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10 keys for better health

First of all let me take this opportunity to wish you a very happy and successful new year, and I hope that you enjoy every moment of 2013. Its amazing how quickly time flies by, I mean it just feels like a few weeks back that I wrote my first post for 2012 on this blog, and now I am again starting with the first post of 2013. And for me 2013 is a significant year, as it is in this year that I reach a significant milestone in my life, that is turning 30! Yep, I will soon be that old, and my 20's will be gone, sigh! Now to be honest, at 30 I wont be exactly old, but I think it is around this age that most of us realize two things that we have always heard and known, but somehow never quite realized how true it is. The first, is that youth never lasts forever, and second, that good health can never be taken for granted, and is something that you need to continuously work on.

About a decade back, for me good health like most people my age meant either being able to perform a certain exercise like bench press, running, etc for a certain number or reps, weight or distance, and having a certain body shape and composition. Sure, these are helpful markers of good health, but if you really want to assess your health, then you need to look at your overall health, which would mean mental, emotional and physical health. You can have a six pack, and be able to run 25k and bench press 1.5 times your bodyweight, but that still does not mean that your emotional and mental health is in order. For eg there are many sportsmen and women who have/had  their battles with depression. Good examples being athletes like Jeret Peterson, Marcus Trescothick, Terry Bradshaw, etc. These athletes exercised and ate correctly all time, as it was part of their job, and were definitely in very good shape. However, when it came to mental and emotional health, there was a lot to work on for them.

The thing is that you can be in better overall health while still looking "normal", when compared to someone who looks in outstanding shape. Infact some people who are in freakishly good shape, are taking unnatural aids like steroids to be that way. And depending fully on steroids cannot be really healthy. As I said earlier that being healthy is something that one needs to work on, and not take for granted. Believe me, your unhealthy habits will catch up with you in due time, and in some cases, the damage that they cause can be irreversible. So better to start as early as you can, and work on your health.

Here are what I believe to be 10 keys for being healthy and happy in the long run. Neglecting them will in most likelihood lead to negative consequences in later life, so pay attention:

1) Be active daily- the human body was made for movement, and for it to be done daily. Prolonged periods of inactivity are often the cause of anger, frustration, lethargy and depression. On the other hand, those who are active regularly experience a better mood, feel more energetic, and overall enjoy a better life. Being active does not necessarily mean doing a 25km run daily, and nor does it necessarily mean squatting double your bodyweight daily. Even lighter activities like walking, swimming, Yoga, playing with kids, cleaning up the house, riding a bicycle, etc are all examples of being active. For most people intense activities like weight training, sprinting, etc should ideally be kept to about 3-5 times a week, and on the other days, lighter activity is recommended.

2) Strength train and lift heavy- almost every month there seems to some study that comes out with the finding that strength training, including lifting heavy weights has multiple health benefits. Starting from weight management, increased energy levels, better glucose metabolism, etc there are many reasons why you must strength train. You can strength train by using your own bodyweight and lifting barbells, dumbbell, kettlebell, etc. For best results, I suggest mixing up the two. And your best choices would include doing mostly compound movements that work multiple muscle groups. These would include exercises like push ups, squats, deadlift, military press, lunges, rows, swings, snatches, etc.

3) Do cardio- while strength training does help to improve your cardio fitness to some degree, I feel that some amount of cardio work is ideal for excellent health. Now cardio does not necessarily mean doing painfully long and slow activities like distance jogging. It can also be done in a short time with intense activities like sprinting, circuit training, kickboxing, etc. Infact, the intense options seem to provide better results overall, in terms of cardio fitness, improving body composition, increasing growth hormone production, etc. Do about 2-3 sessions a week of cardio after your strength training, or on your non strength training days. You can also do low intensity cardio for recovery and restoration.

4) Maintain healthy bodyweight and bodyfat levels- I probably dont need to tell you that being obese and carrying a lot of extra bodyfat around, is not good for you. All the extra fat increases your chances of getting a heart attack, diabates, hypertension, etc. Also, I would like to mention that extra bodyweight, even in the form of muscle is not necessarily healthy in the long run. Remember, whether muscle or fat, the extra weight has to be carried around by your joints, and at a later age, that can really start telling on your joint health. A good way to calculate your ideal bodyweight is to use the BMI calculator. Now I know that a lot of people feel that the BMI is not an accurate way to measure ideal bodyweight, but in my opinion, unless someone has unnaturally huge muscles thanks to steroids, the BMI is a reasonably accurate calculator of one's ideal bodyweight. Again, not necessarily perfect, but pretty close for the most people.

5) Maintain ideal flexibility and mobility levels- most people in their 20's have already lost a lot of the flexibility that they had when they were 5 years old. So you can only imagine how much tighter they will get when they are in their 40's and 50's. The good news is that it does have to be this way, and you can improve on your joint mobility and flexibility levels, as long as you work on it. You dont need to be able to put your calf behind your neck to be healthy, but being able to touch your toes is a minimum. If you want above average levels of flexibility and mobility then good for you, but if not then atleast be sure to maintain basic levels like being able to scratch your back, bend and touch your toes, etc. Start your workouts with 10-20 minutes of joint mobility work, and finish your workouts with 5-10 minutes of stretching, and focus more on your tight areas. You can also do mobility and flexibility work on your off days to get in extra activity and improve faster.

6) Eat a balanced diet- extreme diets have always enjoyed a lot of popularity over the years. Diets calling for eating lots of protein/fats or avoiding all carbs/fats have been very popular among dieters. While in the short run, an extreme diet that is excess or deficient in a particular nutrient can work, in the long run they will cause health problems. Our body relies on a variety of nutrients to function properly, and no matter how much someone might try to convince you that a particular food group needs to be avoided altogether, you will find that eating it, even if in small amounts, is better. For eg without adequate carbs you will struggle to do intense workouts and perform well. Similarly a diet very high in protein can cause a lot of stress on your kidneys.

Continuing on the topic of nutrition, I would also suggest that you get your nutrients from a variety of sources. For eg dont just rely on chicken for your protein, eat fish, eggs, red meat, etc. Each source offers a different mineral and vitamin profile for you to take advantage of. And yes, dont forget to intake enough water for optimal health.

7) Limit alcohol and junk food, and avoid smoking and drugs- junk food consists of all the unhealthy foods including the refined, sugary and salty types, which are known to be bad for your health. However, when consumed in moderation and occasionally, it can actually be beneficial. Yes, an occasional burger can help you build some muscle, and better help you control your cravings. Lets face it, we live in a society where we are surrounded by junk food, and trying to resist it all the time, including when we go out with friends and family is likely to drive you nuts. So once in a while a little indulgence will not kill you. Infact many experts claim that if 80% of your calories are clean, then you can have some fun with the remaining 20%.

The same goes for alcohol, studies have shown that a glass of wine a day can improve your health. Of course, you can get the same benefits without ever consuming alcohol, but if you do like to have an occasional drink, then go on, have it. I personally would suggest that limit alcohol to no more than 3 times a week, and that too in a very small amount. And when it comes to smoking and taking drugs, I personally would suggest that you avoid it altogether. You really dont need that stuff, and there is really no good that comes out of it.

8) Avoid excess stress and emotional negativity- as I talked about earlier that being in good shape physically does not mean that your overall health is great. Excess stress and negative emotions can really hurt your health, even if you exercise everyday and eat well all the time. Yes, some amount of stress is required in our lives to function well, and as long as we have emotions, we will also experience frustration, anger, depression, etc in our lives. However, when these negative emotions and stress dominate one's life, then life becomes a downhill journey.

The reasons for poor emotional and mental well being are both the person him/herself, and the environment that they live in. The first change has to begin with your own self. You need to train yourself to not listen to negative thoughts and give into negative emotions. Along with that you have got to try and eliminate or atleast reduce external reasons. This would mean avoiding negative friends who always doubt and question your abilities, surrounding yourself with successful people, not over or underrating yourself, meditating, etc. If need be, then do not hesitate to seek professional medical help, as it is not always possible to fight these battles all by yourself.

9) Laugh and smile more often- I know this sounds a little too simple and childish, but somehow a lot of us as adults, often forget to have a good laugh and smile. We become so obsessed with negative emotions that we think that enjoying ourselves and having a good time is almost like a crime. Relax, and try to enjoy life in the company of your friends and family regularly. A good laugh can go a long way to relieve stress, improve mood, and make you healthier.

10) Get 6-9 hours of sleep every night- our bodies recover and regenerate when we sleep at night. And if you fail to get adequate sleep, then you are inviting multiple problems. Lack of sleep has been shown to cause moodiness, increased cravings for sugary foods, poor hormonal profile, reduced muscle mass, etc. Make sure to get in 6-9 hours of sleep each night. Also, you also need to make sure that it is sound sleep that you get, and not hours of tossing and turning in bed. A good night's sleep is often what one needs to feel and be healthy, and to be charged up to take on the challenges of life.

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