The more you learn about health, the more you realise just how damaging our current lifestyles really are. Technology and civilisation have for the most part helped us to live longer, happier lives and to protect ourselves from all kinds of illnesses and threats. But unfortunately, another result of this mollycoddling is that our bodies have become soft, unhealthy and unfit. Combine this lethargic existence with a bad diet, numerous unhealthy activities and even a few toxins and you have a lifestyle that might keep us going, but seriously diminishes our health, mood and vitality.
To see what I'm talking about, just read on and we'll examine the numerous ways that the vast majority of people are damaging their bodies repeatedly throughout the day.
So you wake up first thing in the morning, normally by being jolted out of deep sleep by the sound of an alarm. The room is completely dark, and the alarm is abrupt and shrill. To your poor body this is the equivalent of being attacked first thing in the morning, while waking out of deep sleep (rather than gradually coming around) will leave you feeling groggy and tired. The lack of gradual light means that your body never got the signs that morning was breaking or that it should be gently rousing you ready for the day ahead.
Next you go and make yourself a strong coffee. Probably you're currently suffering from a caffeine withdrawal seeing as you're addicted to the drug. Thus this is the only way you can function 'normally', even though it increases adrenaline and cortisol – the stress hormones that we associate with the 'fight or flight' responses.
Now you'll maybe eat some form of highly processed carbs, whether that's via a sandwich, via a bagel or via some kind of overly sweet cereal (delicious though those are). This results in a sudden blood sugar spike because these foods release their sugar too rapidly and easily. Combined with the caffeine which spiked cortisol and thus insulin, this tells your body to start storing fat (lipogenesis). And because insulin causes you to use up all that available blood sugar really quickly, it's not long at all until you're hungry again and have to start snacking throughout the day leading to, guess what, more weight gain.
Then you head into work. For most of us this means a nasty commute, during which you'll be bombarded by people walking quickly at you. This triggers something called 'approach avoidance' in your brain, which essentially means that your brain gets scared when things continually head towards it. So you further increase that adrenaline and cortisol. By the time you sit down at the desk, you'll probably be a nervous wreck.
If you have a heavy bag on, this will place uneven strain on your back which can ultimately result in muscle imbalances. It doesn't help either that the heels on your shoes (yes, even the heels on men's shoes) will cause you to walk with an incorrect gait placing strain on your knees and back. If you have knee pain, here's one likely culprit.
Now for the next 8 hours of your day you are going to sit in a dark room staring at a computer and typing while occasionally being shouted at by your boss.
The grey corporate environment and lack of plants or sun will damage your mood. Meanwhile the lack of natural light will also upset your sleep-wake cycle to the point where you may find it difficult to get to sleep. This is exacerbated by the confusing light coming from your computer screen and the extra caffeine you'll take in throughout the rest of the day. On top of this you might suffer a vitamin D deficiency – meaning weaker bones and worse skin.
And the position you sit in at work is most likely terrible for you. Sitting on your buttocks all day weakens your glutes which are 'hip extensors'. At the same time, because your legs are up for all this time, your quadriceps and other hip flexors will shorten and tighten. The result is that you have an imbalance between the muscles on the backs of your legs and the muscles on the fronts of your legs, causing a hip tilt that commonly leads to back ache, hip ache and knee ache.
This back ache will be further compounded by the fact that your erector spinae (the muscles that keep your back up straight) will get stretched and weakened by your leaning forward, and the fact that your shoulders will be rolled forward to use the computer sitting in front of you. Your neck will be tilted down as well to look at the screen meaning neck ache is also likely, and your pecs will shorten and tighten in a manner similar to your quadriceps. This all results in the hunched over look that so many of us are sporting called 'kyphosis'.
Sitting in this position also means your back is slumped and hunched with your gut sticking out. This makes it impossible for us to breathe the way we should – from our stomachs – meaning that our breaths are instead shallow and fitful taking in far less oxygen with each breath. The result is that we feel more stressed and get less oxygen to our brain and around our body. There's probably glare on your computer screen too, so your eyes are probably strained resulting in headaches.
Worst of all though is the simple fact that you're sitting in the same position for huge periods of time. This causes the heart to slow right down because you aren't getting any exercise and is terrible for your cardiovascular health, blood pressure, energy levels and pretty much everything else. We are designed to be constantly moving and yet we spend most of our time completely stationary.
You're stressed all throughout the day too probably, then you eat a lunch consisting of a sugary drink, processed carbs sandwich (probably with little to no protein) and possibly a chocolate bar. You might have a banana or apple in there somewhere, so that's something… Despite working incredibly hard, you are doing the same job you always do and probably not learning anything new and so your brain isn't growing and in fact it may actually be atrophying.
After facing another busy commute home which further elevates all kinds of stress levels and causes you to develop some kind of rage-induced nervous twitch, you then come home and shout at your wife/husband/children/Mum/dog because no wonder. On the television you watch attractive people with suntans and surf boards and six packs and you think, for a moment, 'is this the way life should be?'.
You have completely missed the sunlight of the day and despite not moving much, the constant emotional stress of the day has left you exhausted and slightly depressed. So you lie on a sofa, still sitting down in a new hunched up position, and then you stare at another screen – this time the television. You don't really talk to your partner much because all you can think about is work, and you probably fuel yourself with more caffeine, if not alcohol which then deadens your brain, stresses out your liver and kidneys and will severely impair your sleep when you eventually get there.
Hopefully you have a healthy meal at least, though many of us will serve up a ready meal which will consist of salt, sugar and additives. There's nothing wrong with ready meals as long as they're healthy, but too many of them rely on salt and sugar to artificially improve the flavour and to preserve them for long periods of time. And most of them contain very little goodness. Wash it down with some more sugary cake.
Throughout the night you continue to take calls from your boss/clients/colleagues on your mobile, or to answer e-mails/texts so you still find it pretty much impossible to relax.
And then you eventually go to bed in a room full of light. It was too dark this morning, but it's too bright right now and the complete lack of daylight/chance to relax have left you in a state where you're hardly going to sleep to the best of your ability.
What Are We Going to Do About It
The only exercise you got all day was the walk to the tube/bus. Nevertheless you spent all day hyped up on a diet of sugar and caffeine while sitting still in an awkward position getting shouted out. Then you collapsed at home and did nothing until crawling into bed, twitching.
This has been written to try and make a point and for dramatic effect, but let's be honest: it paints a pretty accurate picture for the vast majority of us and it's definitely not healthy.
But the first step towards curing yourself is to acknowledge you have a problem. Once you identify that this isn't the healthiest way to live, what can you do to try and get back on track?
Well there are tons of things: adding walks in the sun to your routine, getting regular exercise, looking into ways to work from home/make your work environment more comfortable and natural, improving your posture, travelling into work differently/at different hours, drinking a little less caffeine, eating more protein and fewer processed carbs, switching off and spending time with your family when you get home… it all makes a huge difference.
All these changes aren't going to come overnight though, and they're actually not easy. If you want to see real results then you need to be vigilant and disciplined and you need to take a systematic approach. Identify one area of your health to try and improve right now, and once you notice the miraculous benefits, you might decide it's worth looking into some others as well…