Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Health and Productivity 2: A Healthy Body

Health is a major driver in media and business these days. We all seem to want a healthy body. What does that mean, and how do we get there? More after the jump.

This is Part 2 of a series of posts on health and the link to productivity.
As I talked about a few days ago, there are many different ways in which a body can be said to be healthy. Each different way in which we can be healthy in body can be thought of as an objective. Like any objective, however, we need to know what success looks like, in order to turn a subjective idea into an objective goal.

Bodily Health as Physical Fitness
Think of fit people. Who do you see? Professional Athletes? The middle-aged banker who still gets up for a run every morning by the river? Someone who can haul around sacks of potatoes all day?

I could ask a hundred people this question and get at least as many answers. "Fitness" is a subjective value, and subjective values cannot be measured. And yet, we measure it all the time. Athletes measure their fitness by their performance. People in professions with a physical fitness requirement (such as the armed forces or emergency services) measure their fitness by their ability to meet stringent requirements on exercise circuits.

Unless you're one of those people, fitness is somewhat less measurable. Am I fit if I can run a 10K and finish, or if I can run a 10K and win? How about if I can lift a fifty pound box and carry it 100 meters?

Where did the box come from? I used to be a cook. Fifty pound boxes of potatoes were a very common commodity, and at one particular location I worked, carrying one 100 meters was a common if not quite routine part of the job. This reveals one thing about fitness: there is, actually, a "fit enough".

Fit Enough is how fit we have to be to pass muster on the tasks we undertake. If you work in a trade, fit is fit enough to handle the equipment and materials you use, for extended periods of time, in a manner that is reasonably safe. That's fairly easy to measure, and fairly easy to determine. I had to be able to haul that box of potatoes from the hotel to the convention centre, by hand. If I couldn't, I'd be stuck partway across, waiting for enough breath to finish the job.

Fit Enough is somewhat less clear when you're a professional or a full-time student. Your job might not be especially physical. In fact, some have ascribed the rise in obesity rates in the western world with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle that started with urbanization during the industrial revolution... when all of a sudden, desk jobs became commonplace. Still, there's a physical fitness requirement to remain a healthy weight. That then, becomes a large part of your "Fitness Quota".

Of course, if you're an amateur athlete on the side, setting goals becomes easier. Now it's about being able to perform well at your sport, and many sports have storied and well-historied practice and training methods.

Putting it Together: That's the what. You want the how.  I'm not going to pretend to be an absolute authority on physical exercise because, frankly, I'm not. However, there are a few things I know, that you can take with you to form a greater understanding:

  • Ergonomics are the considerations to be made to prevent undue strain on joints and body. Especially if you work behind a desk, this is a very important consideration. Your mother wasn't harping on you to stand or sit straight for her health... it was for yours. A fantastic post on the subject was written by Whitson Gordon over at Lifehacker.
  • Strength is easy enough to train but requires the most equipment. Many basic exercises can be done with household belongings. It's important, however, to be very careful when strength training to do so safely. I would advise against developing your own exercises. Many magazines and websites have excellent pre-designed Strength Training for both men and women of all fitness levels.
  • Cardiovascular Fitness is fitness of the heart and lungs. It is perhaps the cheapest form of fitness to train: all you really need is a pair of good running shoes. When I have family going to the US I have them pick me up a pair of $50 Saucony running shoes that last me the better part of the year. Of course, if you live somewhere where it gets cold in the winter, you might want to consider some sort of gym membership (or even your local aquatic centre). Whether it's walking or running, stairs, roads, or trails, getting around and moving is a great way to keep the body in order.
  • Weight and Flexibility are generally-ignored but important components of physical fitness. Weight shares an intimate connection with diet, and neither diet nor exercise can control weight on their own, but must be used together, no matter what the latest fad diet says. Very often, a change in weight (either increasing or decreasing) is a component of a personal fitness goal.
Bodily Health as Healthy Eating
Healthy Eating is a phrase sure to drive me batty. I've studied nutrition at the college level, and I try and keep current with the latest actual science on the subject (as opposed to staying current with the media's latest favourite fruit, vegetable, or chemical). I think it was Buddha that said "all things in moderation", and while he may not have had the benefit of modern medical science, he was pretty close to the mark.

First of all, throw away everything you know about the Canada Food Guide or the USDA food pyramid. They're close, but wrong. Second, and most importantly, throw out everything you know about which foods are healthy and which are not... you're going to be surprised.

Here are a few dietary guidelines.
  • Serving Sizes vary from person to person but a general rule is that the North American conception of a proper size is too large, whereas the size on the labels of pre-packaged food is either spot-on or too small. There are a few good general-rules, however. Your meat should be one-third or less of the amount of food on your plate.  Your vegetables should be two-thirds of the remainder, with your starches making up the final component.
  • Meat and meat substitutes occupy much the same place in the diet and should be considered interchangeable. Many legumes are considered substitutes for meat, as are eggs. As a general rule, you should eat red meat more rarely than white meats, and better still is a nice piece of fish. There is nothing wrong with organ meat (and I think a certain amount of offal-eating should be encouraged), but remember that there are considerations to be made for their richer iron content.
  • Vegetables are not as interchangeable with fruits as the Canada Food Guide would have you believe. They provide different sets of nutrients to the body than fruits (though there is a degree of overlap). Choose either with vibrant colours: carrots, sweet potato, string beans, snap peas, red cabbage, peppers, and so on. As a special note, potatoes are not actually a vegetable in dietary terms. They behave more as a starch.
  • Starches and Grains are all the old favourites: pasta, rice, mashed potatoes, bread, and so on. They're an important supply mainly of two things: fibre, and calories. Believe it or not, calories are good for you.
  • Prepackaged Foods are to be avoided within reasonable means. If you are preparing a meal from prepackaged foods, especially soups, sauces, and "meal in a box" kits, DO NOT add salt. There's nothing wrong with salt on its own, but Prepackaged Food is already plenty salty.
I could go on and on about nutrition. There's enough to write entire books on the subject of eating healthy, and plenty of people have. I leave you, though, with a final word of advice: if you are already a healthy weight for your height, with an active lifestyle, your diet is working well enough. It could be better, naturally, but that is almost always true.

Bodily Health as Immunity
It is difficult to offer advice about immunity because it is a largely uncontrolled force. Having said that, there are a few general rules. If you're eating well and staying fit, your body will be naturally more resistant. Wash your hands. When you're sick, take the time to stop and get better. Going in to work or class ill will only delay your recovery and help spread the bug around.

Getting sick is, within a certain extent, good. It gives the body a good exercise in how to handle illness in general. If you're trying to prevent illness, there are indications that Vitamin C is somehow connected to the prevention of the common cold. Instead of supplementing, however, try and obtain the vitamin naturally.

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