A few years back I was discussing health and wellbeing with a group of college students. One member of the group, who’d been diligently implementing my advice over a number of weeks, stopped me mid-discussion and proclaimed: ‘Why is health so hard!’
I asked him to elaborate. He said that cooking healthy meals from scratch was time consuming. I agreed. He then said that to prepare healthy pack lunches required that he get up at ‘stupid O’clock’ in the morning. I agreed – and even earlier if you want to get 30-mins of cardio in before the day starts. He finished by expounding the difficulty of having to exercise restraint when the world was so full of temptations.
On concluding his impassioned complaint, he quietly waited for some words of consolation. But I could only offer confirmation.
Truth is, health is hard. It’s not only heard, it’s time consuming and requires persistent dedication – not to mention cast iron self-discipline. And once you’ve conditioned yourself to pursue health any relapse inevitably results in self-chastisement. You’re demand if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. But, of course, it’s better to do.
However, the despondent college student, in his overly enthusiastic bid to wholesale overhaul his lifestyle, made precisely that critical mistake: he tried to make too many changes at once. This approach almost always results in failure.
Drawing from my own personal experience and what I’ve read around the subject of behaviour change, the person who makes small positive health and lifestyle modifications is far more like to maintain those modifications. A tweak here and a tweak there largely go unnoticed.
This is where the ‘hack’ can help. Though often regarded as shortcuts to health, hacks are in fact minor positive lifestyle behaviours, or ‘soft’ interventions (because we all know in our hearts that there’s really no shortcut to health). Thus, they are eminently implementable and, if you adopt one or two at a time, they won’t require a radical lifestyle reformation.
So, with that said, let’s have a look at some health hacks that you can begin incorporating into your daily habits.
Health Hack #1: Drink a Glass of Water on Waking
Though there’s scant scientific evidence supporting this hack, a flicker of common sense will more than suffice to illuminate the reason why it’s a good idea to start your day with a good glug of the wet stuff.
The body, during 8 hours of sleep, ‘vents’ or ‘expels’ about half a pint of water – this can more than double through the summer months. Thus, on waking we are in a mild state of dehydration, and there’s a lot of research into how dehydration can adversely impact on health and both physical and cognitive performance.
I read somewhere (can’t remember where) that by being a mere 10% under hydrated our physical capacity can be reduced by 30%. In addition, dehydration has been linked to impaired cognition, irrational behaviour, reduced memory retention and in worse cases seizures. This probably accounts for the fact that the brain is not only made of water (and a few other things – nuts, bolts and sticky back-plastic) but actually shrinks in size during periods of drought.
Of course, these are extreme outcomes that you’ll probably only ever experience if you get lost in the desert for an extended period of time. However, even mild dehydration can cause:
Less frequent urination
Dark-coloured and strong-smelling urine
So, to avoid starting your day fatigued or feeling confused, start each day by pouring yourself a tall glass of H2O. Other ‘reported’ benefits of drinking water on waking include:
Helps to fire-up the metabolism
Fuels the brain
Helps the body remove toxins that naturally accumulate during periods of sedentarism
Can reinforce weight-loss
Can improve skin radiance
And apparently promoted growth of health hair
Quick Hack: Don’t eat while watching TV or staring at a computer
People who are consciously detached from the foods they’re eating, because they’re too busy staring at a screen, are more likely to make poor dietary choices and eat more. When we’re distracted or not conscious of our eating habits we have a tendency to over-eat. Moreover, depending on how the source of external entertainment is affecting our emotions, we could also be more susceptible to selecting sugary/saturated fat laden foods. Whoever sat and watched Sleepless in Seattle while eating a salad?
Health Hack #2: Start as You Mean to go On
I’m of the belief that if you start the day off on a healthy footing, you’re more inclined to maintain this ethos – that is, select healthier lifestyle choices throughout the day.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. It’s not escaped my notice that, when I’m self-disciplined and observe my long-standing morning routine, I tend to have a much healthier day: I’m less likely to deviate from healthy dietary practices and I’m more active and less stressed.
My morning routine is as follows:
Now begin the day . . .
Whenever I follow this routine – and I currently boast a 95% success rate – I can’t help but adhere to healthy lifestyle principals. Such as:
Clean eating – i.e. no processed food, animal protein, cake or confectionaries
Plenty of movement and activity
Maintaining high cognitive/productive output
More positive outlook
I get that my morning routine might be a bit militant for some (I must be honest, I have dedicated considerable effort to establishing it). However, you can quite easily begin forging and crafting your own morning routine. If you’re not sure how to do this, maybe consider implementing the example above but, if time permits, start a little later – 5:30 or 6am. Of course, there is always the option of chopping and changing the activities to suit your personal preferences.
One other infallible method of kick-starting a day of health is by blending up a vegetable and fruit smoothie. Whenever I embark on the journey of a new day with a belly full of flora I can’t help but walk a healthy path.
Other healthy ways to start the day include:
Yoga (or Pilates)
Yoga is an excellent way to get in touch with your body after a night roaming the Land of Nod. But Yoga has also been shown to be quite an effective way of firing up the metabolism and burning fat. Also, people who regularly practice Yoga tend (generally speaking) to observe other positive health habits: plant based diet, exercise and abstaining from processed foods.
As with Yoga mediation acts a mediator between mind and body bringing about a deeper appreciation of our organism. In addition, meditators – people who consistently meditate for 10 minutes or more a day – are not only imbued with a more positive life outlook but are able to better cope with stress.
Studies abound showcasing the benefits of exercise. However, besides the innumerable health benefits that come when working up a sweat, there’s a lot to be said about how exercise can boost our powers of productivity and improve cognitive performance. In an interview Richard Branson (purportedly) maintained that an hour of rigorous exercise in the morning increases his productive output fourfold. I too have personally found morning exercise to be a great way to get more out of each day – not four hours more though. But these are mere anecdotes. It’s up to you to experiment with this method to see what positive effects if yields.
On waking take yourself out for a 20 to 30 minute stroll around the block. A nice gentle early morning walk in the crisp clean(ish) air is almost guaranteed to get you in mood for a day of health. Though often dismissed as a low-intensity lazy person’s exercise, walking (briskly!) has been shown to be extremely beneficial. For example, according to the Harvard Medical School, a daily walk of between 20 to 60 minutes in duration can reduce one’s risk of heart attack and stroke. Moreover, ‘walking improves cardiac risk factors such as [lowering] cholesterol, blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, vascular stiffness and inflammation, and mental stress.'
Quick Hack: Replace processed/sugary/fattening deserts with fruit and plain nuts
Though both fruit and nuts contain sugar and fat, respectively, they also provide the body with essential nutrients: vitamins and minerals. Furthermore, fruit, and to a lesser extent nuts, is an excellent source of insoluble fibre: an essential ingredient for good gastrointestinal health.
Also, the sugar in fruit is not refined, as it is in most processed deserts, and the fat in nuts is essential for body health and doesn’t coagulate in the blood like trans/processed fats. So, as well as providing us with a healthy alternative to those nasty, plastic wrapped chemically laden factory produced deserts, fruit and nuts are the perfect tag-team for quelling the sweet tooth and quieting the hunger prang.
Health Hack #3: Move More
Being active is not about how much physical exercise you do each day, it’s about how often you move in a day. Even if you exercised for 30 to 45 minutes every day but spent the remaining twenty-three(odd) impersonating a potato, you’d still be leading a sedentary life.
Emerging research is starting to show that, people who are generally more active, who are up and about, they tend to be at a healthier weight and are less likely to develop the diseases associated with sedentarism.
Sedentarism: The habits and routines associated with relatively low levels of activity and movement, leading to health-related problems such as obesity
(Oxford Reference – 2020)
So what does being more active look like?
It’s quite simple really. It’s about engineering your daily habits to include movement. For example, a couple of years back I got so sick of sitting in traffic when commuting to work that I sold my car and bought a pushbike. Now I actually enjoy the six-mile commute. No traffic. No polluting. And an extra 40 minutes of exercise!
But, of course, this is not a tenable option for everyone; some people commute much further than six miles and others work from home – and others are just far too lazy. However, there are literally a million and one ways to get more movement into your life.
Before turning the keys in the ignition ask yourself: do I need to drive? Can I not make this journey by foot of bike? Apparently the vast majority of car journeys are entirely unnecessary and the distance so short that it could be covered bipedal in almost the same amount of time. (I read somewhere that the average American drives 1500miles a year but because the commutes are mostly short and there is a lot of traffic they could walk the distance quicker.)
If possible go for an afternoon/evening walk. It only needs to be a 30-minute stroll at a gentle pace. That’s more than enough to burn calories and get the blood circulating.
When at your desk (presuming that, like the many millions of people across the globe, you spend most of your day tapping away at a computer) try standing or swop the chair for a stability ball. Or, if your company is too tight fisted to supply you with an elevated desk and health & safety prohibits soft spherical objects, set a 20 minute timer to remind you to get up off your arse and move. Maybe go for a five-minute walk or do some squats.
Some quick ideas
Spend as much of your days as possible in the horizontal position. On account of the heart having to pump harder to circulate blood, the body uses more energy when we are standing.
Always take the stairs, never the escalator or lift.
Walk when possible.
Buy a cheap exercise bike and pedal whilst watching TV.
Quick Hack: Pace yourself when eating
People who eat quickly are liable to consume more per sitting. This is a consequence of the brain not having registered the quantity of food consumed. Thus after a meal that was wolfed down, as opposed to tasted and enjoyed, you can be left feeling unsatiated – which accounts for why you find yourself rummaging through the snack cupboard 30-minutes after your main meal.
Moreover, quick eaters tend to suffer more frequently from gastrointestinal complaints – reflux and the like. So, to avoid over-eating and the ensuing agonising aftermath of the dreaded flux, slow down! Ways to do this: put your KFS down between each mouthful. Or, alternatively, finish chewing and swallowing what’s in your maw before shovelling in more grub. It’s all quite simple really.
Health Hack #4: Cut Down the Portion Sizes
The human organism is a fabulously energy efficient machine (metaphorically speaking). Here’s what I mean: you could, if you were stupid enough, pop down to McDonalds and order a Big Mac meal. In the 5-odd minutes it’d take to consume that disgusting salty, chemically, saturated fat-laden toxic ‘food’ you’d ingest about 1500 to 2000 calories.
To expend the same number of calories – if you’re stupid enough to believe in the calorie in calorie-out theory of fat loss – to burn those 1500-plus calories you’d have to run a marathon; which takes the average (trained) runner around 4hrs.
The truth of the matter is, we really don’t need to eat as much as we do. As a population (I’m talking statistically here, I just want you do bear that in mind) . . . as a population we’re collectively consuming far too many calories. Some nutritional scientists suggest that the average person in the West could well be consuming as many as 500 calories a day more than they should.
Calculated over a week this would equate to 3500 superfluous calories! Which is roughly 1.5 additional days of unnecessary eating every week, 6 days every month and a staggering 72 days every year! Is it any wonder that obesity is at epidemic proportions?
But the great thing with this tip is that it’s super easy to rectify. By cutting down our portion sizes we will inevitably cut down the number of calories we are consuming. The simplest method of achieving this is to serve meals prior to placing them on the table. No buffet-style help-your-self set-ups. Also, consider reducing the size of you plates – a psychological trick: well-stocked small plates present the appearance of a big meal.
Quick Hack: Choose fresh or frozen over canned
Who eats canned fruit and veg anyway; what when there’s an abundance of the infinitely superior fresh produce on the shelves? And why would someone select, say, tinned peaches, swimming in sugar water and god only knows what else, over a succulent whole peach?
Anyway, we’re not here to debate the mercurial mysteries of the human psyche. Instead, we’re considering health hacks. And this is a very easy one to adopt. If you are currently getting your five a day from a can consider transitioning to the far healthier fresh option.
Well, besides the fact that whatever is in the can comes to imbibe the pollutants that is the product of its manufacture (see quote below), and that the liquid solution that surrounds the contents contains sugars, stabilisers and other disgusting chemical additives, when fresh fruit and veg is cut the nutrient quality diminishes precipitously. Thus, with fresh fruit and veg you’re getting far more bang for each buck. I read somewhere that an apple, once cut, loses half its nutrient value after an hour. How long, I wonder, have those peaches been festering in that tin? A week? A month? A year! By that point they’re probably in nutrient debt.
In her highly disconcerting book, Swallow This, Joanna Blythman brings our attention to the shocking free use of chemicals in foods and the packaging. Apparently:
‘Over 6,000 chemicals are used to make food packaging, be it plastic, cardboard, paper, glass or metal, so whether it’s the supermarket sushi, the sandwich, the salad bowl, the smoothie, the sponge cake, the salami, or the soup, the factory made, processed food that passes through our mouths to our stomachs cohabits intimately with packaging chemicals for most of its life,’ (Swallow This – p242).
Health Hack #5: Don’t Snack Between Meals!
Snacking is the fat fighter’s arch nemesis. It’s like an evil villain that Discipline, the superhero in this strange metaphor, must always do battle with. But why, you ask, is snacking so pernicious?
Uncontrolled snacking can significantly increase the number of calories that a person consumes throughout the day. Females are advised to consume between 1500 and 2000 calories a day, males 2000 to 2500 (NHS - 2021). These calories can easily be got from three healthy daily squares. But throw a few snacks into the mix and those figures could balloon 50% or more.
Moreover, snacking is the Scarlet Pimpernel of food. Most people know in their heart of hearts that they snack, but they can never quite remember when and where they committed the sin. Having worked for many years in the health and fitness industry, both as a personal trainer and health and lifestyle coach, I’ve found snacking to be one of the hardest lifestyle habits to combat. It’s as though snacking induces a sort of amnesia. Here’s what I mean:
I’ll be interviewing a client who perhaps wants to lose weight. I’ll ask them about their diet, what foods they eat, what times during the day they eat those foods. Quite often they’ll paint a rosy picture and tell me that their diet, though by no means perfect, is certainly not bad – ‘I eat my five a day!’ they nearly always proclaim, in a futile attempt to exonerate dietary wrong doing.
After packing away my polite smile I’ll tentatively broach the subject of snacking. ‘Do you snack between these ‘relatively’ healthy meals,’ I put to them. And the response is always the same. They’ll vigorously shake their head and deny that they ever eat between meals.
But I know by looking at them that something doesn’t add up. For it is not possible to pack on so many superfluous pounds when you live off three small healthy(ish) meals a day. I don’t care what anyone says: It’s not possible!
This is my solution to the problem. Because, though it’s obvious that they are concealing information from me, I can’t water board it out of them. So what I do, in an attempt to bring about awareness of what I suspect to be a snacking issue, is ask them to take a quick pic of everything they eat over the following week.
At the end of the week I’ll upload all those images and create a collage. By doing this they can see the extent of their eating habits (if they’ve not been fudging the accounting of course – but for the purpose of this tip we’ll assume that they haven’t). Once their weekly dietary consumption is displayed in high-definition I’ll make a rough estimate of the total calories captured in that image. Though not before writing down how many calories someone of their gender, size and activity output should be consuming.
Of course, when they see that smorgasbord of dietary misdemeanours, and clap eyes on that crude calculation that shows extreme calorie consumption imbalances, they inevitably wake up from their delirium. Snacking is all of sudden seen for what it is: a fast track to being fat.
There we have it, 5 Hacks for Improved Health. Hopefully you have been left inspired to adopt one of the above health hacks. If you have this article has achieved its aim.
Remember, you stand a much better chance of sustaining positive lifestyle changes if you gradually introduce the intervention into your daily routine.
Also, don’t let your enthusiasm get the better of you and try to implement more than one hack at a time. If you do, you’ll probably be left feeling like the college student in the opening anecdote – that is, dejected and discouraged. To avoid this outcome follow the 10 step process below:
Step 1: Select a hack that you would like to implement.
Step 2: Identify where in your day or routine you could introduce it.
Step 3: Decide how many weeks you plan to try the hack for.
Step 4: Plot the weeks on a calendar.
Step 5: After each successful day of implementing the hack pen a green ‘tick’ on the calendar.
Step 6: Proceed in this fashion until you have maintained the hack for the prespecified duration.
Step 7: On conclusion of Step 6 note how the hack has improved your health.
Step 8: If you have noticed that the hack has improved your health, however slight, consider implementing it long term.
Step 9: Once the hack has become habituated, which can take months, consider trying a new one.
Step 10: Repeat the steps.
(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.