We all tend to be comfort-seeking; it’s not bad, it’s just how we are wired. This means that often, especially with age, we can have an aversion to challenges — be they physical, mental, or just always wanting to be around people who agree with us. The problem with this is that avoidance of discomfort will inevitably lead to decline. Yes, that La-Z-Boy recliner and TV watching are not going to help you live healthier longer.
At the very moment when we should do the opposite, many of us veer away from more vigorous challenges. Your body and mind are designed to work hard and, if you don’t, especially after age 50, your quality and quantity of life will decline.
We get stronger, and avoid decay, through stress adaptation. Chronic is the bad one, the one that has us working late at night, that goes on for days, weeks, and years worried about things. There is another kind of short-term stress, though, that is great for us — the sort that happens when we exercise hard, when we are learning a new language, when we are in a new social group, or when we jump into a cold plunge pool. With these sorts of challenges, we are asking our brains and our bodies to adapt by raising our resilience to a new level. It is by definition uncomfortable, but to have a long, healthy life, we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
The inclination to “take our comfort” as we age is common, but if it becomes a way of life, we are headed for certain trouble. If not challenged, both our brains and bodies will shrink and decline. Use it or lose it, as the saying goes.
The good news is that something like 80% of our health outcome is determined by our behaviors and only 20% by our genetics. This is great news; we can take control of our health destiny. The more stress adaptions we put in, the more resilient we will become. But the reverse is also true. If we lower the bar to where we are continually comfortable, we will also adapt, but downward. Not good.
Here are some simple rules
- Work out hard. Concentrate on strength building, long aerobic zone 2 exercises (75% of your max heart rate), and VO Max (HIIT Training) aiming for 6 days a week and 1 day of rest. The very best thing you can do for your long-term brain health, to avoid chronic disease, and maintain agility is to behave like an athlete. Look in the mirror in the morning and say to yourself, “You are an athlete.” Then behave like one, eat like one, sleep like one. Because, as the famous coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman said, if you have a body, you are an athlete.
- Think hard. Learn to play a musical instrument. Learn a new language. Learn advanced math. Learn to code. Study something hard. Crossword puzzles, and various digital brain gym apps are entertaining, but we are talking about something greater than this. Come on, you can do it. Your brain needs to be challenged; it needs to struggle just like your body does. Go deep, solve something hard, and learn something new that you never thought you could.
- Embrace heat and cold. Spend 30 minutes in a sauna 3 times a week and your all-cause mortality goes down by 40%. That is incredible, and all you have to do is sit there. Take cold showers and, if you can, do a cold plunge and your immune system function will increase.
- Contribute hard. We are social beings, and we derive meaning from helping others. You will live a longer, more satisfying life if someone is counting on you. There is a positive epigenetic signal effect on your DNA when you are in service to others. That blew my mind but, when you think about it, at the most basic cellular level, we are cooperative — otherwise, we never would have progressed beyond being a single cell. And you know what non-cooperative cells are called? Those are cancer cells. So no more white space in your calendars; even plan your downtime intentionally. Get out there and be a joiner, not a lurker. Make a difference in the world around you.
- Eat less often. Finish eating 3 hours before bed and then try to delay your first meal until a few hours after you get up. A bit of hunger is good. It helps our bodies clean out the malfunctioning cells and gives our digestion a break. If you are up for it, try a 3-day fast once a month. There is considerable science that says you will live longer and healthier if you do. When planning your meals, eat for the day you are having, and not every day is the same.
Life is good, and if we can include a bit of discomfort into the mix it will make all the good stuff even better. You are stronger than you think you are.