It’s that time of year again. No, not just the holidays, but the time where it seems that everyone is becoming sick. Perhaps you’re one of the lucky ones that’s not [yet] been afflicted. So you’re avoiding making contact with people with symptoms – telling that coughing coworker to stay at home to spare the rest of your team. And you’re not touching those infested subway poles. And you wash your hands all the time, just to be safe. I call this mindset the contagion model, where a person becomes sick if they’re exposed to agents that contain infectious bacteria or viruses – people and objects included. While there’s a lot of truth to this way of thinking, I feel we rely too much on it. The contagion model is rendered moot by the resilience model, where one can avoid illness altogether by strengthening and conditioning their bodies in various means. This seemingly impossible feat results from developing a strong immune system and a stress buffer. Thus, even if a resilient individual is exposed to infectious pathogens, her body is able to resist and ward off the potential illness.
Although I’m not a doctor, I’ve mixed together a slew of information, from microbiology to stress research, with self-experimentation and introspection to develop this model. Here’s the kicker – as of this writing, I haven’t been sick since December 2005. That’s 6 years! At worst, I’d feel like I have something coming down which slightly bothers me for a day, and then it’s gone. Now, because I only have a single data point – myself – it’s not entirely clear what factors are more prominent to building resilience. Still, I have a bunch of ideas that I consider to be significant factors.
The body is more likely to succumb to illness when it is placed under stress. So it’s important to keep oneself in tip-top shape by eating well, being very physically active, and getting plenty of sleep. I should note two important things I had done in 2005, when my illness-free streak began: I stopped drinking soda and I began serious martial arts training. My body has felt amazingly better since. Likewise, pursuing meaningful or enjoyable activities (in both work and play) and being social go a long way keep us unstressed and consequently stave off illness. If this perspective sounds familiar, it’s because this is core and time-tested health advice, not to mention a central point of this blog. I believe the way we live on a day-to-day basis most profoundly prevents sickness.
Shocks to the body are bad – like going from the toasty indoors to the freezing winter outside – so it’s helpful to acclimate oneself to the new season. Every Fall the past few years, I’ve gradually exposed myself to the colder outside temperatures. I tend to keep the indoor temperature on the low side, like in the 60s. And participating in outdoor physical activities, like roller blading, means putting up with moderately unpleasant cold temperatures as the season carries on. By the time the days get nastily cold, my body has a new set point and tolerance – I never have to feel the intense blast of cold in the dead of winter because my body is already used to the moderate cold. Reducing the cold imbalances in the season means reducing the chance of a cold in your system.
We should embrace germs instead of fearing them. I’m vehemently against the common use of antibacterial soap and hand sanitizers. Here’s why: not all bacteria are bad and we humans have evolved to coexist with many bacteria in mutually beneficial ways. There’s a trillion bacteria on our skin surface and most of them are either beneficial or don’t cause harm. The actual benefit is very interesting, because these typical skin bacteria often prevent the pathogenic bacteria from taking hold on the skin surface. Let this sink in – the bacteria that normally reside on our skin surface essentially give us a force field that protects us from infectious pathogens. Now what happens when we use antibacterial soap or hand sanitizers that kill off everything? The skin becomes a clean slate and an open invitation to all bacteria – good and bad. Think about this the next time you go for the antibacterial product.
The immune system is like a muscle. It requires a consistent workout to maintain its strength. Like an atrophied bicep that can barely lift a thing, a coddled immune system offers little protection when it’s called to action. Our bodies are designed to be exposed to the elements. A minor infection here or there gives the immune system practice and information. It helps us develop immunity and preps our bodies for the big game when flu season comes around. Hence, we shouldn’t be afraid to get a little dirty sometimes.
As I mentioned, these are a few ideas that have come from a lot of experimenting and consideration of the way the human body works. I understand that it may be a bit unconventional, or perhaps blasphemous. But at the very least, I know that something is working. It’d be nice to have some more data points. Have a healthy and resilient winter!
Note: I understand that as a young adult with no major family responsibilities, I have quite a bit more time than others, so this post is geared more towards my peers. Still, for those looking to make the most of their hours and also juggle family responsibilities, check out 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think
I like to think that I live an interesting life. My days are spent doing challenging work at my full time job. My nights are filled with physical activities that include roller blading, martial arts, and indoor rock climbing. Plus there’s the non-fiction books I finish every couple of weeks, the blog posts I write, and other less frequent adventures such as mountain biking. All without cutting back on necessities like sleep and seeing friends. When I tell new friends or coworkers about the life I lead, they often ask me how I have the time to do all this. The answer is: I make time. I fill every minute with stuff that matters and cut out the things that don’t.
Let’s start with a few things going for me:
I’m young and free of major family responsibilities – this is also the case for many of my peers
My job has a very flexible work schedule, and I eat 2 meals a day there
I live in the same house as my parents and have a mom that loves to cook
One major thing I don’t have going for me:
I have a very long commute – it would be close to 90 minutes to 2 hours by conventional means, but after 9 months of experimenting, I’ve got it down to about 75 minutes each way, which is still a lot.
Because I’m fortunate enough to have some very flexible work hours I typically wake up at around 8:30 or 9:00am. Now this “sleeping-in” might not sound like the most efficient start, but it’s necessary because I usually get home around midnight. I make sure to have breakfast – and then begins the commute.
In part one of my commute, I drive halfway across Queens, which is about 15-20 minutes each way (because I leave late enough, I don’t hit traffic and I can find parking without much trouble). Still I don’t let this time go to waste – I listen to audiobooks while driving. I’m presently listening to one on Portuguese survival phrases – I’m visiting Brazil soon. But previously, I was listening to a book about the balance between rules and wisdom in our institutions. I already have some podcasts lined up for future drives.
The second part of the commute is the subway ride, which is about 40 minutes each way. Here, I often read non-fiction books (the topics range from social science to business to self improvement). But I also keep my app phone synced with TED Talks and long articles or essays.
I arrive at work at around 11:00am but stick around until nearly 8:00pm to get stuff done (sometimes I don’t get as much done as I’d like and I’ll let it overflow to a weekend with spare time – it all evens out eventually).
Next comes the fun evening activity. Depending on the night of the week, it’s either roller blading (10-30 miles around the city), capoeira, indoor rock climbing, or karate. I get home somewhere between 11pm and 1am, which allows me just enough time to have something to eat and get a decent amount of sleep.
Weekends are for all the things I’m usually unable to cover during the week. This means seeing family and friends, doing cleanup and laundry, replying to personal emails (which includes looking through articles and videos sent by friends). Weekends also serve for more special activities, from going out on mountain biking trips to writing these blog posts (I typically draft several of these articles at a time when my mind is feeling the zen of writing). Oh, and there’s an awesome capoeira class every Saturday night. Weekends also serve as sort of an overflow buffer. Since I’m running on the margins during the weekdays, I’ll sometimes have a little bit of sleep to catch up on or maybe a project at work that I obsessed with finishing since it’s ready in my head.
It’s important to note that I’ve cut out some less than fully satisfying activities from my life. I don’t watch TV or play video games. For many years of my life, I was obsessed with both of these (in the case of the latter, it was practically my life). It’s not that I actively stopped either of these things. Rather, they just got pushed off the table as I became engaged in more and more interesting and fulfilling activities. Fortunately, it was a rather painless process. There are many timesinks in our media-centric culture – it’s essential to understand their pervasive opportunity cost.
Putting in the time to take care of oneself pays off in spades to avoid disasters and the resulting anguish and time loss. For example, I make sure to get plenty of sleep. The kinds of challenges I have at work are pretty mentally demanding so the day is a wash if my brain isn’t up to the task. Likewise, my body needs to recover to be ready to handle the next day’s physical activities – not getting enough sleep puts me at risk for injury. Likewise, by eating well, being physically active, and keeping social, I stave off illness (at the time of this writing, it’s been about 6 years since the last time I got properly sick).
It’s not my intention to gloat or show off with what I’ve said here (ok, maybe a little bit of the latter). I just want to point out that our daily or weekly lives can be full of all sorts of fun, productivity, healthfulness, and meaning. I grow disappointed when I hear someone say that they don’t have the time to read this book or try that new activity, or even worse, not take care of themselves. The true disappointment, however, is on the individual, because he or she will miss out on living an extraordinary life that spans into the everyday. Make the time, be awesome!
The main part of training your body is obvious enough. You just do it. You push on. You sweat. You fight through the pain (or enjoy it). The other part, equally important, is not so obvious – the recovery. Your body needs to rebuild itself after training. And guess what? It’s gonna have a very difficult time doing so if you’re neither sleeping plenty nor eating properly. Real foods such as vegetables, grains, and fruit go a long way to help the body repair itself (as well as to optimize performance during training). There’s no sense in doing another training session if you’re cutting short your sleep for it. Wasted effort at best.
Get a full night’s rest. Eat healthily. Be physically active. Spend time with friends and family.
Many people skimp on these things because they’re so busy doing work or other supposedly important things. This strategy is only good in the very short-term, like when you’re eager to finish up some exciting project. However if, on a regular or even semi-regular basis, you aren’t getting enough sleep, are eating crap, aren’t moving very much, or not seeing those close to you, you’re wasting time. Simply put, your body and mind are considerably less efficient when you’re not treating them well. How productive will you be when you’re tired every day? Obvious not very much. The consequences are apparent in the short term time of days.
The long term impact is even more striking. By not living vitally, you also trade your future health for extra time now. Surely you’d cut off years from your life in a strict sense. But it’s even worse that because you’re also cutting off productive and enjoyable years from your life because you’re busy treating health problems in the latter part of your life.