Are You Playing the Right Games in Your Life?

A fascinating book that I read recently was The Status Game by Will Storr. I have enjoyed reading a few of his prior books too, including Selfie and The Science of Storytelling.

In it, Storr says that it is impossible to not be part of some hierarchies. In other words, we can’t go through life without having a sense that we are competing against other people in some areas of our lives.

This is what he means by games. Not just basketball, monopoly, or poker. A game is anything where there is a set of rules about how things should be. Based on this, it is possible to get a sense of if you are doing well, winning, or losing.

“The fastest person on the planet” is a game that has been played better by Usain Bolt than anyone else ever. Michael Phelps is at the top of the “best swimmer of all-time” hierarchy. Whilst I had some moments when I was younger when I did Little Athletics and swam competitively, I’m not trying to play either of these games these days. Therefore, I don’t really care about where I am in either of these hierarchies.

Joe Rogan has been at the top of the “most listened to podcast” hierarchy for a while now with his Joe Rogan Experience. I wouldn’t mind having a few more listeners and some of the financial security that comes along with it, but being at the top of that game is really not what I’m aiming at either.

I podcast because I like to have a creative outlet and share some of my insights with people who may be interested. It’s also fun to be sharing the project with one of my closest mates who I don’t get to see as often as I would like to anymore. Therefore, as long as I am making and putting out a podcast episode once a month, I’m happy with the game I am playing.

Bernard Arnault is currently winning the game of the “richest person in the world” with $208.7 billion. Being high up on that hierarchy sure wouldn’t be important to Will MacAskill, who is an effective altruist and author of the excellent 2015 book Doing Good Better. He committed a while back to donating to charity all money that he makes every year beyond £24,000. Being the richest person in the world would be even less important to a Monk that has given away all of his earthly possessions and is spending his life in a monastery.

When it comes to money for me, all I am aiming for is a healthy and happy life. If the money I am making and saving allows me to do that, I feel like I am winning. Especially if I get to live in a sustainable way where I am not too stressed, helping some people in my work and connecting with the people that are most important to me outside of it.

I might not have as many fancy things as Kim Kardashian, or get to travel into space like Jeff Bezos, but I am also glad that I am not like either of them in these ways and many others too. Because I am not competing against them for things or money, we are not playing the same games, I am not lower in the hierarchy of those games, and I do not have to feel worse about myself.

It is only when I am not being the person that I want to be, and I can see that others are living the life that I want better than I am that I experience feeling lower in the hierarchy and worse off. The moment I can make the necessary changes to start living my life consistently with my core values, the more I am playing the games that are really important to me, the better I am doing and the more satisfied I am likely to feel.

At the end of The Status Game, Storr shares what he says are the core rules of status games to keep in mind so that you can improve your life and be protected from potential traps and danger. Sometimes certain dreams can be persuasive, but it doesn’t mean that striving toward something will necessarily give you what you need. I’d like to summarise these for you here.

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Seven Rules of the Status Game

Rule 1: Practice warmth, sincerity, and competence

These three components are essential if you want to optimally present yourself to others and successfully play a status game. If another person is trying to gauge what type of person you are, they are most likely to assess you to see if you are a kind person, if you are genuine, and if you know what you are talking about and are good at what you do.

If you have competence, sincerity, and warmth in whatever it is that is important to you, others will know that you will not try to dominate them, that you will treat them fairly, and that you will probably be able to help them.

Rule 2: Make small moments of prestige, not dominance.

Wherever you can, try to create win-win situations, where you are trying to benefit both yourself and the other person in an interaction. If you are trying to win by making the other person lose or be worse off, it can lead to a worse reputation for who you are over time.

Try to be respectful to others, even if you disagree about something. Be gracious and thankful for the efforts that they have put in. You might not always get what you want if you conduct yourself in this way. However, both parties will leave the situation feeling better about who you are as a person, including yourself. If you take care of developing your character in the ways you would like, your reputation is likely to speak for itself over time.

Rule 3: Play a hierarchy of games and resist tyranny.

Whichever game you are playing, try to see if you can notice how status is awarded. If higher-status people are the most obedient ones, believe more strongly in the dogma, and are most concerned with defeating the enemies or non-believers, you may be caught up in tyranny. Tyrannies are virtue dominance games.

To best protect yourself from becoming too caught up in tyranny, try to play a wide diversity of games and have different aspects to your identity.

If someone’s identity is entirely tied up with being a good Democrat or a good Republican, it can be hard to go against anything that their party stands for. However, if your political beliefs are only a small part of who you are, it may be a lot easier to disagree with the party that you usually support on a particular topic.

Storr says that life is easier when we organize it as a hierarchy of games. By choosing what is most important to you, and then putting effort into these different things in a proportional way, you are likely to obtain a lot of meaning in your life.

Rule 4: Reduce your moral sphere.

Where you can, try not to spend too much time judging other people for what they do. Instead, turn your focus to your own life and behaviors, and see if you are being the person that you want to be. It is so much easier to judge other people for falling short than putting in the consistent effort to improve yourself in the ways that you would like to.

If someone else is playing a game that doesn’t matter to you, why do you need to judge them? They might have different values from you and are okay with the choices they are making. Isn’t it more important to find out if you are living consistently with your values?

Rule 5: Foster a trade-off mindset.

One of the quickest ways to poison the empathy we have towards someone or something is to become moralistic about it. The truth of most matters is often more complex than you realise if you only think about it as right or wrong.

If you can, try not to view the world in terms of heroes and villains, but different groups negotiating trade-offs. Most people are simply wanting what they perceive is the best for themselves, their family, or their group.

Pain is pain, regardless of who it is happening to. If you perceive someone as an enemy, try to understand the pain that they are in. Also, see if you can see the games that they are playing in an attempt of gaining status and feeling less pain.

If you can understand why someone is doing something, even if you would never want to play their game or see it as valid, it may be easier to remain compassionate or empathetic towards them. We need to all fight the bigotry that exists on both sides, and see if it is possible to reduce pain and improve the quality of life for all.

Rule 6: Be different.

It’s not easy to play a status game, nor is it often rewarding. If there can only be one winner, it can make everyone else feel worse off. Especially in your live in a more individualistic culture. If you live in a more collectivist culture, if anyone in your group has success, it can be possible to feel some of that success yourself too.

There is another way towards feeling good about yourself rather than continuing to try to be perfect or better than everyone else at something. That is through having the courage and determination to live by your own values and do your own thing, regardless of what everyone else says is important.

It may be tough to not conform if you feel a lot of external pressure to do what everyone else is doing. However, minor acts of non-conformity that do not violate the core standards of the group can attract attention rather than make you an outcast. As long as you remain helpful and useful to the group at times, you can rise in your status rather than being ostracised.

Being original also makes it very difficult for others to compete with you. Keep trying to be yourself rather than trying to be perfect. No one else is ever going to be as good at being you as you are, no matter how hard they try.

Rule 7: Never forget your dreaming.

At the end of the day, most things are not as important as people think when they are caught up in a status game. People strive for status because they want to feel like their life is essential and really means something to others and the fate of the world.

But if you look at the 8 billion people on the planet, there may not be too many people that are remembered 450 years later like Shakespeare, or over 200 years later like George Washington. This doesn’t mean that your life isn’t important to some people.

Your life probably already means a lot to your inner circle, including your closest family, friends, and co-workers. I guess a big question then is what is more important to you? Being the person that you would like to be towards your parents, partner, children, best friends, and colleagues? Or worrying about what a random person in your town, the other side of the world, or in a few hundred years thinks about you?

Once people have met their basic needs for shelter, water, food, and safety, the next most important things become love, connection, and esteem. Sometimes it is at this point that many of us become caught up in a status game. We feel that we need to have as many symbols of status as possible.

We can think we want deference and flattery from others, influence and lots of money, fast cars and big houses, expensive clothing and jewellery, and lots of attention. But are any of these things really what is most important to you? If someone was writing your obituary after you died, what would you hope that they would say about the person that you have been and the people that you had the biggest positive impact on?

We can never fully escape from the various status games, as most people naturally compare themselves to others to see how they are going. This can then impact how people feel about themselves. However, there is some wisdom in just knowing that these games are there, and we can choose which things matter or don’t matter in our lives.

If my neighbor goes out and buys a fancy sports car or flies first class, I do not have to feel worse about myself if these games do not matter to me. The answer lies in finding and playing the games that do matter.

It’s also not about getting to a destination, and then enjoying the rest of your life. Chances are that your mind will continue to strive for status in one way or another for the rest of your life. Therefore, there is no end or a happily ever after.

Storr says that the key is to be happy with the direction that you are heading in and the progress that you are making. If you can live in a sustainable way with the things that really matter to you and feel connected to the people that you care most about, you will know that you are on the right track. Hopefully, your physical and mental health will be better off for it too.

The final thing that he says, and one that I never used to understand, is that the meaning of life is about being able to keep playing in the ways that are most important to you. It is not about winning.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What Things Really Matter to You?

When I think about how to best help someone, I am reminded of what psychiatrist Irvin Yalom found when he asked 20 clients what was most beneficial to them about their time in therapy (Yalom & Leszcz, 2005). The average client had spent an average of 16 months in therapy, and was just about to finish up.

The top four categories of responses they gave consisted of:

4. Self-understanding: learning more about thoughts, feelings, the self, and their origins

3. Cohesiveness: being understood, accepted and connected with a sense of belonging

2. Catharsis: expressing feelings and getting things out in the open

1. Interpersonal input: learning more about one’s impression and impact on others

Out of the 60 individual statements that the clients could endorse, they most often endorsed statements about therapy helping them to:

  • Trust other people more
  • See and experience the benefits of revealing embarrassing things and taking other emotional risks.
  • Learn how they come across to other people and the impression they make on others
  • Learn how to more effectively express positive and negative feelings, including towards others
  • Be honestly told what other people think of them
  • Be able to say what is bothering them instead of holding it in
  • Discover previously unknown parts of themselves and accept things about themselves or their past that were previously difficult to accept.

If you look at the above lists, you will notice that most of the highly endorsed benefits of therapy are difficult to obtain individually outside of greater self-understanding and awareness.

IF YOU ARE DISSATISFIED WITH SOME OF THE RELATIONSHIPS IN YOUR LIFE

Many of the true benefits of therapy are the result of taking emotional risks and being honest about things that are really bothering you or you are concerned or unsure about. The rest of the benefits come from the acceptance, understanding, feedback and connection that the therapist gives back to client, as well as the quality of the therapeutic relationship they have together. If it is group therapy rather than individual therapy, the other group members can provide many of the benefits that the therapist might in individual therapy.

Because the quality of the relationships in our lives has such a large impact on how happy and healthy we are and become, it makes sense that many of the key benefits of therapy are also relational. If you would like to improve the quality of your relationships, making the investment in therapy could potentially be well worth it for you in the long run.

IF YOU WANT TO LEARN MORE ABOUT YOURSELF

If you are 100% satisfied with how all the key relationships in your life are going, and you feel like all of your needs are being met in these relationships, then it may be less important for you to undergo person-to-person therapy.

Self-awareness and understanding and more internal cohesiveness and acceptance can also be developed through reading books or taking online courses. Or, as I have previously mentioned, can also be developed by taking personality assessments that help you to answer the question “who am I?”, including the five-factor personality model.

Once you have a good sense of who you are, it is then important to ask yourself “what’s most important to me?” This can be done by taking the VIA character strengths survey, or doing any form of values clarification exercise, such as the ones I outlined in the article ‘what values do you try to live your life by?‘ and ‘three steps to an improved life‘.

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Another values clarification exercise that I tried the other day was recommended to me by a client. It can be taken for free by clicking this link.

Firstly, it asks if you understand what an intrinsic value is. Once you know that it is something that you value not for what it can give you, like money, but in and of itself, you are ready to take the quiz.

The quiz then asks you about a bunch of different values, and then gets you to say if it is an intrinsic value to you or not, and if it is, how important it is to you.

Once you have answered all of the questions, it asks you to pick your top seven values in order.

For me, my most important values were as follows:

  1. That I show courage in the face of difficult challenges
  2. That I am grateful for what I have
  3. That I achieve my full potential
  4. That I experience a sense of meaning and purpose in my life
  5. That I feel connected to other people
  6. That I have agency and can make choices for myself
  7. That the way I behave is consistent with my values

You are then asked to reflect on each value and see how you might be able to create more of what you value in the world.

I already ask myself the question “what am I being motivated by here – my fears or my values?” when I am feeling unsure or uncertain about what to do.

A similar question that I heard about in the book I was listening to yesterday called ‘Four Thousand Weeks‘ by Oliver Burkeman was “does this decision help to enlarge my life or diminish it?” Sometimes our brain wants us to do what feels least scary or most comfortable. However, the author recommends choosing the option that is scary or uncomfortable but is likely to enlarge your life over one that is comfortable but is likely to diminish your life over time.

What Are You Likely to Regret More?

Joseph Campbell says that the hero’s journey begins when the main character is called to action by something unexpected at the end of the first act of any good story. The second act of the story begins when the hero answers the call to action and goes off on the adventure, not entirely sure how things will turn out but willing to face whatever challenges may come. Hopefully, they continue to keep learning and growing and eventually prevail and succeed. Or they can choose to not answer the call, stay where it is safe and familiar, and not get to experience the adventures and challenges that may await.

What would you rather? What do you think you would regret the most in the long run?

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Which Activities Make Us the Happiest?

The app Mappiness pings people twice a day and asks them what they have just been doing, who they are with, and where they are. It can also tell what the temperature and weather are. It then asks people three questions:

  1. How happy are you?
  2. How relaxed are you?
  3. How awake do you feel?

People can answer anywhere on a scale from “not at all” at one end to “extremely” at the other end.

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Can the weather impact people’s happiness?

Mappiness has looked at the data from 15,444 people across 138,407 observations. Warmer temperatures tend to help the average person feel happier than colder temperatures (+4). However, rain negatively impacts people’s moods more than cold weather (-11). If it is sunny, it makes a slight positive difference to how people feel, but not too much (+1.1).

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The average person doesn’t enjoy working or studying

Working and studying tend to make people less happy while they are doing it (-5.43). It doesn’t mean that we should all go out and quit our job tomorrow. Most people need the money and are likely to be more satisfied in their overall lives with a job than if they are unemployed. However, while at work, the average person would rather be doing pretty much anything else. Out of the 39 activities, only being sick in bed was rated less enjoyable. Friday is the happiest day of the workweek because people look forward to not having to work on the weekend. Saturday and Sunday have the highest happiness ratings throughout the week and are pretty similar to each other.

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Socializing more can make you happier, as long as it’s not with your boss

Spending time with close friends makes us the happiest (+8.19). Followed by time with a spouse or partner (+5.91). Then other family members (+2.94). Time with children produces slightly more happiness than being alone (+1.4), but higher than time with clients, customers (+0.72), colleagues, classmates (+0.64), and other people the participant knows (+0.66). Notice how these social interactions produce more happiness for the average person than being alone. Being with one’s boss is the only social interaction rated less pleasantly than being alone (Kahneman et al., 2004).

Which activities do people do the most?

Regarding the type of activities, the most frequently reported activities were working or studying (27.4%), watching TV or a film (17.8%), talking, chatting, socializing (14.2%), sleeping, resting, relaxing (9.6%), eating, snacking (9.5%), travelling, commuting (9.1%), listening to music (6%), drinking tea/coffee (5.4%), drinking alcohol (5.2%), or housework, chores, DIY (4.9%).

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Which activities increase your happiness?

The activity that tends to make us feel the happiest at the moment isn’t too much of a surprise, with intimacy or making love the highest rated by a long way (+14.2). Going to the theatre, a dance, or a concert is the second highest (+9.29), followed closely by an exhibition, museum, or library (+8.77).

Physical activities or being in nature all seem to score high, with sports, running, exercise (+8.12) the fourth highest, and then gardening (+7.83). Birdwatching or nature watching (+6.28), walking or hiking (+6.18), and hunting or fishing (+5.82) all continue this trend. The activities rated higher are singing, performing (+6.95), and talking, chatting, and socializing (+6.38), especially with close friends and partners.

Typically overrated activities include more passive ones, including watching TV or a film (+2.55), drinking tea/coffee (+1.83), reading (+1.47), listening to a speech or a podcast (+1.41), sleeping, resting or relaxing (+1.08), browsing the internet (+0.59), texting, email or social media (+0.56).

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Which activities reduce your happiness?

Activities that tend to reduce happiness levels include housework, chores, DIY (-0.65), commuting (-1.47), or being in a meeting or class (-1.5). Worse still is doing admin or organizing or doing finances (-2.45), waiting, queueing (-3.51), caring or helping adults (-4.3), working or studying (-5.43), and being sick in bed (-20.4).

You can’t avoid all of these activities. Still, knowing how negative they typically are can be helpful. For example, choosing a place to live closer to work where you can walk or ride rather than commute could make a positive difference in your mood. As could paying for someone to clean your house or iron your clothes if you don’t enjoy doing this.

I don’t enjoy unnecessary meetings, so minimising these as much as possible could help. Likewise, I could try to find a job with more of the work I enjoy and less of the stuff I do not. I could try not to work too many hours each week. Finally, I could try to look after my health as much as possible so that I am not in bed sick too often.

I want to thank Seth Stephens-Davidowitz for sharing these interesting insights alongside many others in his latest book, ‘Don’t Trust Your Gut’. If you’d like to see how Big Data can help you to understand yourself or people better, I’d recommend checking out this book as well as his first one ‘Everybody Lies’.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

What difference can hearing difficulties make in your life, and can improving them help you to live a better quality of life?

I recently interviewed my brother, Kurt Ashworth, who is an Audiologist in Ballarat, Australia. Here are his answers to some of the main questions I asked him:

1. What does an audiologist do?

Audiologists are communication experts. We specialise in testing and diagnosing hearing loss and can also specialise in testing balance function. Audiologists can help people of all ages experiencing hearing loss testing and diagnosing the type and degree of hearing loss and prescribing and programming hearing devices if appropriate, providing hearing rehabilitation and communication strategies and utilising other assistive technologies to improve their ability to hear and more effectively communicate.

2. What led to your interest in Audiology? 

After an undergraduate degree in science with a major in psychology, that pathway did not interest me to pursue further, I stumbled across audiology and it seemed like a good mix of informational counselling and the utilisation of technology to improve peoples communication. The hearing devices and cochlear implants keep improving their capabilities to the point where they can now also work as Bluetooth headphones, an ai assistant in your ears and a fitness tracking device as well as improving the patients hearing. 

3. How can Audiology help to improve someone’s quality of life? 

As discussed, a lot of our patients can have long-standing hearing issues that have not been diagnosed or corrected. Hearing devices, assistive listening devices and cochlear implants and sometimes surgery to correct the hearing problem can give back peoples ability to communicate more effectively with their loved ones and when out socially which is very impactful on peoples quality of life. We also know there are links to higher risk of dementia, falls and loneliness with untreated hearing loss so the opposite exists if the hearing issue can addressed with hearing devices or surgery.

4. What are some of the most rewarding parts of the job?

I really enjoy the journey of seeing a patient through from start to finish, diagnosing the problem, coming up with a treatment plan with their individual goals and difficulties in mind. Then seeing how the technology has improved their hearing and they can then start to reintroduce things in their life they had previously cut out due to their hearing.

5. Do you have to do much counseling as part of working as an Audiologist?

I would say the most important part and the majority of my job is counselling and teaching. The technology is great but you can have the worlds best hearing aids  but without buy in from the patient, they sit in the draw. We need to counsel about what to expect, how to manage the devices and help to get optimal outcomes.  Majority of our adult patients have inner ear loss/damage so we’re also counselling about residual hearing issues even with technology due to the damage In their hearing pathways. The hearing devices can only do so much. 

6. At what age does hearing loss usually begin? 

At any age, all babies in Victoria are now testing in hospital after birth before they are discharged. If they do not pass their newborn hearing screen, they are seen by a diagnostic audiologist for electrophysiological testing while the baby is asleep and can diagnose with good accuracy the level of hearing loss in each ear and refer this baby on to Hearing Australia for aiding by 4 weeks of age and if cochlear implants are needed, can be implanted around 6 months of age. A lot of children have hearing issues in childhood due to middle ear blockages that can impact on speech and language development. Some adults experience progressive hearing loss or noise induced hearing loss, majority of adults in their latter years, 65+ experience differing degrees of age related hearing loss.

7. What difference can a good pair of hearing aids make?

 The majority of the hearing aids available from the top manufacturers now have directional microphones to help people hear better from in front, noise reduction to help make hearing in background noise more comfortable. 

The most important function of a hearing aid is the ability to make speech louder so the sounds in speech are audible for the user without loud sounds being too loud and uncomfortable. 

The skill of the audiologist in optimising the hearing and providing appropriate counselling and guidance is often just as important as the technology in the device. If someone is not getting on well with their hearing aids, get them readjusted and if you’re still struggling it maybe worth a second opinion and adjustment before considering purchasing new technology again.

If you are quoted a lot of money for hearing aids, ring around for other quotes, base level hearing aids retail for about $1000 for 1 device up to about $4000 for top of the range with plenty of options in between.

9. What is Tinnitus and what causes it?

Tinnitus is a head noise that the patient can hear that is not present in the environment. It can be present all the time or intermittently, it can be in just one ear or both. 

The exact mechanism of tinnitus is still up for debate but tinnitus often indicates a problem in the hearing pathway and can be seen more as a symptom of something else rather than the cause.  Tinnitus can be brought on due to wax occlusion, middle ear dysfunction and or inner ear (cochlear) hearing loss. 

10. Can anything help Tinnitus if someone has it?

The first thing needed is a hearing test, that way we can clear out wax if needed, test where the issue is and refer on to an ear nose and throat specialist if required. If all medical concerns have been ruled out, both amplification and or sound enrichment can assist with tinnitus. Referral to a psychologist for CBT can also be helpful in the more severe cases. Good news is most peoples tinnitus is loudest and most bothersome initially and often improves and reduces in intensity and concern overtime even if it doesn’t go away completely.

11. Have you heard of Misophonia/ hyperacousis and does anyone know what causes it? 

Misophonia is reasonably rare, I have only come across it a couple times in my career. It’s a hatred of sounds and can be something as common as the sound of their partners chewing or a clock ticking, even when these sounds are not loud. It’s more about the emotional response to these sounds rather than pain but can be very debilitating in extreme cases. Sometimes people will wear earplugs to reduce the outside sounds but not enough to completely block off their hearing. 

Hyperacousis is more common and is a physical discomfort to loud sounds and often goes hand in hand with more severe losses and often losses due to noise damage. Hearing aids can be programmed to improve the usable hearing but reduce the intensity of these loud sounds to more comfortable levels. 

12. Can Audiologists help with Misophonia? 

Yes, A clinic in Heidelberg – DWM specialises in treating hyperacousis and misophonia and we refer on for the more severe cases.

13. What if someone sleeps next to a partner who snores? Can Audiologists help at all?

Yes, we do a number of custom made earplugs that can help for reducing the volume of snoring, work  related noise and music etc.

14. What are your hopes for the field of Audiology in the future?

My hope would be more accessible services and devices for all, while cochlear implants can be provided through a combination of state and federal funding free of charge in Victoria, patients between 26 and 65 really have very little support financially in the purchase of hearing aids from the governments. This leads to alot of patients without the means to access good devices which can lead to untreated hearing issues. 

On a more positive note, we a seeing a lot of convergence in audiology, where hearing devices are now doing much more than just improving hearing. Some brands have heart rate monitors in their aids, can detect falls and notify significant others if this occurs and the patients current location. Others brands are tracking steps and levels of social engagement, they can even translate from one language to another in real time in the ear which feels very James Bond. My hope is with all these technological advances, hearing devices and the associated stigma is reducing so people are more willing to do something about their hearing earlier. 

15. Is someone is concerned about their hearing at all, what can they do? 

Find a local independent audiologist and get a hearing test. Even if the test is only to provide for baseline hearing levels, this allows for tracking of any deterioration going forward.

16. Where do you work, and how do people get in touch?

I work at an independent clinic in Ballarat,  Ballarat Hearing Clinic. We provide hearing testing from birth to 16 on behalf of the Ballarat base hospital through their outpatients services. We also see adults for hearing testing, aid fitting and adjustment and cochlear implant assessment and programming. You can find us most easily by searching Ballarat hearing clinic on google and clicking on our website for contact details. You don’t need a medical referral to see an audiologist.

For anyone who would like to hear the whole interview, please check out the following: https://spotifyanchor-web.app.link/e/cfmd7D45Wtb

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Sleep Medicine Recommends Only Five Strategies for Insomnia

If you have tried my sleeping tips from the prior article and your sleep is still problematic, there are several things that you can do.

The safest option is to go and see your medical doctor or GP and get a referral to a Sleep Physician. They will be able to do a more comprehensive sleep study with you and see if you have any underlying sleep conditions impacting your sleep and feel. You may have to do a polysomnography (PSG) or sleep study to rule out conditions like sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, periodic limb movement disorder, delayed sleep phase disorder, narcolepsy or idiopathic hypersomnia.

            If it’s unlikely that you have any of the above sleep disorders, you may have insomnia. As many as 33% of people have sleep problems, and between six to ten percent have serious enough sleep concerns to warrant a diagnosis of chronic insomnia. Once you have had it for a few months, it may not get better on its own without treatment or applying the right strategies to your sleep.

            Everyone will tell you what they think is the solution to sleep problems, from earplugs to eye masks, comfy pillows, new beds and weighted blankets. However, there are still only five strategies with enough evidence to be empirically supported insomnia strategies by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM). If you think you have insomnia and want to improve your sleep, please try one of these five strategies: Cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), sleep restriction, stimulus control, progressive muscle relaxation, and paradoxical intention.

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STRATEGY 1: COGNITIVE BEHAVIOURAL THERAPY FOR INSOMNIA

CBT-I consists of four main components. Psychoeducation, sleep scheduling, relaxation techniques and cognitive techniques. Together, these four components target all three underlying sleep mechanisms. CBT-I has sleep scheduling to improve homeostatic pressure and circadian rhythms. It encourages people to get morning sunlight and remain off bright screens before bed to strengthen circadian rhythms. It also teaches relaxation strategies to help people learn how to relax and reduce their arousal levels. Finally, CBT-I teaches cognitive strategies to help people to challenge their unhelpful beliefs about sleep and further reduce their arousal levels.

            If you want to try CBT-I, you can check out my Udemy course ‘Improve Your Sleep with CBT for Insomnia’. I’ve also seen the positive results published on other online CBT-I courses such as Sleepio or Somryst. CBT-I Coach tries to teach some of these strategies at no cost, including what times are best for you to go to bed and wake up if you do sleep restriction. If you’d prefer in-person CBT-I, you can search on the internet and see if there are any psychologists or behavioural sleep medicine specialists who specialise in CBT-I.          

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STRATEGY 2: SLEEP RESTRICTION

Sleep restriction is a strategy that increases homeostatic pressure by reducing your time in bed each night to only the amount of time you are sleeping. It also helps to strengthen your circadian rhythms by improving the regularity of when you go to bed at night and rise from bed in the morning, seven days a week. However, it is important that you set your sleep times at the right time for your body clock to be the most effective. Morning people would better choose earlier to bed and rise times, whereas evening people will need to stay up later and get up later.

            Sleep restriction can increase distress and arousal levels initially. It can be especially difficult for people with chronic insomnia, who are already worried about not getting enough sleep and the consequences they will feel and face during the day. This can make it very hard for people to initially try and even harder to fall asleep or remain asleep at night. Once they sleep better, their arousal levels can drop significantly, as the individual can begin seeing how effective this strategy is.

Sleep restriction instructions are as follows:

  1. Determine your average total sleep time over the past 1-2 weeks. If it is less than five hours per night, say it is five hours. 
  2. Add 30 minutes to this amount. The total is your new time in bed prescription. Only spend this time in bed every night for the next two weeks.
  3. Figure out when you would like to wake up seven days a week. It is your rise time or time to get up each morning. Set the alarm to help you wake up at this time. When the alarm goes off, get out of bed and try not to sleep again until the next night. 
  4. Minus your time in bed allocation from your rise time to figure out your bedtime. For example, if you wake up at 6 am and are meant to be in bed for 6 hours and 30 minutes every night, aim to go to bed around 11:30 pm.
  5. For sleep restriction to be maximally effective, bedtime should be approximate rather than absolute. For example, if it is 11:15 pm and you notice many sleepiness signs, go to bed rather than wait until 11:30 pm. On the other hand, if it is 11:30 pm and you are wide awake, wait up a little until you feel a bit sleepier. Then go to bed.  
  6. Once you have your bedtime, rise time and time in bed prescription, track your sleep for the next two weeks using a sleep diary or activity tracker. Then figure out your sleep efficiency, which is the percentage of your time in bed spent sleeping.
    • If your sleep efficiency for the next two weeks is under 85%, cut your bedtime by a further 15 minutes each night. If it is between 85-90%, keep your time in bed prescription as it is.
    • If it is above 90%, extend your time in bed by 15 minutes each night.
  7. Keep tracking for another two weeks and repeat until your sleep efficiency is between 85-90% regularly. 
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STRATEGY 3: STIMULUS CONTROL

Stimulus control is a strategy that ensures that your homeostatic pressure is high enough when you are going to sleep by encouraging you to get up at the same time every morning, seven days a week, no matter how well you have slept. By not napping during the day, your homeostatic pressure also remains high. Not going to bed until you feel sleepy means that you won’t go to bed until your brain and body are ready for sleep, which reduces how much time you spend in bed awake. Being out of bed whenever you can’t sleep for 20 minutes also means that you’ll never spend excessive time in bed awake each night.

            Stimulus control also helps to strengthen your circadian rhythm with the regular rising time in the mornings and only going to bed when you feel sleepy. Stimulus control is better than sleep restriction if you strictly follow both of the rules as they are written. Stimulus control helps you to find out when your brain and body most want you to go to sleep, as opposed to going to sleep at the same time every night.

            Like sleep restriction, stimulus control can also initially increase distress and arousal levels, especially for people with chronic insomnia. People with insomnia tend to already be worried about not getting enough sleep and the potential consequences they will feel and face during the day if they do not get enough sleep or have to be out of bed during their usual time in bed. This can make it very hard for people to initially try stimulus control and even harder for them to fall asleep or remain asleep at night.

            Once you begin sleeping better through stimulus control, your arousal levels can drop significantly, as you can begin seeing how effective this strategy is. It also means that you will no longer have to get out of bed after 20 minutes of being awake if you fall asleep regularly within this time, which will likely reduce your worries further. The better you sleep at night and the less tired you feel during the day, the less you will feel the need to sleep in longer in the morning or nap during the day. So, the more effective stimulus control becomes as a strategy, the lower your arousal levels.

The stimulus control instructions are as follows:

  1. Only go to bed when sleepy, 
  2. Wake up at the same time every day, 
  3. Only use the bed/bedroom for sleep and sex, 
  4. Avoid naps during the day, and 
  5. Sit up or get out of bed if you cannot fall asleep within about 20 minutes of retiring to bed.
  6. If you have to get up at night, do something calming or relaxing until you feel sleepy again, and then lie back in bed for sleep. Ideally, this activity during the night should not involve bright light, rigorous exercise or be too cognitively demanding.
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STRATEGY 4: PARADOXICAL INTENTION

Paradoxical intention is probably the least used strategy that is effective for chronic insomnia. This is because it is quite counter-intuitive and, therefore, a hard sell to patients that are already struggling with less sleep than they would like. It also doesn’t target circadian rhythms or sleep pressure directly. Paradoxical intention instead indirectly targets both of these sleep mechanisms by helping patients to take off all the pressure they put on themselves to sleep.

            As long as the individual follows the recommended paradoxical intention instructions, it can reduce sleep effort, performance anxiety and hyper-arousal levels. This allows homeostatic pressure and circadian rhythms to work better for the individual, as long as they have been up for long enough during the day and are going to bed at the right time for their internal body clock.

The instructions for paradoxical intention are as follows:

  1. Go to bed at your usual bedtime.
  2. Lie down in bed with the lights off. 
  3. Don’t read or look at your phone or anything else.
  4. Try to see if you can stay awake for “just a little bit longer” without doing anything to force yourself to stay awake. 
  5. If you are still awake, congratulate yourself for successfully achieving your goal. Then, don’t look at the time on the clock and keep focusing on staying awake for “a little bit longer”. 
  6. Keep this up all night if you have to. But, whatever you do, do not try and force yourself to sleep and keep trying to stay awake “just a little bit longer”.
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STRATEGY 5: PROGRESSIVE MUSCLE RELAXATION

Progressive muscle relaxation is a sleep strategy that predominantly reduces how much physical tension someone feels before bed. Spending much of the day stressed or worried can lead to physical tension, especially around the neck, shoulders and upper back area.

            Progressive muscle relaxation can also reduce cognitive arousal levels by helping individuals focus on different parts of their bodies and become more aware of their feelings. It is, therefore, a much better cognitive strategy than either suppression or worry.

            Progressive muscle relaxation really doesn’t help with someone’s homeostatic pressure or circadian rhythms. It is an intervention that specifically targets someone’s hyper-arousal, particularly any physical tension they feel. It can help people feel more relaxed and calmer; therefore, the other two sleep components can work effectively and help them sleep enough at the right times.

PMR instructions are as follows:

  1. Tense the muscles in your arms, bringing your hands towards your shoulders to feel your biceps tighten. Then take a deep breath through your nose and down into your stomach. Then relax your arms as you breathe out the air through your mouth. Next, let your hands hang down by your side and give them a shake. Then repeat one more time by tensing, breathing and relaxing your arms.  
  2. Then tense the muscles in your face, including the ones in your forehead, nose, jaw and around your eyes. Notice the tension. Then take in a deep breath through your nose and into your belly. Relax all the muscles in your face as you breathe all the air out through your mouth. Let your facial muscles droop as your jaw hangs loose. Then repeat one more time.   
  3. Tense the muscles in your neck by bringing your shoulders up to your head. Hold this pose tight for a few seconds. Then take a deep breath through your nose into your stomach. Pause for a second or two. Then breathe all the air out through your mouth as you relax your neck and let your shoulders drop. Next, move your head around slowly in a circular motion if this helps you to relax your neck. Then repeat once more. 
  4. Tense the muscles in your stomach and back, bringing your abdomen closer to your spine. Hold this for a second, then take a deep breath into your belly while keeping your stomach and back tense. It may make it a little harder to breathe in as deeply as with the other muscle groups. Then breathe all the air out of your mouth as you slump down and push your belly out. Repeat one more time.  
  5. Tense the muscles in your buttocks and thighs, squeezing them tightly. Take a deep breath, pause, and relax these muscles as you breathe all the air out. Shift back and forth from left to right in your seat, then repeat.  
  6. Lastly, stretch out your legs and tense your calves and feet, bringing your toes back towards your body. Breathe in, pause, breathe out and relax your calves and feet. Shake out your legs, and then repeat one last time. 

 

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HOW DO YOU KNOW WHAT TO TRY FIRST?

Based on what I have written above, trying CBT-I is good if you think all three underlying sleep mechanisms are an issue. CBT-I is also the most recommended if you currently have some beliefs about sleep that are unhelpful for you.

            If your sleep pressure is not high enough at night when going to bed, but your arousal levels are okay, try sleep restriction. Try stimulus control if your circadian rhythms impact your sleep or if you spend lots of time awake in bed each night. Stimulus control can help to recondition your bed by feeling calm and sleepy and sleeping well over time, so it can be a helpful strategy in several ways.

            If elevated arousal levels are your main issue, but you are doing okay otherwise, give progressive muscle relaxation a proper go. If you find that you are putting in too much effort to try to sleep at night and your pre-sleep arousal is too high, I would recommend trying paradoxical intention first.

            No matter what you try, try it every night for at least a week, ideally two, before deciding if it is the right or wrong strategy. Both stimulus control and sleep restriction are difficult and anxiety-provoking initially. Still, they can have some of the largest improvements for you and your sleep if you stick to the instructions over time. Even a year after people have completed a course of CBT-I treatment, the best predictor of who continues to sleep well is individuals who still follow the sleep restriction and stimulus control rules.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

If Your Sleep is Wrecked, Try This

Sleep is the third and final pillar of health, alongside nutrition and exercise.

The summary I will provide you below will hopefully give you enough understanding to see if sleep is an issue for you. It should help you to gain knowledge so that you can see what is going on for you. Finally, it will give you enough tips and tricks so that you know what you can do about it.

UNDERSTANDING SLEEP

To begin with, there are three questions that you need to ask about your sleep if you want to do a brief assessment of what is going on for you. You need to ask:

  1. Is my sleep pressure high enough when I go to bed at night?
  2. Am I going to bed at the right time for my body clock? And
  3. Is my arousal (or chronic stress) level low enough when I am in bed at night and trying to sleep?
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SLEEP PRESSURE

To determine if your sleep pressure is high enough, you need to see if you can fall asleep fairly quickly at the start of the night. If it generally takes you less than 15 minutes to fall asleep once you get into bed, your sleep pressure may be high enough. If it is high enough, your sleep pressure can also help you to remain asleep for most of the night until you want to wake up and get out of bed in the morning. It’s normal to have a brief awakening at the end of a sleep cycle. During this time, we may move our sleeping position a little, return to sleep, and begin another sleep cycle. Many people may not even remember being awake or moving around the next morning. It’s not that it hasn’t happened. They don’t pay any attention to it and resume sleep quickly. Sleep cycles can happen every 90 to 120 minutes; we have about four to five of these each night.

HOW TO INCREASE YOUR SLEEP PRESSURE

If you want to make your sleep pressure high enough, aim to be out of bed for 16 hours each day. If you want to go to bed at 11pm each night, try to get up and out of bed at 7am each morning. If you get up at 8am, try not to sleep until midnight. If you want to sleep at 10pm, you may want to try getting up consistently at 6am.

            Caffeine can reduce your sleep pressure, so try not to consume too much of it during the day and not too late at night. Caffeine has a half-life of 4.5 hours, so you will still have 25% of it in your system nine hours later. Minimising caffeine consumption after 2pm will help your sleep pressure.

            Napping can reduce your sleep pressure, with naps longer than 20-30 minutes more than short power naps. If you have to nap, keep your nap opportunity time to less than 30 minutes and before 4pm during the day.

            Lastly, engaging in physically or cognitively demanding tasks during the day can improve your sleep pressure for that night. If you’d like to ensure your sleep pressure is high at night, see if you can do something challenging for your mind or body during the day. Because these tasks can also put a certain amount of stress on your brain and body, try not to do too many of them in the three hours before bed, and do things to wind down and relax before bedtime.

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BODY CLOCK

Everyone has a natural internal body clock, or circadian rhythm, that helps them feel alert and function well when awake. Circadian rhythms also help people to feel sleepy and rest when they want to sleep and recover. Some people are morning people or ‘larks’, whose brain and body want to help them get to sleep at 9pm, wake up, and get out of bed at 5am. Other people are night people or ‘owls’, whose body wants to help them function well until they sleep at 1am and then not wake them up until 9am, when most people have already begun their workday. Most people are somewhere between, with a body clock that helps them get to sleep between 10-11:30pm and wake up between 6-7:30am.

            Sometimes, morning people feel that they have to stay up later or try to sleep in, and they cannot. It leads to them not sleeping as much as they would like to, often being awake in bed in the mornings, and feeling worse for wear during the day. More often, night people try to sleep earlier and wake up earlier than their body wants them to. As a result, they also sleep less than they need, spend hours awake in bed at the beginning of the night, feel exhausted and find it hard to get up and move in the mornings.

HOW TO WORK WITH YOUR INTERNAL BODY CLOCK

The easiest and best thing to do is to start becoming aware of your natural circadian rhythms or body patterns and begin sleeping at the right times for you. If you are a morning person, get up at your natural time and enjoy the longer and more gradual start to the day. It might give you more peace and quiet and time for yourself than you can get at other times in the day. If you are an evening person, try to wait until you feel sleepy before going to bed, and then aim to get up 8 hours after that. Regardless of who you are, you will sleep better if it is at a more natural time for you.

            You can bring your body clock forward if you are more of an evening person and cannot sleep at your natural times during the week because of your school or work schedule. You can advance your circadian rhythms by having a consistent wake-up time, getting some morning sunlight soon after you get out of bed, not eating your meals too late, especially your dinner, and minimising how much bright light you expose your eyes to at night time. Some people think that blue-light wavelengths in your screens are particularly problematic. Avoid using screens too much in the last two hours before you go to bed; use f.lux if you need to use the computer, or night shift or similar devices on your phone that make the screen look more orange or red. Or you can invest in some blue-light blocking glasses that look orange/red in colour.

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AROUSAL LEVELS

Chronic stress, or hyper-arousal, can play havoc with your sleep and lead to insomnia or other sleep disorders over time. It is therefore important to manage how much chronic stress you have in your life. A little bit every now and then is fine and can even help you be more productive and achieve better results until the stressor is gone. However, if that stress becomes chronic and doesn’t go away, it can negatively impact your brain and body and disrupt sleep.

            If you’d like to determine your arousal level, imagine it on a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 is none, and 10 is full-blown panic and feeling completely overwhelmed. During the day, between a 4 and 6 is probably optimal in helping you perform well and do what you need to do at home, with your family, or at work. At night, however, between a 2 and a 4 may be better for falling and staying asleep.

HOW TO LOWER YOUR AROUSAL LEVELS

If you would like to lower your arousal levels, there are several things you can do. You can try to only focus on things that are under your control or things that you can do. The more you worry about things out of your control, the more you are likely to feel stress and anxiety. Understanding and accepting things that are out of your control is better than trying to change them or continuously wishing they were different. Once you have understood and accepted these things, try to change your focus back to whatever is most important to you at that moment or the situation you are in.

            Noticing whenever your mind wanders to unimportant things or things out of your control is a skill that can improve and become quicker and easier over time. Getting better at this helps you bring your attention back to what is in your control faster. It helps you to prioritise what is most important to you and what you can do about it.

            Other things you can do to lower your arousal levels include taking more breaks at work, doing less during the day, and engaging in activities that give you a sense of fun, play, awe, beauty, gratitude, pleasure, mastery or achievement. You can socialise with people you like and feel accepted by and connected to. You can also learn things like yoga, Pilates, meditation, and relaxation. Or go get a massage or have a spa, steam or sauna. Whatever it is, as long as you find that it reduces how much chronic stress you are experiencing or gives you some relief, it is worth doing and incorporating it into your life sustainably.

            Having a consistent wind-down or relaxation routine before bed can also be helpful, as is not forcing yourself to sleep when you are in bed. Instead, try having a good anchor point to focus on when you are in bed and bring your attention back to it if you begin worrying. A good anchor point can be thinking about things in your life that you are grateful for, an imagery exercise of a place that you find peaceful, focusing on your breath and keeping it slow and deep and exhaling all the air out each breath you take. Anything really, as long as you find that it works for you. Sometimes people listen to white noise, a podcast or an audiobook with a timer. If it helps you to feel relaxed and not stress about not sleeping or anything else, it can be an effective anchor point and keep your arousal levels low until you fall asleep.

            One of my favourites if I am in bed by myself is to listen to stand-up comedy. I’m not hating being awake and enjoying what I am listening to and occasionally smiling and chuckling. Before I know it, I am generally asleep, and the comedy show switches itself off once it finishes.

***REMEMBER***

If your sleep pressure is high enough each night, you are going to bed at the right time for your internal body clock, and your arousal levels are low, you’re likely to begin sleeping much better consistently.

Dr Damon Ashworth

Clinical Psychologist

Exercise is Not Essential for Weight Loss. It is Vital for Your Health

Alongside nutrition and sleep, exercise is one of the three pillars of our health. Before coming up with a realistic and sustainable plan, let’s see what types of exercise are most recommended and how much we should try to do each day or each week.

Walking – is there anything to the 10,000 steps recommendation?

Historically, humans walked a lot. Often as much as 10 or 12 miles a day when we lived a hunter-gather lifestyle, hunting for animals, foraging for berries, and finding different resting areas. One thing that often set us apart from other animals was not our speed but our endurance and capacity to keep walking. This would eventually lead to an animal becoming completely exhausted, breaking down, and needing to give up. However, once we finally caught up to them, all we had to do was begin preparing our next meal.

            The Japanese were the first to come up with the idea of doing 10,000 steps a day. I don’t think it was based on any science. It was more to do with the fact that it was a nice round number with five digits to aim for on the “Manpo-Kei” pedometer or step counter by Yasama Clock in Japan in 1965. My Japanese is non-existent, but the internet says that “Manpo-Kei” translates to “10,000 steps meter”, which seems to have stuck as the daily step target for many pedometers and activity trackers since then.

            Some research suggests that 10,000 steps a day can improve heart and mental health and lower your risk of diabetes. However, if you have tried to do this daily, you have probably realised just how long it can take. For me, it can be about 90 minutes or eight kilometres of walking. For others, it can take up to two hours a day, which might not make it so sustainable or easy to do consistently.

            Other research from Harvard suggests that walking an average of only 4,400 steps a day can have positive health benefits or lower a woman’s risk of dying. The control group did 2,700 steps a day, so increasing your step count by 1,700 steps a day might make a significant difference in your health.

            If you are already walking 7,500 steps daily, you may not need to increase it further. Another study found that increasing your steps to 7,500 a day reduced your risk of dying, but increasing it beyond that did not. So averaging 7,500 steps a day is going to be my new target. If I do more or less, that’s okay, as long as the average is around that.

            If you wanted to have 7,500 steps a day as a target, too, you could aim to do the majority of it in one block. However, some evidence suggests that regular movement throughout the day and not remaining in one position for too long is even better.

            For example, my Oura Ring gives me an activity score (out of 100) daily. If I don’t move every hour while I am awake, it penalises me that day for my overall activity score. It also recommends achieving a calorie goal in terms of energy used through activity, meeting my activity goals on most days of the week, and occasionally giving myself a rest day where I don’t overdo it and allow my body to recover.

Is sitting killing us, and can standing desks help?

I find the public discussion over the last five or so years about the dangers of sitting interesting. Such studies have said that sitting for too long can increase the risk of excess weight around the waist, high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, poor posture, muscle weakness, and even an increased risk of heart attack or stroke.

            A review of thirteen studies found that people who sit more than eight hours a day and do no physical activity outside of this have a similar risk of death to people who are obese or smoke regularly. However, further analysis of the more than one million people showed that 60 to 75 minutes of moderately intense exercise cancelled out the harmful effects of sitting for long periods each day. So, if you need to sit long hours at work each day, try to make sure that you also incorporate some time, either before, during or after work, to get moving and work up a sweat. It may be even more critical for you than for people on their feet more during their workday.

            Many opposing arguments for sitting are pushed by the makers of standing desks. These companies say that if sitting all day while at work is the problem, then standing all day is the answer.

            Standing desks do seem to improve the productivity of some workers. Those in a call centre with standing desks were found to be 45% more productive than those with sitting-only desks. Sit-stand desks can reduce upper back and neck pain by 54% after 4 weeks. Using a standing desk can reduce stress and fatigue after only 7 weeks. Furthermore, 87% of those using standing desks said they had more energy and vigour throughout the day. These levels reverted back to how they used to be when they returned to their old sitting desks. Using standing desks after lunch can even prevent your blood sugar from spiking as much.

            Standing all day may help you burn slightly more calories than sitting, but not much. One study in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that the average person burned 80 calories an hour while sitting at a desk or 88 calories an hour while standing. So about 60 extra calories a day if you stand all day. If you instead sat all day and then went for a walk during your lunch break, you would burn 70 more calories than standing all day. I know I’d prefer the sitting and lunchtime walk. It will probably come with less low back, leg or foot pain. What do you think?

The importance of regular movement and breaks

 My sister’s husband, Dr James Gillard, Osteopath, says that the problem isn’t sitting or standing. It is more the issue of remaining sedentary in one posture for too long each day. So, try to change into different poses once you feel uncomfortable and want to change. If you have a standing desk, hopefully, it is adaptable, where you can spend some time sitting and standing rather than doing only one of them all day long. And please, take regular breaks during the work day if you can. Stand or walk while talking on the phone. Head outside, get some fresh air and go to the park or for a walk at lunchtime. Grab a coffee for morning tea around the corner if you need to. Have a walking meeting with a colleague sometimes rather than just sitting at your desk if you can. Regularly taking breaks and moving throughout the day is the key.

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Running and is it good for us?

Running in a race with thousands of other people can be pretty fun. I’ve done several of them over the years, ranging from 5km runs when I was younger to a few 10km fun runs with my brother, to the run for the Kids 15km race with my cousin, and three half marathons by myself. Finishing the half marathon at the Melbourne Marathon festival was terrific. Entering the field of the MCG and completing a lap around the field before finishing the race in front of a few thousand people was a big rush and exhilarating.

            However, running by myself, just for the sake of it, is never something I have particularly enjoyed. I struggled for years to get into a good routine with running. I loved listening to Haruki Murakami’s book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and even hoped that one day I would feel the same way about it. I never did, though. After several years of trying and failing, I eventually stopped trying to run in 2017.

            1.35 million Australians do run for fun and exercise. If you do it regularly, it can significantly improve your health and reduce your risk of death. It reduces the risk of obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. It can also improve your balance, metabolism, heart function and aerobic endurance.

            Even running for 50 minutes a week can give you all these benefits, with benefits not improving or decreasing if you run more than this. Which makes it great news if you don’t have heaps of time on your hands and want to incorporate it into your life. If you think you could enjoy running for 50 minutes a week, either in one go or across a few, please talk to your doctor to see if it is suitable for you to get started straight away or slowly build up to it. I’ve spoken to a few people who tried the Couch to 5km program and enjoyed the benefits of getting into a good routine and feeling fitter. I think I may need to reconsider my earlier running retirement.

            There are some risks of injury or overuse with running, so try to avoid uneven or hard surfaces if you can, and wear appropriate and well-fitted footwear. Also, try not to suddenly increase the pace and duration of your running, like I did with attempting to run long races with little preparation. Instead, slowly build up your speed and distance over time, and don’t feel you need to run for more than 50 minutes a week. Running can be a healthy pastime that you can do consistently for many years.

            If you’re like me and don’t love the idea of running alone, see if there are any running groups in your area. If you really hate it, see if there is another exciting sport you can do that can give you similar benefits and more enjoyment and rewards. The less your exercise routine seems like hard work, and the more it feels like fun, the more likely you are to stick to it.

What are the alternatives to running?

If you look at the complete list of sports worldwide, there are over 800. If you look at the list of international sports federations and recognised sports, there are over 200. It may be that your area has a lot less, but I wonder how much you have looked to see what is available to you. Your sports experience may be what you were exposed to in school. If you weren’t the most athletic, competitive or extroverted child, you might have bad memories of times that seemed to turn you off sport for life.

            If you are in school, there are plenty of times when you have to participate in sports that, for whatever reason, are not your thing. Please do not let those negative experiences put you off all sports or exercise for life.

            If you are not as active as you would like to be, having training or a game to turn up to at the same time each week is an excellent way to get fit. It may also be fun and introduce you to new friends.

            If you are unsure but want to explore the idea further, please check out this list to see if there is anything that looks interesting to you and may be worth trying. Then see on the internet, Facebook, or Meetup if a group exists in your area. Or at your local sports stadium or university. Most of the time, there will be groups, teams, and classes that would love a newcomer to join them.

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Swimming

I currently have a pool in my apartment complex and want to get into a routine of swimming 1km, or about 30 minutes, once a week. Swimming has many benefits if you enjoy it or have a pool nearby that you can use when you need it.

            Unlike running or walking, Swimming is more of a full-body workout. Swimming can lower your stress levels, reduce anxiety and depression, and improve your sleep patterns, even after a light swim. It can burn double the amount of calories as walking. Only 30 minutes a week can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and type 2 diabetes. It supports the body and requires much less pounding on the body than running on pavement. It can increase your energy levels and doesn’t leave you all sweaty at the end of the workout.

Cycling

I currently don’t own a car and use a bike to get to and from work four times a week. As it takes approximately 30 minutes each way, I am already getting enough exercise time each week through cycling. Anything I do outside of this with Running or Swimming is a bonus. I also find it much easier and faster to ride down to the local shops whenever I need anything from the supermarket.

            Like Swimming and running, regular cycling has a lot of potential benefits. It can increase your cardiovascular fitness and reduce your risk of heart disease. It can increase muscle strength, flexibility and mobility, especially in your legs. It can decrease your stress levels. It can strengthen your bones and improve your posture and coordination. It can also reduce your body fat levels.

            There are some risks of injury, especially if you are riding on roads or unstable trails or tracks. However, I’d still much prefer to ride than run. If I ride as part of my commute to and from work, it saves me money by not having to pay for public transport. It also saves me time, as it is much faster than walking and public transport. If I can be less stressed and healthier while also saving money and freeing up more time, that seems a pretty good deal.

HIIT

The one thing I am not adequately doing in terms of cardiovascular fitness, even though it is recommended frequently these days, is High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). I’ve done a two-week trial of F45 before and didn’t mind it. It was definitely a challenging workout. I’ve never tried Cross Fit, but I’ve heard similar things from the devoted fans who love it and go consistently.

            To do HIIT properly, the aim is to do a repeated exercise at nearly your maximum for short intervals of about 20 to 30 seconds, followed by extended periods of rest, usually at a ratio of 2:1 or 3:1. So if you sprint for 20 seconds, rest for 40 or 60 seconds, and then sprint for 20 seconds again. Allowing your body to somewhat recover before beginning the next high-intensity interval is essential in HIIT. It will enable your body to get used to the two extremes and improve cardiovascular conditioning. I’ve done little bits of it before, but definitely not exactly like I described to you then. I think I will need to talk to an expert on exercise to see how useful it would be for me to include HIIT regularly in my life.

            With HIIT, you can burn a lot of calories in a short period. It can raise your metabolism for hours after a HIIT workout. It can help you to lose body fat and waist circumference. You can gain muscle in the trunk and the legs. It can improve your oxygen consumption. It can reduce your blood pressure and heart rate. Some studies suggest that it improves your heart health more than other forms of cardiovascular exercise. It can lower your blood sugar. Finally, it can improve your anaerobic and aerobic performance, so you can move quickly and for extended periods, depending on your needs.

            If you want to give HIIT a go, please speak to a doctor or exercise physiologist first, especially if you haven’t done much exercise lately.

Strength training

The last thing I want to do is utilise the gym in my apartment complex and have a weights workout 2 times a week, for about 30 minutes each time. Even though I am already doing enough cardiovascular training, I tend to view strength training as something that needs to be incorporated into a healthy lifestyle. Even though some of these activities, including Swimming and Cycling, can help maintain muscle mass.

            For many reasons, going to the gym and improving or maintaining muscle mass is positive. One of the main ones males often focus on is wanting to be buff or ripped and look good. While it is true that having more muscle can look and feel better, many other health benefits are less superficial. Strength training can help prevent posture and movement issues and maintain your capacity to do the things you need to do in your life. Maintaining muscle mass can help prevent osteoporosis and broken bones by strengthening your bones. It can also increase your metabolism, even when you are not working out, which reduces your risk of fat and weight gain over time.

            When an article in JAMA Psychiatry reviewed 33 clinical trials on strength training in over 1,800 people, they found that people who did strength training two or more days a week had significantly reduced depression severity. So even if you don’t get physically stronger, it can still give you mood benefits, so you don’t have to lift super heavy or hard.

            If you want to gain muscle or get stronger, doing each set to fatigue is probably the best advice I have been given and one that seemed to have the best results for me. To do this, lift (or pull) the weight for as many repetitions as possible until you struggle to do the entire movement. Then try for one more repetition. If you cannot do it, you are too fatigued, and your muscles will likely grow over time. If you decide to lift this way, make sure you lift with a spotter or a personal trainer, who can assist you at the end of each set when you become fatigued. Otherwise, stopping before you get to this point is much safer.

            A 2017 meta-analysis of 16 studies also found that resistance training can significantly improve anxiety in individuals with and without physical or mental illnesses. So, the mental health benefits of resistance training can be potentially even more prominent and faster than cardiovascular exercise.

            If you want to give resistance training a go, please talk to your doctor first and see a gym instructor, personal trainer or exercise physiologist. All these experts could help if you need more guidance and support on how to establish a good weight routine, how often to go, and what you can do.

Photo by Nina Uhlikova on Pexels.com

What is enough, too little or too much?

Unlike nutrition, I will not give a grade for each sport or type of exercise or tell you that you need to do these things. Instead, I have aimed to highlight that whatever movement and exercise you incorporate into your life will probably be better than none.

            If you want to focus on walking, see if you can begin counting your steps. Most smartphones have a step counter built into them now. This isn’t too bad as long as you bring your phone on your walks.

I like listening to music, a podcast, or audiobook when walking. It is terrific to do this if you are unmotivated. Listening to something you want to do alongside walking can be considered temptation bundling, making it a little easier to go. For example, people who could only listen to a story when they were at the gym were more likely to go to the gym. If you give yourself a similar rule, you might begin looking forward to your walks or workouts rather than dreading them.

            Once you count your steps for a week, if you are under 7,500 steps a week, see if you can increase your step count slowly each week until you get up to 7,500 steps a day. If you are already doing this, keep up the excellent work and don’t feel you need to do anything extra.

            If you want to focus on sitting less, you could buy a sit-stand desk or take more regular breaks during a work day and ensure you get away from your desk and outside during your lunch break. Or exercise an hour a day if you have to sit for 8 hours.

            If you want to see the benefits of running, aim for 50 minutes a week. If it’s Swimming, aim for 30 minutes a week. If it’s HIIT, try 30 minutes weekly to begin with. If it’s cycling, 30 minutes once a week would be an excellent start too. Finally, if you are going to do strength training, see if you can do two weekly sessions to see the full benefits.

            If you want to lose weight, please remember that nutrition, and not exercise, is the best way to do this. The type, amount, and timing of when you eat and drink are more important for how much weight and fat you lose than how active you are.

Altogether, if you are doing 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise five times a week, you are likely to be reasonably healthy from an exercise point of view. In addition, you are probably also helping your mental health, stamina and mobility.

You don’t need to become addicted to the gym or your smartwatch to become healthier. Instead, move a little more, sit a little less, get your heart rate up a few times a week, and see if you notice any of its benefits.

Improving Your Health Begins With Your Nutrition

I am definitely not a nutrition expert. Especially when you look at my behaviours or what I eat and drink daily.

I remember several years back when I tried to track my food and drink intake using My Fitness Pal’s phone application. They have a feature where you can share your diary with friends and family or make it available so they can see it too. I did this and had my cousin Shannyn see my diary. Let’s just say that she was slightly shocked at my diet. She was also not afraid to tell me this.

After this, I did not want to share my food and drink diary with anyone else.

I don’t believe my actions are based too highly on a lack of knowledge. By now, I have read a lot and have a general sense of what is considered healthy or unhealthy habits.

However, in terms of what specific actions I should take, I’m unsure exactly what to do. There are a lot of competing diets and rules out there. I don’t just want something to help me lose weight until my BMI is back in a healthy range of between 20 and 25 kg/m2. I want sensible and not too complicated or restrictive guidelines for how to eat to maintain a sustainable and healthy lifestyle.

The Healthy Eating Pyramid

Nutrition Australia first introduced their Healthy Eating Pyramid back in 1980. When I was in school, I remember it being in all of the school textbooks and on posters around the place. Of course, the pyramid has evolved over the years. The one I remember the most looked like this one from 1982:

My father was a physical education teacher and took on the food pyramid’s advice. So we would eat cereal and toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and often pasta or rice with dinner. However, some of the most recommended diets now, including the low carb, high fat (LCHF) diet, the slow carb diet, Atkins diet and the ketogenic diet, all recommend staying away from the things at the bottom of the pyramid (apart from vegetables), especially bread, cereals, rice and pasta.

The most recent pyramid in 2015 has shifted to accommodate the learning that has taken place worldwide since 1982. Unfortunately, over these 33 years, the average waistline has continued to expand, and the percentage of people that are overweight and obese has continued to climb:

Grains have shifted higher up the pyramid, and sugar has come out altogether. There are now some extra parts at the bottom about choosing water rather than any other drink, enjoying herbs and spices, and being active daily. The section at the bottom has also increased for vegetables and shrunk for fruit, indicating that we want to prioritise vegetables more in our nutrition than fruit. Finally, margarine is no longer mentioned at the top, but rather eating healthy fats. It doesn’t tell you what they are, but Nutrition Australia says that some fats are more nutritious than others. These unnamed fats are considered okay in small doses.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating

Similar to the food pyramid, but slightly different. The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating shows the recommended nutritious foods that the average Australian should eat. One of the most noticeable differences is putting the food in a circle rather than a pyramid. This makes it easier to think about how much of your plate should have the five recommended food groups:

It recommends a similar portion size of grains to vegetables, which is more in line with the older pyramid from 1982 than the latest one from 2015. It also shows specific oils that some people may consider unhealthy, including canola spray and margarine. It does recommend water as the main drink. Still, it is more realistic than the pyramid by showing that people sometimes eat and drink unhealthily, including alcohol, sugary, deep-fried, or fatty foods. Therefore, it recommends having these things occasionally and in small amounts. I’m not sure why chickpeas and red kidney beans have to be in two different food groups, but they are. 

The Star System in Australian Supermarkets

The Health Star Rating System is an interesting intervention with the right intention. The aim is to help educate the Australian public about the healthiness of different foods in the supermarket so that consumers can make healthy choices for their shopping carts and homes. I’ve found myself looking at the star ratings for various products and being influenced by what is written when deciding what to buy. 

            With cereals, for example, there is a lot of variety. All-Bran Original tastes dull, but with a five-star health rating, it suddenly seems more appealing than the two-star Crunchy Nut Clusters or the 1.5-star Crispix cereal. More sugar and less fibre and protein generally mean fewer stars for the cereal, which makes sense and seems pretty straightforward. 

            A more contentious area is the oils and fats. From various things that I have read and heard, there is a big difference in how healthy or recommended certain oils are from others. For example, some experts and diets say that butter is healthy. In the Bulletproof Diet, people even add it to their morning coffee. Yet it obtains the worst star rating of 0.5/5 because it is high in saturated fat. Another oil that people have told me to cook before is coconut oil. It also receives a 0.5/5 health star rating. On the other hand, with all its chemicals, margarine gets a score of 4.5/5. I’ve even seen 5-star vegetable oils, even though some experts have told me to stay clear of these oils as much as possible. 

            Comparing the star rating between one type of food and another is also contentious. For example, Up-and-Go drinks receive 4.5 stars out of 5, even though they have 28.7 grams of carbs, 15.8 grams of added sugar, sunflower and canola oil. But, then, foods such as smoked salmon receive 2/5 stars, even though they only contain salmon and salt and have healthy omega-3 fats and zero sugar or carbs. However, because of the higher amount of saturated fat, salmon is penalised and considered a poorer health decision. This might lead to some people choosing the highly processed Up and Go instead of the smoked salmon. 

            Another problematic issue with the Health Star Rating System is that it is not compulsory. Because of this, star ratings are currently only posted on 31% of eligible foods in Australian supermarkets. Suppose people use this as a guide to what is healthy or unhealthy in determining their choices at the supermarket. In that case, they are left in the dark with 69% of the eligible products. 

            An even bigger issue is that big corporations are gaming the star system to trick the public into thinking that their products are healthier than they are. For example, if vegetable oils obtain a five-star rating, does this mean they are one of the most beneficial food options? 

It shouldn’t mean this, but how is the consumer to know? The food pyramid says to avoid foods with added salt and sugar and only consume healthy fats in moderation. It’s debatable if vegetable oils and margarine are healthy fats. Still, the Health Star Rating System says nothing about this or how people should only eat them in moderation.  

            I’m guessing that if someone consumed all their food in deep-fried vegetable oil, they wouldn’t remain healthy for very long. So how does a use sparingly (or not at all) food obtain a five-star health rating? Is it helpful if the system doesn’t give better ratings to the foods that we’d be better to eat more often?

            Other health books I have read advise steering clear of as many packaged foods as possible and trying to eat things without an ingredient list. So, vegetables, fruit, meat, unsalted nuts, and eggs. As soon as the product has items in the ingredients list where you aren’t sure what they are, maybe it’s not the healthiest choice. 

Is it helpful to recommend that people count the calories they eat?

The average American is recommended to consume 2000 calories daily to maintain a healthy weight. On the back of all packaged foods in the USA, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a specific nutrition label. Here is an example of the latest nutrition label:

As you can see, 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice. Furthermore, in some countries and states, fast food and chain restaurants must state how many calories their products have in them. It is done to help educate people about how many calories their food has. By doing this, people hopefully do not go too far above the 2,000 calories a day recommendation. 

                        A large Double Whopper with Cheese Meal from Burger King is 1,530 calories. After eating this, a person has only 470 calories they can consume for the rest of the day without going on their daily recommended limit. A large Cheese Lovers pizza from Pizza Hut in Australia contains 9909kj, well over the recommended 8700kj per day that the Australian Government recommends for people to consume daily. I don’t know about you, but I’ve definitely eaten a large pizza on a few occasions. I might think twice about doing this if I know it will put me over my recommended daily calorie intake. So, forcing fast-food restaurants to post the calorie content of their food might help some people not overindulge in one sitting and unknowingly gain weight over time.

All Calories Are Not Equal

A big issue with calorie counting is assuming that the only thing that matters to our overall health is how many calories we consume daily. It’s just not true. Drinks like Diet Coke and Pepsi Max have zero calories, but that doesn’t mean they are healthy. They contain several artificial ingredients, including colour (Caramel E150d), sweeteners (Aspartame, Acesulfame K), flavourings, acids (Phosphoric and Citric Acid), a preservative (Potassium Sorbate) and Phenylalanine. If you only look at the zero calories, then people should be able to drink as much of this each day as they want without it being an issue. But I’m not sure if a healthy person would want to knowingly ingest lots of these ingredients daily. 

           When it comes to being healthy, there are more important things than just how many calories we consume. A Diabetes Victoria website describes a deep-fried battered fish, two potato cakes, and twenty chips from a takeaway shop (1053 calories). They compare it to a skim latte for a snack, hummus and salad sandwich and a medium apple for lunch, a handful of almonds for an afternoon snack, and baked fish with sweet potato wedges for dinner. These snacks and meals equal 1075 calories, only 22 more than the fish and chips. They would also pack 24g less fat, 21g less saturated fat, 319mg less sodium, and 16g more fibre. The second option is more nutritious, with fewer things that could contribute to inflammation. Even though there are more carbohydrates across the two snacks and two meals than the one meal of fish and chips, they are spread out over more time, leading to less of a blood sugar spike and subsequent crash. 

Calorie Density

A different way of thinking about food and calories is what the weight loss and healthy eating app Noom do. They still encourage recording all the foods, drinks and calories you consume daily. However, they also try to document how calorie-dense your food is. Your food or drink then receives a colour score based on its density. 

            Suppose you eat something low in density, such as vegetables or a salad without dressing; it receives a green score. With green foods, you can eat plenty of these and feel fuller for longer without worrying too much about going over your daily calorie goal. 

            Essentially, the more water a particular food has, the less calorie density it is likely to have. So, a grape is considered a green food, whereas a raisin, or dried grape, is a red food. Chicken breast and eggs are both medium or yellow foods with lots of nutrients. Still, a moderate number of calories compared to their weight. Many nuts, especially walnuts, are nutrient-rich but very high in calories. Therefore, they receive a red colour. There are no good or bad foods, but if you want to keep your calories low while also feeling satisfied and full, having more low-density or green foods in your meals and snacks is the way to go. Or at least that is what Noom says. 

Intermittent fasting can help without cutting down on how many calories you consume daily

Some interesting recent studies have also begun to see the potential health and fat loss benefits of intermittent fasting. The book ‘Life in the Fasting Lane: How to Make Intermittent Fasting a Lifestyle—and Reap the Benefits of Weight Loss and Better Health’ by Dr Jason Fung, Eve Mayer, and Megan Ramos describes the potential health benefits. It also details how to practice it for those who want to learn more.

            Intermittent fasting is another example of how there are other things to consider apart from how many calories we should consume every day. Eating and not eating at different times also affects our health and body composition. For example, healthy males, who frequented the gym, found that eight weeks of feeding (between 1pm and 9pm only) reduced fat mass but not overall muscle mass. The comparison group consumed the same calories but ate between 8am and 9pm (Moro et al., 2016).

            A review article looking at intermittent fasting studies between 2000 and 2018 found similar results. Fat mass was significantly reduced in participants who underwent an intermittent fasting protocol (Ganesan, Habboush & Sultan, 2018). The review also found that some biochemical markers reduced significantly, whilst other changes were inconsistent. Therefore, intermittent fasting may be worth trying if you aim to reduce your overall fat mass without losing too much strength or weight.  

Both low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets can produce positive short-term results

An interesting meta-analysis reviewed randomised controlled trials of diets in overweight and obese adults (BMJ, 2020). The reviewers found that both low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets produced similar benefits in weight loss and reduced blood pressure at six months. Compared to a usual diet, low-carbohydrate diets resulted in 4.63kg of weight loss at six months, and low-fat diets resulted in 4.37kg of weight loss. Atkins produced the most prominent weight loss of 5.5kg after six months of all the popular diets. Not surprisingly, dietary advice without substantial behavioural changes led to no weight loss after six months. Moderate macronutrient diets, such as DASH or Meditteranean, led to about 3kg weight loss and slightly improved blood pressure after six months. However, it was not as effective as either low-fat or low-carb diets. 

            Unfortunately, at 12 months, most weight loss benefits diminished across all diets, including low-carb, low-fat or moderate macronutrient diets (BMJ, 2020). Only the Meditteranean Diet maintained the cardiovascular benefits by 12 months, which puts it as the top eating plan if you want to improve your heart health in the long run. 

If You Want to Lose Weight

At www.dietdoctor.com, they provide 18 tips that can help people lose weight. They also back up their recommendations with scientific evidence and rank them in importance. I don’t agree with all of their advice. Still, they tell you how strong the evidence they are using is. Below are my modified tips; based on their recommendations. You might find some of these tips helpful if you apply them to your life. However, please talk to a qualified Dietician before taking on any significant changes in your diet to see if they are right for you. If you have also suffered from any eating disorder-type behaviours, please seek assistance from a GP or psychologist who can support you on your health journey. 

My top 7 weight loss tips

  1. Avoid eating foods or drinking beverages high in sugar, and minimise your intake of highly processed or deep-fried carbohydrates.
  2. Eat when hungry, and don’t feel that you need to eat if you are not feeling hungry.
  3. Eat real food or foods without an ingredient list. 
  4. Eat as many vegetables or salads as you want to, assuming you go easy on the sauces and dressings.
  5. Measure your progress wisely.
  6. Be persistent by choosing a sustainable eating plan for yourself and stick to it as much as possible. If you have a meal where you do not, get back to the plan after that, not the next day or the following Monday. 
  7. Avoid beer and other alcohol as much as possible.

**Exercise is positive for your heart, health, mood and sleep. It is not a super effective weight-loss strategy, but it is beneficial in many other ways. 

So many different rules and recommendation

If you can’t tell by now, knowing what to consume as part of a healthy and nutritious diet is tricky. Some organisations or Governments will recommend certain things. But, at the same time, other experts will tell you to avoid all that and suggest something different altogether. 

           I could potentially test out all the different variables and see which one is the best fit for me. Fortunately, US News & World Report have released their Best Diets Overall 2022, which ranks 40 popular diets for me. They look at which eating plans are the healthiest, which ones are easiest to follow, which ones lead to the fastest weight loss, which ones are the best for long-term weight loss, and which eating plans are the best overall:

Best Diets for Healthy Eating in 2022

  1. Mediterranean Diet = 4.8/5
  2. DASH Diet = 4.7/5
  3. The Flexitarian Diet = 4.7/5
  4. MIND Diet = 4.6/5
  5. TLC Diet = 4.4/5

Easiest Diets to Follow in 2022

  1. Mediterranean Diet = 3.7/5
  2. The Flexitarian Diet = 3.4/5
  3. The Fertility Diet = 3.3/5
  4. MIND Diet = 3.3/5
  5. WW (weight watchers) Diet = 3.3/5

Best Fast Weight-Loss Diets in 2022

  1. Atkins Diet = 3.9/5
  2. HMR Program = 3.8/5
  3. OPTAVIA = 3.8/5
  4. Biggest Loser Diet = 3.7/5
  5. Keto Diet = 3.7/5

Best Long-term Weight-Loss Diets in 2022

  1. The Flexitarian Diet = 3.5/5
  2. Volumetrics Diet = 3.5/5
  3. WW (weight-watchers) Diet = 3.5/5
  4. Vegan Diet = 3.4/5
  5. Mayo Clinic Diet = 3.2/5

The Best Diets Overall in 2022

  1. Mediterranean Diet = 4.2/5
  2. DASH Diet = 4.0/5
  3. The Flexitarian Diet = 4.0/5
  4. MIND Diet = 3.8/5
  5. Mayo Clinic Diet = 3.7/5
  6. TLC Diet = 3.7/5
  7. Volumetrics Diet = 3.7/5
  8. WW (weight watchers) Diet = 3.7/5
  9. Vegetarian Diet = 3.6/5
  10. Ornish Diet = 3.5/5

I want a sustainable diet to help me lose weight initially and keep my body mass index in the healthy range for the rest of my life. The Flexitarian Diet, therefore, seems like the best option for me. However, with the best overall diet score of 4.2/5, the Meditteranean Diet also seems like a good choice.

If I wanted to lose weight as fast as possible, I might choose The Atkins Diet. However, The Flexitarian Diet achieves a better long-term weight loss score than the Atkins Diet. The Atkins Diet’s overall score is also 2.2/5, which is 34th out of 40. Much worse than the 4.0/5 score and 2nd overall for the Flexitarian Diet.

            Interestingly, the things I have been hearing the most about regarding eating plans are not at the top of the list. For example, the Ketogenic Diet comes in 5th for best fast weight loss but is nowhere near the top-recommended diets (37th best eating plan out of 40). Neither is the Paleo Diet (30th best eating plan overall) or Intermittent Fasting (27th best eating plan). Jordan Peterson’s diet of only eating meat doesn’t even rank. Still, the AIP Diet, which also claims to target autoimmune diseases, is the 35th best-ranked eating plan overall.  

Which nutritional recommendations do you think will work best for you and be possible for you to stick to long-term?

What guidelines work best for you to change your nutrition and eating habits? Are they any of the diets listed in the US News & World Report rankings? Or the 2015 food pyramid? Or the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating? Or the Health Star Rating System? Or Calorie Counting or using the data provided on Nutritional Labels? Or whatever the expert you see suggests is best for you? I’d love to hear how people try to approach their nutrition in a healthy, effective and sustainable way.

The Advice I’d Give to My Stepdaughter Before She Graduates from High School in 2027

My stepdaughter is now in year 7 and at a new school this year. We’ve all moved across to Melbourne, Australia, after being in Port Vila, Vanuatu, since 2018. Her new school seems to be going well for her. They have asked all parents of year 7’s to write a letter to their children for their time capsule, which will be opened in year 12 in 2027. As we will likely be back living in Vanuatu in 2027, she is unlikely to read what I have written. I have therefore decided to share what I have written here also. I doubt she will read it until then, but it was an interesting exercise. Below is my letter:

Dear M,

I am writing this letter to you as you are about to finish your secondary schooling. How cool is that? What’s the year 2027 like? Is it like the Fifth Element, where there are flying cars everywhere? Or like Minority Report, where everyone is getting locked up in jail for crimes they have thought about doing but haven’t committed yet? Or like Blade Runner, where it’s hard to tell who a robot and a human is?

Probably not, but I thought I’d ask. Does it seem like the world is getting better still? Or is everyone worried about the world and its people even though progress has been made? Hopefully, there hasn’t been another pandemic that has shut things down again, and even though we still worry about Russia and China, we haven’t had a nuclear war or World War III.

I don’t even know if you will get this letter. I guess you will return to Vanuatu and attend the international school again. Hopefully, they manage to get it to you in some way.

Either way, I am super proud of you. It’s been so cool to see how you have adjusted to life here in Melbourne and Australia in 2022. Your mum was more scared of how you would do with coming to Melbourne than how she would do. Not that it is a competition, but you are doing way better so far. I hope it continues that way for you and that you enjoy your time here in Melbourne and at your new school.

I’m proud of you for being unapologetically yourself and doing whatever you want, regardless of what others do. I wish I had the same courage to do that in high school when I was your age. I do it these days, but it took me a long time to get to that point.

I’m happy that you are such a voracious reader at your age and that you are so curious too. You described yourself as curious in the video questions I asked you this year, which is super cool. I hope you continue to love reading, learning, and being curious about everything for the rest of your life. There’s this weird term called polymath, a person of vast knowledge or wisdom. I think it’s a pretty cool thing to be, and if you can do that, it means that the world is your oyster, and you can apply yourself to learn about and do whatever it is that you want.

Your school is telling me to discuss my hopes and wishes for you next. Essentially, I just want you to feel okay with who you are and for you to be able to enjoy some things. I hope for life to not feel too difficult for you, for you to have some connections and relationships that mean a lot to you with people you feel close to. I also hope you are doing what you want to do in your life. Finally, I hope you know that we will always have your back and will never try to keep you from doing the things you want.

You don’t need to be super successful in a societal sense with lots of money, cars and houses. I just want you to feel loved by your mum and me and know that you are living the life that you want to be and not be held back by your fears too much. Life can be scary, but the more we choose to move towards the life we want rather than be held back by our fears, the better life we can have. Or at least that is how I think about it.

My feeling at this moment is complete gratitude. I am grateful that you are in my life. I want to be a positive male role model in your life that is 100% happy when you can be the best version of yourself. I don’t really want anything else.

Some of my best memories of you are when we first met. Doing things together. Playing games at my house initially. Then, you wanted to move in with your mum and me. Us living in our new place near your school and grandparents together. Us going on trips overseas together. You teaching me to be as honest as I can be. Us talking over video and the phone while I was in Australia by myself for 17 months. When I felt like I wanted to get better for you and your mum after I had a stroke. When I felt like we are a family together. Helping you with your math or any other homework when you are stuck. Doing new things with you, like going on bike rides, swimming together, rock climbing, or anything else you enjoy.

I’m then meant to give you advice as your graduate high school. I hope you have enjoyed as much time as possible between years 7 and 12. If you remain curious and interested in what you are learning, I’m sure you will do well. I hope that you have some options for whatever it is that you would like to do next. Try to enjoy it where you can, be grateful for the positive things you have, and don’t feel like you need to have all the answers straight away. I definitely didn’t have everything figured out when I was your age, and I doubt that I do even now.

Life is about asking the right questions and trying to live your life in a way that will help you figure out the answers you seek. If you need some time off or a gap year, take it. Just make sure you spend your time in the ways you would like. Someone on the couch all day who wishes they could be doing something else is not happy. Someone who chooses to be on the couch all day and does it can be. So do whatever it is that you feel that you need to be doing at the moment. If you do this unapologetically, you will hopefully get out of it what you need so that you feel like you have correctly done this. Once you get tired of this or all the benefits you want, move on. Then get everything that you can out of that.

Life isn’t always easy, and our brains will never be 100% satisfied. This doesn’t have to be a problem. Seeking and searching for new and better things is not a sign that something is wrong. It is just how the brain works. Try to enjoy whatever you can, be grateful for what you have, and put your energy towards creating the things you want for yourself and others. If you do this, you will live the best possible life.

The more you can enjoy the effort you put in towards something, whatever it is, the more you will be willing to do hard things. If you can do this, you can have a good life by doing what you want. Your brain will probably always strive for more, which is normal and natural. Just go out there, experience all the things you want to, and try not to be held back by fear when it is about doing what you want to that is likely to be safe. Try to keep being the person you want to be. If you ever need anything, whether it is a shoulder to cry on, a hug, a break from everything, or some guidance, know that I will be there to try to help you. I can’t guarantee that I will always help you the way you want, but I will always try my best.

Much love,

Damon

The 10 Truths of Longevity

The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” — Isaac Asimov

The Longevity Project

Over 1,500 of the most promising and brightest boys and girls were recruited in 1921 by Lewis Terman. Unfortunately, he died in 1956, but the study continued for decades afterwards. All participants were born around 1910 and studied for 80 years or until they died. It was then possible to figure out who lived the longest and why.

Although each child was potentially gifted, not all lived long and happy lives. Fortunately, analysis of this extensive data has taken place for over twenty years at The University of California in Riverside.

The study’s significant findings are summarised in the 2011 book “The Longevity Project: Surprising Discoveries for Health and Long-Life from the Landmark Eight-Decade Study” by Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin. I listened to this audiobook recently and was quite surprised with some of its key results:

1. Living honestly is essential.

  • “A key part of one of the healthy paths is called ‘The High Road.’ Such an individual has good friends, meaningful work and a happy, responsible marriage. The thoughtful planning and perseverance that such people invest in their careers and relationships promote long life naturally and automatically, even when challenges arise.”

2. Please do NOT send your children to school earlier than their peers.

  • “Starting formal schooling at a very early age was not a great idea for most. Children need unstructured playtime, and they need to get along with their peers; starting young seemed to alienate them.”

3. Illness is NOT random.

  • “Those that live longer are often healthier throughout their years and (managed to) avoid serious ailments altogether.”
  • “Those who are healthier tend to be happier, and those who are happier tend to be healthier.”
  • “It’s never too late to choose a healthier path. The first step is to throw away the lists and stop worrying about worrying.”
  • “Thinking of making changes as taking ‘steps’ is a grand strategy. You can’t change major things about yourself overnight. But making small changes, and repeating those steps, can eventually create that path to a longer life.”

4. Good marriages lead to better health, especially for men.

  • “Marriage is only health-promoting for men who are well-suited to marriage and have a good marriage. For others, it is more complicated.”
  • “Women who stayed single, were widowed or got divorced often thrived more than women who were married to troublesome husbands.”
  • “Men who stayed divorced were at high risk for premature mortality.”

5. Divorce during childhood predicts early death in adulthood.

  • “The strongest social predictor is parental divorce, as it often pushes the child into many unhealthy directions, including heavier drinking and smoking, less education, lower career achievements and a greater risk of later divorce themselves.”
Photo by Vlad Sargu on Unsplash

6. Follow the long-term recommendations that are right for you.

  • “The long-lived did not find the secret to health in broccoli, medical tests, vitamins or jogging. Rather they were individuals with certain constellations of habits and patterns of living. Their personalities, career trajectories and social lives proved highly relevant to their long-term health, often in ways we did not expect.”
  • “You need to make changes that will be sustainable in the long term. We say, if you don’t like jogging, don’t jog! Instead, begin doing things that you enjoy and can keep up, like a walk at lunchtime with a friend or vigorous gardening.”
  • “The usual piecemeal suggestions of relax, eat vegetables, lose weight and get married are lifesaving for some, but neither effective nor economical for many.”
  • “Some of the minutiae of what people think will help us lead long, healthy lives, such as worrying about the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids in the foods we eat, actually are red herrings, distracting us from the major pathways. When we recognise our long-term healthy and unhealthy patterns, we can begin to maximise the healthy patterns.”

7. Conscientiousness is the most critical personality factor for longevity.

  • “Conscientiousness is very important. Unconscientious boys, even bright ones, are more likely to grow up to have poor marriages, smoke more, drink more, achieve less education, be relatively unsuccessful at work, and die younger.”
  • “Conscientious people stay healthier and live longer for three reasons:
  1. First, they do more things to protect their health.
  2. Secondly, they are biologically predisposed to be healthier, and
  3. Lastly, they end up in more beneficial situations and relationships.”

8. Working hard can be helpful for you.

  • “Those who worked the hardest often lived the longest…especially if they were involved in meaningful careers and were dedicated to things and people beyond themselves.”
  • “It was clear that working hard to overcome adversity or biting off more than you can chew — and then chewing it — does not generally pose a health risk. Striving to accomplish your goals, setting new aims when milestones are reached, and staying engaged and productive is what those heading to a long life tend to do. The long-lived didn’t shy away from hard work; the opposite seemed true.”

9. Resilience is protective for health.

  • “Depending on the circumstances, a traumatic event such as parental divorce could contribute to a longer life if the child learned to be resilient.”
  • “Resilience is important, and can be achieved via a sense of personal accomplishment, the strength of character and maturity.”
  • “Combat veterans are less likely to live long lives, but surprisingly the psychological stress of war itself is not necessarily a major health threat. Rather, it is a cascade of unhealthy patterns that sometimes follows. Those who find meaning in a traumatic experience and can reestablish a sense of security about the world usually return to a healthy pathway.”

10. Human connection is essential.

  • “Having pets can improve well-being, but they do not help people live longer and are not a substitute for friends.”
  • “People who feel loved and cared for report a better sense of well-being.”
  • “The clearest health benefit of social relationships comes from being involved with and helping others.”
  • “It is important to be well-integrated into your community.”
  • “Connecting with and helping others is more important than obsessing over a rigorous exercise program.”
  • “The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become — healthy or unhealthy.”