Sinking under the weight of your new year resolutions? You don’t need to have a perfect lifestyle to be healthy, says Marjorie Brennan.
We live in an era of information overload, where there is no shortage of advice on how to be a better human being — everywhere you look there are ‘influencers’ telling you what to eat, what to wear, what exercise to do, even the best way to breathe.
Graham Lawton may have written a book with the bold title of This Book Could Save Your Life: The Science of Living Longer Better but he definitely would not count himself in the ranks of such lifestyle gurus, instead of confessing to being an “overweight, lazy slob”.
However, with a background in biochemistry and as an award-winning writer of 20 years standing with the highly respected New Scientist magazine, he is well-placed to evaluate the scientific basis of the constant claims about nutrition, exercise, dietary supplements and more. Or as he succinctly puts it in the book:
According to Lawton, his is not just another book about personal health. “It is about the very latest science on this stuff of which there is a lot — and presenting it to people in a way that they can actually use it in their daily lives. I guess it is quite a bold claim, to say this book could save your life. Ultimately, it is all about how to slow down the ageing process — that inevitable decline that happens as you get older.”
London-based Lawton says he loves beer, fast food, and the “odd crafty fag outside the pub”. But he also cycles and runs regularly, eats his five portions of fruit and veg daily, stays hydrated, watches his salt intake, and doesn’t eat meat. His approach would appear to be paying off, as he tells me that although he is aged 50, he has recently had his biological age measured at 37. As such, he says he is living proof that you don’t have to be fanatical about diet and exercise to be reasonably healthy and fit.
“I think of [staying healthy] as like a balance sheet. I’m not ultra-disciplined about diet and exercise and I also really want to enjoy my life. What I’m interested in is sustainable, healthful behaviour. So things that you can do over decades rather than over a few months. And I think the only way to do that is to allow people to have some sins. So, like a balance sheet, the bad stuff is on one side and the good stuff on the other side. My goal has always been to make sure the good stuff is outweighing the bad stuff.”
The appeal behind Lawton’s approach is the suggestion that you don’t need to transform your life to live longer — a modicum of effort can pay big dividends. From his research for the book, Lawton concludes that if there is one thing people can do to enjoy a longer, healthier life, it is to exercise.
“You can diet all you like, sleep well, go to the gym, do yoga, whatever, but if you’re not doing aerobic exercise, you’re wasting your time. The science keeps on getting better and better on this but what people who work in this space will tell you is that if the benefits of exercise were available as a pill, every doctor would prescribe it to every single patient. And it’s not that hard to get the benefits. One of the recent discoveries in exercise physiology is that literally every step you take counts, and every tiny bit that you raise your metabolic rate above its baseline counts.”
When it comes to diet, Lawton says the constantly shifting advice regarding what we should and shouldn’t be eating can be confusing and counter-productive. And, with a recent Department of Health survey showing that in Ireland, only 37% of adults are at a normal weight, with 60% classed as overweight or obese, it’s clear that knowledge isn’t always power.
“A lot of people despair because the advice, particularly regarding nutrition, seems to just flip-flop all the time. The classic one is red wine — is it good or bad for you this week? Nutrition science is one of the hardest sciences to do properly. It’s incredibly difficult to do meaningful science on human beings living their lives in the real world.
"So the results are always marginal and provisional, and they’re always going to find conflicting things. Nutritionists will talk about the totality of the evidence and, unfortunately for people who want quick fixes, the totality of the evidence is the stuff our mothers taught us 50 years ago — vegetables are good for you, fat isn’t, sugar, you don’t need it.
"All the sort of common sense straightforward, nutritional things that have broadly stood up over the years.”
However, there is one dietary intervention that Lawton has found beneficial — and he says the science backs it up.
“I was at a conference on intervention in ageing last year, and when I wanted to talk to the scientists about their work, I would suggest we meet at breakfast. But the majority of them said, ‘I can’t, I’m fasting’, so I thought ‘what is this all about?’ I discovered that a lot of people who work in the ageing field do intermittent fasting. And the reason is because it’s a proven anti-ageing strategy.
"You would be amazed how many top scientists do it. So I do the 16:8 quite frequently, which is just 16 hours of no nutrients at all, followed by a glorious eight-hour period of eating whatever you like, and then do it again the next day. And there is lots of research to back it up.”
Preventative medicine has also become a buzz term regarding healthy ageing. However, Lawton says there are limits to its benefits, and sometimes it can actually result in worse health outcomes.
“You would imagine that preventative medicine could only be good but it can be a double-edged sword. For example, screening can be counter-productive because it discovers things that are benign and would never have caused you any trouble. Then you end up going for treatment and all the worry that entails.”
With CSO figures showing diseases of the heart and arteries as the leading cause of death for those aged 75 and older in Ireland, preventing cardiovascular disease through medication is also an issue which Lawton has concerns about.
“There has been a huge debate in Britain about statins. The idea is you discover people have got high cholesterol, and you give them pills to lower the cholesterol. And again, it seems like a great idea, till you consider the fact that these are being given to people in their 50s and you are expected to take them for 20 years — we have no idea what the long-term effects are and for some people, the cholesterol-lowering effect is not at all clear. It’s not even clear that cholesterol is that bad anyway.
“Don’t get me wrong, these are really well-meaning interventions designed by clever people who have the best intentions. But they can have unexpected side effects and unseen consequences.”
Lawton knows we will inevitably fall at the first hurdle when it comes to making improvements — the key to sustaining a healthy lifestyle, thus living longer and better, is to accept this and move on.
“We’ve all tried to better ourselves and discovered that doing so is inconvenient or too difficult. I would say don’t give up, there are ways of inculcating good habits. For example, if you make it a habit that you go out for a quick run on a Sunday morning, leave your trainers by the front door, so they act as a visual cue. And it just becomes part of your lifestyle.
“People talk about willpower as being a depletable resource — you use it up during the day, and then you get to the evening and your willpower is gone. I think if you understand that, then there are ways you can manage your own willpower. It comes down to the question of maintaining your motivation — if you make it work around the things that you do anyway, you will be much more likely to keep it up.”
This Book Could Save Your Life: The Science of Living Longer Better (New Scientist), by Graham Lawton, published by John Murray, is out now