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3 Simple Keys to Better Health; Why Words Matter

August 8, 2017

Interesting Thought: 3 Simple Keys for Better Health


A few weeks ago, I (Brad) wrote for New York Magazine about a new study demonstrating that people who meet 3 simple criteria live, on average, 7 years longer:

1) Don't smoke;
2) Maintain a healthy body weight;
3) If you drink, do so in moderation. 

Of those additional 7 years, researchers found that 6 were disability free. In other words, this isn't just about extending years of life, it's about extending life in years, too. 

Unfortunately, only 20 percent of Americans reach age 50 having checked off the above three boxes. This is a tragedy, especially because none of this is genetically determined and all of it is modifiable. Not to mention, the terms are somewhat forgiving. For body weight this study draws the cut-point at a BMI of 30, which is clinically obese. For drinks, it considers moderation 14 drinks per week for men and 7 drinks per week for women—hardly too rigid a benchmark.

As I noted in my New York column, a good portion of our collective failure is structural. For example, those in lower socioeconomic strata are far more likely to smoke, and most health behaviors are correlated with education level. There is much to be done from a policy and political standpoint. 

Even so, a good portion of this isn't structural. I know many well-off individuals who fail to meet at least one of the healthy-3 criteria. My guess is I'm not alone. How can we, as individuals, act to move the needle?

1) Start with yourself: do you meet the healthy-3 criteria? If not, you should feel empowered knowing they are all modifiable. If you need help, there are myriad resources to quit smokingdrinking, and lose weight.

2) If you are involved in political/community activism, ask your local leaders what they are doing to eliminate tobacco, confront the obesity epidemic, and control alcohol. Exert all the pressure you can.

3) Help those you know. Don't be judgemental and remind yourself that, almost always, everyone is doing the best they can. If you offer help from a place of compassion and kindness, you'd be surprised how receptive most people are.

4) If you are a teacher, coach, or manager, regardless of your subject-matter or expertise, consider this a part of your job. Promoting healthy behaviors is about human flourishing and thus knows no silos. 

5) Start stigmatizing alcohol. For a whole bunch of reasons, drinking heavily is still socially accepted and, in many circles, celebrated. Don't be a jerk, but also don't be afraid to remind folks that when they over-drink they sacrifice not only their immediate tomorrow, but also 7-years worth of tomorrows!


Coaching Corner: Why Words Matter

It's easy to imagine the athletes feeling a bit nervous lining up for this week's Track and Field World Championships. Or perhaps you'd instead use descriptors of anxious, worrisome, stressed, tense, or having the jitters. All of these seem synonyms to where we started, at nervous, but are they really the same? You might argue that worrisome is a more negative take on our original word, invoking feelings of dread and impending difficulty. Tense might bring about ideas of a physical reaction, while others a more psychological one.

When we are young and inexperienced coaches, the likelihood of us lumping the majority of these descriptors together increases. In our day-to-to-day use, we may interchange "sad" and "depressed" or "stress" and "anxiety" without giving it a second thought -- even though the former are defined as acute emotional events and the latter overarching feelings that often take over one's life.

In the world of psychology and emotions, researchers refer to the ability to distinguish between similar but different states as emotional granularity. The higher one's emotional granularity, the better they are able to discern between the feeling of anxiousness and nervousness, for example. One of the best ways to increase this ability is to collect experiences and take note of the differences. When we do so, we expand our vocabulary, but more importantly, we also expand our mental model of different concepts.

By putting yourself in different situations, and then performing a debrief afterward, assessing and coming to terms with the different sensations felt, you can increase your emotional granularity. The difference between being injured, hurt, or feeling a bit of pain becomes apparent. For example, the freshman who puts a bag of ice on every sore part of his body and declares that he can't run because he's hurt  versus the senior who has learned the nuanced difference between pain and injury.

It's easy for us to issue advice to turn anxiety into excitement or to view fatigue as a positive signal that your body is putting forth needed effort. However, to actually accomplish that mental shift requires far more than simply saying "nerves are excitement!" It requires actually convincing your "self" that you truly believe that. And one step along that path is to first understand the nuances of the sensations and feelings we experience. The process I follow with my athletes is simple:


  • Put yourself in new and different situation

  • Describe the sensation/feeling you experienced

  • Challenge yourself to explain that situation using as many different words as possible. And see if there is more nuance in your new appreciation for what you experienced.


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