How to Stay Healthy In the Long Run

How to Stay Healthy In the Long Run

By Arun Rao

I’ve heard the same story over and over:  a friend who was a dedicated and effective activist woke up one cloudy day, burnt out and depressed.  She then stopped showing up to events and protests and felt worse about not doing anything.  Guilt set in and made recovery harder.  Over time, she just left the movement.

So how do we stop activists from burning out?

To stay healthy and thrive, you need to take care of yourself first.  It’s a multi-year process with five parts, a Pentathlon:  i) Eating, ii) Sleeping, iii) Exercising, iv) Meditating, v) Socializing.  You can give up on any part for a few weeks, months, or years, but you won’t last and your effectiveness will go away.   Work on habit formation:  cue-> activity -> reward.  (Duhigg, The Power of Habit).  Do your own research; consult books and journal articles by experts and weigh new information with a  Bayesian method.

1) Eating:  Real food, diversity of plants, not too much, within a 10-12 hour window.

Principles:  Get most of your food from healthy unprocessed forms (real food), with a diversity of fruits and vegetables (color, texture, etc).  Shop at farmers markets first, co-ops with bulk foods second, and online third. You will need artificial vitamin supplements (or you will get very sick over time).  Eat as much volume as you can (but high nutrient / low calorie foods).  Avoid sauces, use herbs to season.  Learn to cook simple meals.

Food pyramid:  See visual below.   “Paleo-vegan.”  Source carefully and cook more, eat out less.

Superfoods:  Berries, sprouts, cacao nibs, fermented foods (tofu, sauerkraut), broccoli and leafy greens, spirulina, almonds and walnuts, seeds, turmeric and garlic, sea vegetables/seaweed.

Supplements:  A multi-vitamin is insurance, but you absolutely need separate vitamins for:  5000mg B-12, Vitamin D and iron, calcium, zinc, and EPA/DHA omega-3 (linolenic acid).  Vegans who don’t supplement are at high-risk!  You can buy bulk online or on Costco to feed a large family (and it’s much cheaper than eating out or grocery stores).

Beverages:  Water is best, slightly alkaline preferred.  Green tea is good, coffee in moderation is acceptable (black, no sugar or add-ins).  Avoid alcohol, sodas, “juices” (sweetened sugar water), other drinks from cans or bottles.

Try to avoid:  All animal products including eggs/dairy, processed/fast foods, fried foods, sugars & juices, salt, alcohol, foods with chemical ingredients you cannot visualize growing somewhere.  Minimize carbs and gluten.

Timing and amounts:  Eat all your food ideally within a 10-hour window, at max a 12-hour window.  Don’t eat within 3 hours before bedtime.  Eat within an hour of waking.  A large breakfast, moderate lunch, and light dinner (with small snacks in-between).  Keep total calories low: it helps to sometimes fast for a meal or a day.

Staples easy foods/snacks to have at home and work:  MRM or Phood pea protein powder, Viva Labs Raw Cacao Nibs, Walnuts/almonds, hummus and raw veggies (bilela and legumes).

Foods for your pantry:  extra virgin olive oil, peanut or sesame oil, hot sauces (vinegary southern, Asian, taqueria), nut butter (peanut, almond, tahini, whatever you like), rice vinegar and balsamic, short-grain brown rice and quinoa, canned diced tomatoes, your favorite dried and canned beans, boxed veggie broth, basic dried herbs and spices (all-purpose blend, garlic, ginger, basil, black and cayenne pepper, chili powder, Chinese 5 spice, cinnamon, cumin, oregano, salt, thyme, sambar, masala, sumac, etc), garlic bulbs, lemon/lime, carrots, a leafy green (spinach, kale, collard greens, etc).

Reading:   Campbell, China Study.  Davis, Becoming Vegan: Comprehensive Edition.  Gretchen Reynolds, “A 12-Hour Window for a Healthy Weight”, NY Times, Jan 15, 2015.  Dietitians of Canada, “Healthy Eating Guidelines for Vegans, Nov 2014.  Buettner, The Blue Zones.  Dever, Vegan Bowls.  Beare, 50 Secrets of the World's Longest Living People.  Bowden, 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth.  Kurzweil/Grossman, Fantastic Voyage or Transcend.

2) Sleeping:  7.5-8.5 hours a day on a regular schedule, proper hygiene.  

Principles:  The most healthy and productive people (for the long run) get quality sleep time.  You can function many years at a sub-optimal cognitive level without even knowing it.  Cultivate habits of sleep hygiene.

Hours needed:  7.3-8.5 hours (average is 7.9 hours).

Timing:  Structure your sleep to occur at the same time daily; it’s best to wake up anywhere from an hour before dawn to dawn.  Try to sleep in the midnight to 4am box (plus or minus 3.5 hours each way).

Sleep hygiene:  Have a regular routine.  Don’t eat for 3 hours before bed, and avoid stimulants (caffeine, nicotine, alcohol).  Turn off all devices and screens at least one hour before bed, and dim all the lights and/or wear  orange-tinted glasses.  Put black tape on all LED and passive lights.  Keep your bedroom dark and quiet; only use it for sleeping (no computers, TV, pads, etc).  When sleeping, wear a dark sleep mask and put a pillow under your knee (or between your knees).

Reading:   Ohayon et al, “Meta-Analysis of Quantitative Sleep Parameters,” Sleep, Vol 27, No. 7, 2004.  Lim et al,  “A Meta-Analysis of the Impact of Short-Term Sleep Deprivation on Cognitive Variables”,  Psych. Bulletin, 1020, Vol. 136, No. 3, 375-89.  Irish et al. "The role of sleep hygiene in promoting public health: A review of empirical evidence". Sleep Medicine Reviews, Oct 2014.  Shawn Stevenson, Sleep Smarter.  Lawrence Epstein, HMS Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep.

3) Exercising:  30-60 minutes of moderate to strenuous movement daily, move during the day, don’t sit too much.

Principles:  Get cardio (aerobic and anaerobic), stretching and alignment, and resistance (for muscles and strength) – a balance between all 3 is important (many “fit” people only get one or two).  Vegans are at higher risk of bone and muscle loss, so they need to exercise more (esp resistance).

Best activities:  Walking is the single best thing you can do.  10,000-15,000 steps a day, use a tracker.  After that: running, hiking, swimming, cycling, gym time, yoga, tai chi, climbing, the scientific 7-minute workout.

Timing and hours needed:  Get 30-60 minutes of moderate to strenuous movement every day.  Keep moving the rest of the day and don’t sit too much (take breaks from sitting every 45 minutes or use a standing desk).

Reading:   Bob Anderson, Stretching.  Sovik, Yoga: Mastering the Basics.  Glover, Runner’s Handbook.  Noakes, Lore of Running.  Lauren, You are Your Own Gym.  Simon, No Sweat Exercise Plan.  Gretchen Reynolds, “The Scientific 7-Minute Workout”, NY Times, May 9, 2013.  American Heart Assoc., “Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults,” 2015.

4) Meditating: 10-30 minutes a day, plus at least one block for a few hours each week.

Principles:  Inward, quiet time for mindfulness.  This can be meditation, prayer, chanting, hiking, etc.  The key is that you’re not doing anything – try to cease the movement of your mind and feelings.  Just be.  This is essential time for your mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  Practice non-attachment, embrace silence.

Best activities:  Meditation/prayer, yoga, tai chi, mindful walking/running, religious singing/chanting.

Best places:   At home or in a secluded place (forest, desert, church, synagogue, temple, mosque, etc).

Timing and hours needed:  Start with 2-5 minutes daily and work your way up.  Steadiness and consistency are more important than length.  The best times are right after you wake up, right before you sleep, and the hour before lunch.  Try to set aside at least one block a week for a few hours where you have more time for this.

Reading:   Hanson, Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love & Wisdom.  Smalley/Winston, Fully Present: The Science, Art and Practice of Mindfulness.   Sovik, Moving Inward: The Journey to Meditation.  Levey, The Fine Arts of Relaxation, Concentration, and Meditation.  Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Matthew 6:6-21, KJV Bible.  Bhagavad Gita (Ch. 2).  Tao Te Ching.   Patanjali, Yoga Sutras (Bryant trans.).

5) Socializing:  Surround yourself with optimistic, energetic, ethical, and kind/compassionate people.

Principles:  You become similar to whom you socialize with, and their company either uplifts or degrades you.  Ultimately you get to choose your friends, associates, co-workers, etc; their habits, values, and actions become your own.  If you want to develop the 4 habits above, surround yourself with others who have cultivated them.  Share meals, walks, and workouts with these people, try to spend Friday night to Saturday night with them.  To the happy show kindness, to the suffering compassion, to the virtuous joy, to the wicked or nasty, equanimity.

Good people:  Givers.  Anyone who has been through adversity and difficult times and came out stronger.  People who put their values, duties, and responsibilities over pleasure or selfish calculations of utility.  Kind optimists.

Troubled people:  The opposite, people who are takers.  This isn’t to say you should stop contact with close family and friends who you care for and who may be troubled.  Rather, just limit social interactions with others; help when you can, but don’t let their problems overwhelm your life.

Reading:   Fredrickson, Love 2.0.  Christakis et al, “The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years,” N Engl J Med 2007; 357:370-379.  Patterson, Crucial Conversations.  Grant, Give and Take.  Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Communicating & True Love.  Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics (Ch. 8).  Pirkei Avot (1-7, 1-10, 5-19, 1-12, 4-3).  Confucius, Analects (12-22, 1-6, 1-8, 5-17, 7-22, 12-24, 16-4).

7 Minute Workout

Gretchen Reynolds, “The Scientific 7-Minute Workout”, NY Times, May 9, 2013.

Vegan Food Pyramid

Modified from “The Vegetarian Food Pyramid,” Loma Linda University School of Public Health, 2008.