Archive for the ‘Health & Wellbeing’ Category

In defence of gardening

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017 | Health & Wellbeing

Gardening is not the most glamorous of topics. For many, it belongs in the same category as golf, filed under things you should only do when you retire, or at very least become a middle-aged adult.

But gardening has some great benefits.

It happens outside

You can garden inside, but you probably won’t want to. Apart from the soil that will end up on your carpet, there will not be enough daylight for your plants. Therefore it is a great motivation to get yourself outside and enjoying the fresh air.

You can watch things grow

It is satisfying to see plants spring to life out of nowhere. You can do the same thing with children of course, but that is massively time-consuming. Plants just require some sunlight and some water, and you’re done.

You can eat some of them

Week after week I could get a bag parsley from the supermarket and end up having to throw some away because I could not use all of it. Having a herb garden is much more cost effective.

You can do it anywhere

Any outside space will do. I started gardening on my fourth-floor balcony. You can have window baskets, flower pots, or even a pop-up greenhouse. No space is too small to grow something.

It’s low maintenance

You need to water your plants every few days if they are undercover. If not, you can often get away with doing literally nothing. You can go away on holiday without putting them into kennels, and you can away with just not bothering for a week if you are ill. Or you can spend time lavishing them with love, the choice is yours. Plants are resilient organisms and either will probably keep them alive.

Will suicide nets stop jumpers at the Golden Gate Bridge?

Sunday, February 26th, 2017 | Health & Wellbeing

When it comes to stopping people throwing themselves off the bridge, the question is, can a one-time intervention really save lives?

When thinking of iconic places to take a suicidal jump from, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco has to come pretty high up that list. In fact, 1,6000 have jumped to their death from the bridge since it opened. It is a fairly reliable way to do it. In that time 26 people have survived, a 98.4% “success” rate.

Now the Golden Gate Bridge are spending nearly £60,000 on installing suicide prevention nets. These wire nets will hang below the bridge, in an attempt to mostly hide them from public view, and be made of steel. It is not going to be a pleasant fall, but should at least save the life of the jumper.

But will it actually work?

According to The Bridge Rail Foundation, a group that has long been campaigning for suicide deterrents to be installed, there is no question that they will help the situation.

They argue that it is simply not the case that once someone has decided to take their own life, nothing can be done to stop them. In fact, most people who fail to take their own life do not try again. 90% of those who are stopped before they can jump go on to live our their remaining lives without suicide. This is a high suicide rate compared with the general population but suggests that intervening once is overwhelmingly successful in keeping people alive.

Experience from around the world suggests they will be effective as well. A similar scheme in Bern, Switzerland was put into place for bridges and city cathedral. Since the nets were installed at the later, nobody has decided to risk the jump. Since 1998 the only creatures to be pulled out of the nets were two dogs. Presumably, they ran over the ledge by accident.

New book, Technical Anxiety

Saturday, October 29th, 2016 | Books, Health & Wellbeing, News

I have a new book coming out. It’s called Technical Anxiety: the complete guide to what is anxiety and what to do about it. If you have read books about anxiety, you might have noticed that a lot of them seem to be written by people who do not really seem to know what it is like to have anxiety or how it makes you feel.

Technical Anxiety cuts through all of that. It covers things like talking to your friends and family (and work), being less self-critical, coping strategies, health anxiety, social anxiety, building a lifestyle that improves anxiety and loads more. To be honest, there is too much in it.

It is available for pre-order on iBooks and Kindle.

technical-anxiety-book-cover

Maximising your veg-based vitamins

Friday, July 22nd, 2016 | Food, Health & Wellbeing

tomatoes

Recently, I wrote about Freakonomics Radio and all the good stuff on there. One was a show entitled “Food + Science = Win” and contained some interesting information on maximising the amount of good stuff you get from vegetables.

Tinned tomatoes are the best tomatoes

Well, almost the best. Tomato paste is even better. But this seems the wrong way round. Usually, fresh is better. Asparagus for example should be eaten as close to harvesting as possible. Other vegetables are less time-sensitive. With the case of tomatoes, the process used to tin them is actually beneficial as it helps build up the lycopene. The Guardian go into detail on it.

Iceberg lettuce is bad lettuce

Especially in the US, where the podcast is based, iceberg lettuce has been bred for flavour rather than nutritional value. As a result, it has lost a lot of the latter. Comparing it to basically any other kind of lettuce, such as romaine, the other lettuce has much more nutritional content than the iceberg lettuce does.

Lightly cooking veg is good

So much for raw food being amazing. Raw food can be good of course, but typically lightly cooking vegetables makes them even better because it actually boosts their nutritional content. The best way to do this? A microwave! It may not do wonders for taste, but it is actually the best way to give vegetables the light steaming they need.

Let your garlic sit

Heating garlic can destroy a lot of the good stuff in it. However, there is some evidence that if you crush it, and then let it sit for ten minutes, more of the benefit will be retained. The jury is awaiting more evidence on this one, but there are some studies that indicate there is a benefit. The Huffington Post have summarised the case.

Slimming down

Thursday, July 14th, 2016 | Health & Wellbeing

Given my recent slip into bad BMI I’ve been working on losing some weight. So I have been playing around with some tools to help me.

Apple Health

Health is one of the apps that Apple forces on you. I had never actually used it. However, when I opened it, it turned out that it had spent the last year counting every step I make. That is both horribly invasive and rather interesting. I am averaging 7,500 steps per day.

You can record body metrics such as weight and then have them plotted on a graph. This makes sense. Why I would need to regularly record my height and plot that on a graph though is unclear. Perhaps it is aimed at children and the shrinking elderly?

apple-health

MyFitnessPal

I am using this to record my diet. Yep, I have become one of those calorie counting wankers. You put in your weight, target weight and target period to lose said weight, and it gives you the number of calories you need to restrict yourself to per day. This goes up and down as you exercise and eat, giving you a number of calories left for each day: I have 785 spare so far, which I could spend on two chocolate chip muffins…

myfitnesspal

I can also record exercise on it. This will be useful when I exercise without my phone, such as American football training. For running, I use the app below.

MapMyRun

I have used MapMyWalk for years but now I am upping the ante by using the run version. It is actually the exact same app. When you log a work out in one it immediately appears in the other. Also, once you have synced one with MyFitnessPal, they are all synced. They are all Under Armour apps, so you would expect them to work pretty well together and so far they do.

map-my-run

Results

After three months I had managed to drop 8kg. This was working off net 1500 kcals per day, which I hit almost every day. A few days I was a few hundred kcals over the limit, but on others I was up to 1,000 below the limit (due to large amounts of exercise) so I was definitely below the limit on average.

weight-graph

However, I then spent a week on my honeymoon and put 2kg back on.

Conclusion

I have a new found respect for anyone trying to lose weight. It is really difficult. At net 1500 kcals per day, which is the maximum my app allows, you can just about fit three meals in, but no snacks or beer in. After all of this, I was only losing 0.5kg per week. Then just a single week off ruined a month of work.

Of course, it could be that if you are significantly overweight it is easier to shift the first lot of kilos. However, it really is hard work and difficult to find the motivation when it piles back on so easily.

Parenthood and life expectancy

Friday, May 27th, 2016 | Health & Wellbeing

father-and-baby

One point of tension for me when becoming a father was the fight between my own needs and that of my family’s. The stress of looking after them and torture of sleep deprivation surely must have a negative impact on my health? How much would I be willing to sacrifice my own wellbeing for theirs?

However, in a speech by Scott Galloway, that I wrote about a few weeks ago, he claimed that being a carer was actually the best thing you could do to prolong your life expectancy. I knew that having a partner and friends was one of the biggest factors in life expectancy. However, he claimed it was the act of giving care that produced the effect. There was no source, so armed with some new hope, I set off to investigate.

Some studies have shown a lower mortality rate in parents than childless adults. However, perhaps it it could be that people who want to become parents tend to live longer, regardless of whether they actually have children or not.

In 2012, The Economist wrote about a Danish study that looked at people undergoing IVF. This was key because it controlled for the desire to have children. They found the same result: parents experienced lower mortality rates than childless couples.

Business Insider also wrote about the study noting that men who adopted experienced the same benefit (women experienced some benefit, but not as much as having their own children).

This is all good news. While I am sure the sleepless nights children cause will be very unpleasant, at least there is some comfort that it is actually good for my health.

Lifestyle factors in life expectancy

Sunday, May 1st, 2016 | Health & Wellbeing, Science

running

In 2008 the European EPIC study began to publish their results. The study followed over half a million people and follow-ups continue. However, one factor was clear from the moment that the results started coming in: your lifestyle choices have a big impact on your life expectancy. A paper published in PLoS Med placed the figure at 14 years.

In 2014, BMC Medicine published a paper that broke down the factors into life expectancy years.

Factor Men Women
Heavy smoking (10 or more per day) 9.4 years 7.3 years
Smoking (less than 10 per day) 5.3 years 5.0 years
Being underweight (BMI less than 22.5) 3.5 years 2.1 years
Obesity (BMI over 30) 3.1 years 3.2 years
Heavy drinking (more than 4 drinks per day) 3.1 years  
Eating processed/red meat (more than 120g per day)   2.4 years

What should we take from this? Nobody would contest that smoking is bad for you, so that is an easy one.

According to the data, the next biggest factor is maintaining a healthy body weight. This probably makes sense. In order to maintain a healthy body weight you have to eat sensibly and exercise, so it is not surprisingly that this correlates with a longer life expectancy.

Heavy drinking reduces your life expectancy. Interesting, this does not mean that you should cut out alcohol. Non-drinkers actually have the lowest life expectancy. It’s not much worse than being a heavy drinker, but nor is it an improvement. The longest life expectancy are those that drink moderately.

Finally, diet plays a factor too. The EPIC study, and other studies around the world, are clear that processed meat takes years off your life. Red meat probably does too. Whether you can eat white meat and fish is less clear. Most studies seem to suggest they have little to no impact. However, the Loma Linda University study suggests that there could be measurable health benefits in being vegetarian. The NHS has published a summary. It concludes that vegetarians have a longer life expectancy, and there is some support for this in the EPIC study as well.

The mindful walk home

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2016 | Health & Wellbeing

city-street

My mindfulness book has recommended that I do one thing a day and really concentrate on it. I decided to do my walk home. I usually listen to an audiobook on the walk to and from work, so I decided to skip one of those and ‘be mindful’. Evening made the most sense as there was more light.

Here is what I noticed:

Not thinking about things is really difficult

Like super-difficult. My mind has no off switch. It wants to think about things. They are loads of things to think about. It doesn’t even need to search for things: there are already a bunch of topics rolling around in there that need some CPU time. How is one supposed to banish it all? I suppose that is the exercise.

The world is really noisy

Cars, planes, trains, alarms. They all make loads of noise. And when you are not allowed to think about anything, you think about that. It occurs to me that train tracks properly run alongside rivers because rivers have the flattest and most consistent ascent. However, that means the one potential haven of peace and quiet in cities often has trains running alongside it. The mode of transport I passed most frequently was the canal boat: all of which were silent.

I miss my thinking time

My mind jumps from topic to topic, but I actually enjoy most of the thoughts. My walk is good imagination time. I don’t really want to experience the world. It’s Leeds. It’s cold, dark and full of ugly buildings.

I don’t feel like I usually miss anything

According to the books, people experience this great awakening about how much of life they have been missing out on. I did not experience any of that. I probably did notice things more, but nothing that was interesting or memorable. It was just the regular world that is always there.

Things you should know about antidepressants

Sunday, April 26th, 2015 | Foundation, Health & Wellbeing

Recently we were discussing antidepressants at the mental health charity I run and I thought it would be worth sharing a few points that came out of the discussion.

Antidepressants are approved by NICE

There is often a lot of scepticism around antidepressants. Irving Kirsch has a whole book about it. However, not only have the drugs been shown to work in clinical trials (I’m not sure how much faith I put in this since All Trials) they are also approved by the National Institute of Clinical Excellence. They are not immune from bias of course, but they generally don’t mess around because the NHS has a limited budget and it’s their job to make sure it is spent on stuff that works.

Antidepressants are trial and error

There are a number of different drugs on the market, some of which do different things and at different doses. These affect people in different ways. That means that what helps some people might not help others, and what gives some people side effects will be fine for others.

It also means that your prescription is trial and error. There is a good chance the first one you get prescribed will not work, either because it is the wrong drug or because you need a different dose.

That means if the first thing you try does not work, try not to get disheartened.

A side effect of antidepressants is suicide

April is suicide month sadly. More people kill themselves in April than any other month. The working theory is that the improved weather conditions provide people suffering from depression to go out and doing something. Unfortunately, this something is sometimes taking their own life.

If true, this would also explain why one of the side effects of antidepressants is suicide. Luckily the limited data available on it suggests that if you inform patients to expect these feelings and be aware of them you mitigate the risk.

Is it time to hit the bottle?

Sunday, September 7th, 2014 | Health & Wellbeing

Last year, Business Insider and Time wrote about how non-drinkers die significantly younger than moderate (or even heavy!) drinkers. Non-drinkers and heavy drinkers are similar, while moderate drinks enjoy the longest life expectancy.

Of course I knew about similar studies already. These results have been floating around for a long time but it is difficult to apply it personally. Drinking is associated with being social and non-drinking is often associated with being a pessimist. Both of these factors would lead to drinkers living longer. However, those are all overall trends – whether I drink or not, I am still quite social (I think) and a pessimist.

However, Time then also linked to a 2009 study that indicated that non-drinkers are also at the highest risk from depression and anxiety. If true, the best think for your mental health would be to drink moderately. This study wasn’t controlled for underlying health conditions, so again it is difficult to draw conclusions about how to live my life.

Pacific Standard also wrote a lengthy article looking at a lot of different factors. They note that the biggest meta-analysis which looked at over a million people confirms the same results – drinking is the healthy option. Though again, it fails to control for underlying health problems that stop people from drinking.