There are no guarantees in life, particularly when it comes to life itself. Genetics, environment, or random accidents are just a few of the factors that can disrupt the best laid plans.
Leaving these factors aside, though, we have known for a long time that there are a few key lifestyle factors that can stack the deck in favor of a long and – more importantly, in my opinion – healthy life. If you are on a mission to learn, these lifestyle factors strike me as a pretty critical thing to learn and put into action. They are:
A Healthy Diet
Michael Pollan said it best, I think, when he said “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Leo Babauta’s admonition to “Eat a crapton of vegetables” also fits here.
The science will keep evolving, and fads will keep coming and going, but there is general consensus that humans do best with a diet that favors “unprocessed carbohydrates (nonstarchy vegetables, whole fruits, legumes, and whole or minimally processed grains)” over “highly processed carbohydrates (including refined grains, potato products, and free sugars).” (Source)
Most of us could enhance our health and longevity considerably through the simple move of including a much higher percentage of vegetables and (to a lesser extent) fruits in our diets and very few, if any, processed carbohydrates (and that includes bread).
I won’t get into fats as that whole area remains a lot less clear than proponents of fads like the ketogenic diet make it sound (same source as above), but I will mention that evidence seems to be growing for the benefits of restricting the window of time in which we eat and perhaps ditching the habit of continual snacking throughout the day (a practice that is very common in the U.S.).
In general, eat better food, less of it, and less frequently.
I’ve come to view exercise as practically a miracle drug. Evidence just keeps piling up that it provides myriad benefits, not just for our hearts and muscles, but also for our brains.
Even better, a growing body of research suggests that we don’t have to become marathoners and body builders to get the benefits: even short periods of exercise – particularly when relatively intense – can produce significant positive benefits.
I won’t cite a lot of research here because you can find a number of studies referenced in this earlier post on exercise and learning.
In general, movement is good. The majority of us need to do more of it, more frequently.
High Quality Sleep
As with diet, I’ve written a fair amount about this one before – like here, here, and here – so I won’t go into great detail in this post. Basically, getting enough sleep improves our mood, improves our performance, and may provide significant protection against cognitive decline and a range of chronic diseases.
And, of course, sleep is critical to learning effectively. During sleep we solidify the neuronal connections we develop through learning experiences, and lack of sleep can interfere with the development of neurons that support long-term memory. Finally, it is simply hard to be as attentive or motivated when you are tired, and both attention and motivation play a critical role in how well we learn.
Unfortunately, many people do not get enough sleep (1 in 3 U.S. adults, for example). If you want to improve your overall outlook on life, protect yourself from chronic diseases, and boost your learning abilities, start making sleep a bigger focus.
While I tend to put a lot of emphasis on diet and exercise in my own life, there are studies suggesting that maintaining healthy social relationships is equally important for improved health across our lives. Intuitively, this makes a lot of sense: even if you are a hard core introvert like me, you generally feel better when you are able to connect in meaningful ways with others.
And, yes, there are all sorts of ways in which social connection helps foster learning, from providing us with avatars and collaborators to expanding the cognitive diversity to which we are exposed. There are even whole schools of thinking that maintain that learning is always a product of social interaction (and I tend to agree). And, not coincidentally, a sense of relatedness – which flows from meaningful social connection – is one of the key elements of motivation identified by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan in their pioneering work on the topic. (I highly recommend Deci’s Why We Do What We Do.)
Of course, thanks to Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks, we may now have a bit too much of a good thing. To get the life and learning benefits of social connection it pays to be more intentional in forging a manageable number of social relationships that truly support and challenge us.
It’s easy to categorize all of the above as just aspirational, self-help type stuff, but the potential impact is much, much bigger.
Imagine a world, for example, in which the vast majority of people were both able and willing to practice the types of diet, exercise, and sleep habits suggested above.
Most people would live happier, healthier, and most likely, longer lives and the financial and social burdens created by our current issues with chronic disease would decline dramatically. The transformation would arguably be as big or bigger than the impact of any new scientific discoveries.
Or, think of what might happen if more people sought to develop deeper, more meaningful social connections, rather than living in a homophylic bubble or saturating their lives with superficial social media exchanges. There’s no telling how much headway we might makes against the range of seemingly intractable problems the world currently faces.
The good news is that most of us are capable of making improvements in all of the areas above once we know about them. They don’t require wealth or advanced degrees. The bad news is that there is always a frustrating gap between knowing and doing.
But, of course, the only way to bridge that gap is to get started. Today. With yourself.