Dear Lifehacker, It seems that nowadays there's a study saying that everything I do is slowly killing me. I can't sit down, I can't eat the foods I like, and I'll have an early heart attack if I live in a big city. If so many things are bad for me, how can I change my life without giving up so much that I lose my mind? Sincerely, One Foot in the Grave
If you read a lot of popular studies — as it seems you do — it's easy to get paranoid about the many things that can slowly kill you over time. The internet doesn't help matters. You can do a web search for just about any food and find some claim that it will give you cancer if you eat it or drink it too often. Not everything you learn is going to be true, and the accurate studies only offer a limited view on the subject. When you learn something you're doing might not be that great for you, and there's real scientific evidence to prove it, you don't need to go out and change your life dramatically. Let's take a look at some of the popular studies that call out some supposedly deadly behaviour and look at practical and reasonable solutions to the problem.
Sitting Down Is Destroying Your Body
We've written a lot about the ways sitting down too much can damage your body. Studies show it can significantly increase the risk of heart disease, put you at risk for certain types of cancer, and shave off about seven years of quality life. Fun, right? Sitting too much is indeed bad for you. There are enough studies showing that being too sedentary is a problem over time, but we live a lot of our lives in a chair. Most jobs don't require us to move, and by the end of the day we're not particularly excited to get up and walk around.
As we've previously noted, you don't have to do too much to counteract the negative effects of sitting. Basically, just get up once an hour and move around and get about 30 minutes of physical activity a day. That 30 minutes doesn't need to be a hardcore workout, but really just the equivalent of a brisk walk. That could mean just doing some gardening. You can include a shorter, more intense workout and daily mobility exercises, but the most important thing is to get up on the hour and move around. You mainly need to avoid sitting down constantly, whether you get yourself a standing desk at work or just periodically walk around the office.
Certain Foods Are "Poison"
People like to overreact and describe foods like milk and sugar as "poison". A little common sense should tell you they're not, as you've eaten them and here you are alive and reading this article. But when certain foods are referred to as particularly bad, the idea is that they're a slow killer. Referring to them as poison, or by some other sensational term, is to try and get you to pay attention to the problem. While we've seen some evidence that dairy is bad for you (despite its nutrients and you're better off never eating certain types of sugar, consuming either isn't going to put you into an early grave if you do so in moderation.
The trick isn't to get rid of these foods, but rather to change how you look at them. Think of sugar as a dessert and try to avoid it in non-dessert foods. Primarily, this means learning which foods you buy in the supermarket have added sugar (like some breads and sauces) and which do not.
It all comes down to moderation. There are downsides to eating too much of anything. If you make an effort to balance what you eat and look at the less-healthy foods as a special treat — rather than a given part of the meal — it's easy to manage them without too much sacrifice.
Where You Live Can Kill You
Where you live can kill you. For example, if you live in the middle of a highway in a cardboard box there's a good chance you're going to be the victim of a nasty car accident. In all seriousness, there is a relatively unknown field of study called geomedicine that takes your location into account when trying to figure out if you're at risk for certain diseases. What geomedicine has discovered is that certain problems tend to occur more in certain areas. For example, take a look at the map to the right. It displays the rate of heart attacks in the US based on location. You'll notice that the highest risk starts to accumulate out East. So if you live out East does that mean you're definitely going to have a heart attack some day? No, but it does suggest what kind of problems are more likely for you and where you should focus your preventative energy.
The reality is you're not going to change where you live for health reasons unless you live next door to a nuclear reactor. Wherever you are, there's some natural disaster waiting to happen and you could be a victim of it, but you put that out of your mind and live there anyway. The same goes with geomedicine. If your entire life is in an area at high risk for heart disease, moving away isn't going to help. The reason those areas are believed to be problematic is because certain types of people tend to move there. In Los Angeles, the pollution doesn't help matters, but you'll also find higher levels of stress because there are many people working long, hard hours. The same goes for New York. Instead of uprooting your entire life and changing everything about it, you can use geomedicine as a compass. It'll tell you common problems in your area, and then you can take measures to help prevent the effects of those problems. If you're seriously stressed out, work on ways to lower your stress levels (like with meditation). Small changes are often enough, and panicking about the possible location-based problems isn't going to make anything better.
The Bottom Line
Studies can be a little sensational once they've found their way into the media. This isn't necessarily a bad thing because it gets you to pay attention. However, the important thing is to remember that most often the solutions are pretty simple. If you don't live an obviously unhealthy life, small changes can do the trick. If you do a little research when a study makes you nervous, you'll often find out how to cope without much work at all.
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