Why I Don’t Worry About Most Health Advice

7 minute read

Take one look at the news nowadays and you’re likely to see a heap of headlines proclaiming that you should or should not do or eat some thing because of its ungodly health benefits or risks. I hit Google News this morning and came up with the following list of examples just from today’s news:

It doesn’t help that the headlines are usually misleading or even outright false (for instance, in the last one, if you click through and read the article, you’ll see that the study actually compared only the cancer risk, which, as the article itself notes, is only a small portion of the health hazard posed by smoking cigarettes; also, the higher quantity of cigarettes listed in the headline is an accurate estimate only for women).

So what are we to do? I prefer to do something that may seem a bit drastic: just ignore the lot. That’s not because I don’t care about my health; rather, it’s because most of us aren’t even getting the basic, simple stuff right. Worrying about whether you should be eating more walnuts when you’re sitting at your desk or on the couch the entire day eating junk food is just plain silly. Now probably most of my readers aren’t doing that badly, but let’s all assess ourselves honestly on the basics before we start concerning ourselves with the walnuts. Here are the six things I define as basics.

Six Basics

These are arranged thematically rather than ranked in order of importance. I don’t pretend to know what’s the most important.

Exercise

Don’t overthink it or let it look formidable. 45 minutes of moderate exercise worked into your daily life so you don’t even have to think about it goes a long way. That’s enough to meet current US government recommendations. When you can do more, all the better. And don’t stay in any position longer than you have to on a regular basis, whether it’s sitting, standing, or something else.

Eat sensibly

Find something to the effect of Michael Pollan’s formula and stick to it. (“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”) These are simple, clear guidelines that are unlikely to change and still get you a lot of value. Most nutrition advice is of questionable accuracy, highly susceptible to capitalist agendas, and changes dramatically every few years. Also, don’t be afraid to experiment to find what food sits best with you. It is becoming more and more clear that different people respond best to different diets.

Take care of the health issues you have

Go to the doctor when you need to. Practice good hygiene without freaking out about it. Take advantage of preventative care and immunizations.

Every person has a few health issues, whether large or small, that most people don’t have to worry about. Figure out what yours are, learn what we know about them, understand when and how they cause you problems, and make the changes necessary to ensure they don’t become worse than they need to. Accept those changes with good cheer, but don’t let them define you. If you’re at particular risk for certain conditions later in life, again educate yourself and be smart about anything you can do now, but don’t worry about what you can’t control and don’t do anything drastic for the sake of a small cut in an already low risk number.

Don’t work too much

Making this one of six basic health concerns might seem like a stretch if you’ve been conditioned into American work culture, so I’m going to spend a couple minutes on this one. It’s not a stretch: long work hours are awful for health.

Even an average of 40 hours a week appears to be on the high side for maximizing health, happiness, and remarkably, even total productivity at many jobs. Short periods of overtime can effectively fix problems or scramble to meet deadlines, but they are unsustainable. So at the least, strive to avoid working more than 40 hours a week. The truth is that if you limit your work hours and you concentrate and get the obstacles and distractions out of your way during the limited time you are working, you will usually accomplish as much or more than if you work overtime every week, plus you’ll be happier, healthier, and have more free time. It sounds too good to be true, but there are mountains of evidence collected over decades (have a look at a few of the links).

Note: This doesn’t just apply to creative knowledge work; the 40-hour work week owes itself largely to Henry Ford, who was dealing with factory workers on assembly lines.

If you’re on salary, there is no downside to limiting your regular hours except social pressure from management or coworkers. (Reasonable work hours are important enough that if that’s a deal-breaker, you should seriously consider finding a new job.) If you’re hourly and underpaid or you’re working multiple jobs, I understand that sometimes there is no acceptable alternative; but this isn’t “hard work” and laudable, it’s a horrible, unhealthy, inhumane situation people are pushed into and sometimes manage to struggle through with great effort. Hard work is not made of excessive overtime and of its inevitable companions, mistakes, burnout, lost sleep, ruined relationships, and damaged health. It is made of commitment, perseverance, concentration, reflection, and consistency. A thousand hours worked with these things can accomplish more than five thousand hours worked without them. We know this, and we have known this, yet our society persists in measuring productivity in hours and pretending an hour is an hour, no matter when it’s worked. Don’t let it convince you.

Not overworking yourself will also give you a chance to sleep. Just like limiting work hours, getting a sufficient amount of sleep lets us get more done in less time and be healthier and happier.

Chill out

To the best of your ability, ‘only desire what you have’. Believe in yourself and your ability to handle adversity; humans have been as successful as we have because we’re great at adapting, and you can nearly always accomplish a little more – sometimes a lot more – than you think. Work on the things you can control and don’t worry about the things you can’t, and don’t feel bad about the past once you’ve learned from it. Plan ahead for stressful situations so you have a clear head when you get there. Strive to arrange your life to minimize unnecessary stress, wasted effort, and useless or dangerous decisions.

Form and maintain meaningful relationships with other people

That takes a slightly different form for everyone. Figure out what it means for you, then do it, and do it as much as possible without compromising your other needs. Even introverts are happiest with other people, and lacking social relationships has been estimated as about as harmful to your health as smoking (see link above).

Conclusion

These items are foundational to good health, and doing them right is rare. In fact, if you rate yourself on a scale of 1 to 5 on how well you believe you’re doing on these items, and you can honestly manage a 5 on all or nearly all of them, I suspect you will have healthy enough habits to land you among the top 1% of people in industrial society today. All of these things also improve your life right now, not just at some indeterminate future time that may never come, and none of them require fretting over minutiae or gluing yourself to the news.

Of course, you can still get unlucky. Maybe you already are unlucky. Maybe you’ll have a heart attack before you finish reading the last two sentences of this post. But luck isn’t under your control. Your choices are, so do the best you can with those, and then leave it at that.