The Problem with the Biohack Movement
Wellness trends often rely on catchy jargon, complex methods for optimizing health and fitness, and unsustainable practices. Our health columnist believes that simpler is usually better when it comes to developing a routine.
In the self-help, biohacking, and personal improvement crowds, people often turn their entire lives into work, all in the name of getting better and living forever. I know some who get so into optimization, recovery-tracking, cold-exposure, and nutrient timing that every meal and shower—and even sleep—becomes something to excel at for a future goal.
No wonder everyone is so exhausted.
If the wellness industrial complex of the last decade was focused on “self-care” via lotions, potions, and pills, then this decade is shaping up to be one that champions “optimization” via neurochemical engineering, freezing showers and baths, “zone two” training, mTor, and greens powders.
This new wave of wellness rests on the complexification of everything using jargon and scientific terms (or in some cases, simply scientific sounding terms) to describe habits and practices that promise a version of physical, and something spiritual, enlightenment. But there’s a difference between an activity sounding super important, versus an activity actually being super important. Just because you can measure something, doesn’t mean it matters.
Consider the much-hyped linkage between waking up, submerging oneself in ungodly cold water, and “up-regulating feel-good molecules like dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.” It very well may be the case that freezing water is useful but you know what else likely has an effect similar to those same neurochemicals? Having a coffee and taking a morning poop. There are myriad activities—a long walk out of doors, deadlifting, gardening, dancing, swimming, watching a sunset—that make us feel good, many of which are easier, more accessible, more enjoyable, and more beneficial than a cold plunge.
Might some new-wave wellness techniques work for certain people in certain situations? Absolutely. But I have three main concerns:
First, for those trying to understand health, wellness, and longevity, the conversation will get flooded with so much static that it will be impossible for laypeople to separate fact from fiction and hype from efficacy. If everything sounds fancy, scientific, authoritative, and like it is effective than how can people discern what actually works? The zone gets flooded with crap.
Second, many new-wave wellness habits and practices are actually quite hard to sustain. You’ve got to eat specific nutrients during specific hours, wake-up and start an elaborate morning routine, and so on. Yes, we should strive to be healthy and excellent and all that, but sometimes the key to adult life—especially if you’ve got kids—is that you’ve just got to order a pizza and move on. It’s better to be consistently good enough than it is to try and be perfect and consistently fail.
Third, by complexifying everything in health, wellness, and longevity we may make it harder to do the activities that matter most. Complexity is a way to avoid facing the reality that what really matters for most things in life is simply showing up and doing the work. The more complex you make something, the harder it is to stick with it. Complexity gives you excuses, ways out, and endless options for switching things up all the time. Complexity is procrastination’s best friend.
What Actually Matters for Health, Wellness, and Longevity (and How to Stick With It)
What we know genuinely matters for health, wellness, and longevity, based on decades and decades of evidence, is actually quite simple.
According to research published in 2011 in the American Journal of Health Promotion, adopting basic healthy lifestyle behaviors can increase lifespan by a whopping 11 years! A 2016 study published in the British Medical Journal found that the same behaviors—physical activity, avoiding highly-processed foods, not smoking, and limited alcohol consumption—reduce all-cause mortality, or someone’s chance of dying at any given time, by 61 percent. I’ll summarize the key behaviors—the stuff that actually works—shortly.
For each, of the following, keep in mind three overarching principles. First, do the thing as best you can. Second, don’t freak out if you can’t do the thing. Third, don’t let not doing the thing because something came up be an excuse for forgetting about the thing altogether.
Let’s take sleep as an example. Sleep really is that important. You will get no argument from me on that. I am right there with the optimizers on the value of sleep. But it is also true that you can have poor sleep for an extended period of time and not suffer any detrimental long-term consequences. We know this because research shows that people who have children—the ultimate sleep disrupters—live longer than those who don’t. Not sleeping for a period of time still sucks and makes most people, myself included, feel like crap, but it is not going to kill you.
Now, without further ado, here are health and wellness principles that will get you 99 percent—if not all—the way there.
Move Your Body Regularly
If exercise could be bottled up and sold as a drug, it would be a billion-dollar business. Decades of studies show that just 30 minutes of moderate to intense daily physical activity lowers your risk for physiological diseases (like heart disease and cancer), as well as psychological ones (like anxiety and Alzheimer’s). There doesn’t need to be anything special about it. You want most days to be moderately hard (you can still have a conversation while you’re doing it) and every once in a while it’s beneficial to increase the intensity beyond that.
Avoid Highly Processed Foods
Avoid highly-processed foods when cost and time allow. “Foods that undergo ultra-processing tend to see much of their nutritional bounty stripped from them,” says Yoni Freedhoff, an Ottawa-based doctor and author of The Diet Fix. Another reason to avoid processed foods is related to energy density, or calories per gram of food. “Generally speaking, ultra-processed foods are much higher in energy density than foods made from fresh, whole ingredients,” says Freedhoff, “which isn’t great for maintaining a healthy weight.”
A mounting body of evidence is revealing that hanging out with friends and family doesn’t just make you feel good in the moment—it’s also good for long-term health. Social connections are associated with reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, improved sleep quality, reduced risk of heart disease and stroke, slowed cognitive decline, lessened systemic inflammation, and improved immune function.
Sleep at Night
Regardless of what the biohackers may tell you, you simply cannot nap or intermittently sleep your way to optimal health and functioning. It’s only after you’ve been sleeping for at least an hour that anabolic hormones like testosterone and human growth hormone—both of which are critical to health and physical function—are released. What’s more, a 2007 study published in the journal Sleep showed that with each additional 90-minute cycle of deep sleep, you receive even more of these hormones.
Don’t Smoke (Get Helping Quitting If You Do)
Smoking is associated with dozens of types of cancer, as well as heart disease, dementia, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. According to the American Cancer Association, smoking causes one out of every five deaths in the United States, killing more people than alcohol, car accidents, HIV, guns, and illegal drugs combined.
Don’t Drink Much, If at All
Like smoking, excessive alcohol use is associated with a number of chronic diseases, such as liver cirrhosis, throat cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Drinking too much also impairs sleep and daily function. While some older studies have found that limited drinking—one drink per day for women and up to two for men—carries minimal risk, the most recent research shows that when it comes to alcohol, less is more and none is best.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) coaches on performance and well-being and is a contributing editor to Outside. He is the bestselling author of The Practice of Groundedness: A Path to Success That Feeds—Not Crushes—Your Soul and cofounder of The Growth Equation.