitigate the chances of getting cancers associated with those viruses.
HPV is responsible for 70% of cervical cancers, as well as some cancers of the vagina, vulva, penis, anus, rectum, and oropharynx (throat). Fortunately, preventing most of these is as easy as getting a simple injection.
HPV vaccine is recommended for routine vaccination at age 11 or 12 years. (Vaccination can be started at age 9.)
It is also recommended for females aged 13 through 26 years and males aged 13 through 21 years who were not adequately vaccinated previously.
The reason they don’t recommend it for all ages is that because HPV is so common, if you’ve been sexually active you’ve probably already been exposed to it.
Is simply inflammation of the liver. There are 3 major types, A, B and C. We have vaccines for A & B and a recently new cure for C. One of the major causes of liver cancer and liver disease is Hepatitis, which is either fully preventable, or curable depending on which type you’re exposed to. A is the most common and can be transmitted via contaminated foods, while B and C are more difficult to transmit, usually through blood or sexual contact.
The vaccines are readily available for A & B, you should get them as a standard practice. Especially if you’re ever going to do any traveling overseas, an initial shot plus a booster provide up to 10 years immunity, so it’s something you only need to do a few times in your life.
Injections, these are super low effort wins. If you’re going to be overseas you can get immunized at a fraction of the price that it costs in the US.
8.) Clean Air
Air pollution is an increasing problem in a lot of major cities and often we don’t realize how bad of a problem it is. If you don’t have an indicator on your phone, you can download an air quality app to start to get an understanding of the pollution levels are around you. You can’t always trust your eyes and nose, as PM2.5 particles (which are the most troublesome) are too small to be seen.
If you live in a city with even moderate pollution, it would do you a lot of good to invest in a air cleaner for your home. They vary in price, but if you’re on a budget, you can make your own. Home made ones, can be almost nearly as effective as commercial products. The folks at Smart Air have instructions how to make your own DIY air purifier, and you can order their DYI kit as well.
They also have a lot of information on which masks are best for traversing a polluted city.
9.) Stay Hydrated
Dehydration is the number one cause of headaches and constipation. Often times, it’s the glass of water people take to wash the pain pills down that fixes the headache, not the medicine.
Ever notice after a night of binge drinking that your heart is pumping harder than normal? That’s because you’re dehydrated and your circulatory system is working overtime. In more severe cases, this is known as hypovolemic shock (low blood volume) and is sometimes fatal.Your poor kidneys, the work so hard to filtering your blood and all they ask in return is some water to function. Without it, they’ll under-perform and possibly start developing kidney stones, kidney failure and urinary track infections.
All this bad news is so easily prevented drink ample amounts of water. Keep a bottle of water by your desk at work, or with you whenever you can. You’ll find yourself drinking out of habit instead from thirst, which is much better. Most people by the time they’re feeling thirsty, they’re long overdue.
Another perk to drinking water is that it satiates hunger to some degree, keeping you from snacking.
How much is enough? Well you should aim to get between 2 and 3 liters per day. Try and bring a one liter container of water to your job, and set your goal to finish it before lunch. Then fill it again and polish it off by the end of the day. That combined with any drinks and foods you have at home would be more than sufficient.
This may be the easiest tip of all.