By Mitch Davis
I’ll warn you up front, this guy might be a bit long, but this was a question asked to me by my close friend, Jarryd. He asked this as a loving father, a phenomenal husband, and a caring son. He wants to know what is best for his family. I owe Jarryd a lot, so this is my crumby way of saying thanks to all he’s done. If you want the TL; DR version, scroll to the bottom.
How can I prevent disease and illness? This question is asked in both clinical settings (ya know, doctors and researchers) as well as the general public. Sadly, the information on how to prevent disease and illness is often misleading, incorrect, or just downright stupid. For many of us, figuring out the difference between bull-sh*t and legitimate practices can be tricky. With so much information from news and social media, we can feel a bit lost when it comes to “best practices” for staying healthy.
So, how do we figure out what is helpful advice and what is just plain stupid? First, we must understand what evidence-based practice (EBP) is. EBP is the idea that occupational practices should be based on scientific data. In non-science speak, this means that the protocols and measures we use to prevent or minimize disease, should be proven through some type of research study that is conducted by professionals and reviewed for validity by their peers. To further understand the validity of someone’s proposal, we can refer to the hierarchy of evidence, which I have added a nice lil visual below. Studies such as randomized control trials are considered extremely reliable sources of information, whereas opinion pieces are considered not-so-sciency, my dudes.
Hierarchy of Evidence
But why is all of this important? Because it is studies that allow us to make certain we are either eradicating, or at minimum, attempting to minimize any type of confounding variables. That is, if I am studying the degree to which something works, am I making certain that it is in fact that something that has caused change, or have I missed any other variable? Additionally, when we look at things such as cohort studies, we are looking for clinical significance among a certain population. Whereas a personal opinion could simply be one person explaining how they cured themselves with whatever thing they’re trying to sell you.
I’ll give an example as to why this is important. I was recently talking to my father about all-things psychology, as he is (in my very unbiased opinion) an expert in his field of cognitive behavioral therapy. He mentioned a seminar he attended once where a doctor was bragging about the efficacy of his anti-depression medication, showing the increase in mood in his cohort. However, those on his waiting list, hoping to one day receive the drug, also showed drastic improvements in mood. So, is it really the drug that was doing the magic, or was it the individual’s belief that they’d get better? If folks just waiting to be on a list are starting to feel better, we need to ask ourselves if that drug, tool, or product is really all it’s cracked up to be.
Okay, enough about how to sniff out the BS and onto some practical application. First and what should be very obvious, please do not get your health advice from Instagram. Chances are, the individual who is selling you something is simply getting richer, while you remain uninformed, wondering why things aren’t getting better. Want to figure out if what they’re saying is a load of kaka? Go to Google, type in “Google Scholar” and behind it, fill in whatever item they’re selling. You’ll pull up all the relevant literature that is peer reviewed. Often, what you’ll find is little to no evidence.
Second, stop listening to your personal trainer when it comes to health and medical doctors. For whatever reason, personal trainers have decided that they are the Alpha and Omega when it comes to all thing’s health and wellness and that yearly check-ups are a scam, blood tests don’t tell you anything, and doctors don’t care about you. Here’s a great example. This past October, hundreds, if not thousands of trainers reposted a viral post circulating online that showed a picture of Halloween candy, Thanksgiving pie, and Christmas cookies, with a caption that read “no wonder flu season is here, we’re eating nothing but sugar”. This might seem very scientific to those uninformed and that is why it picks up a lot of steam. But the flu doesn’t work like that. The flu is cyclical and seasonal. We gather our data about the severity of a given flu season based off of Australia’s given flu season. Australia’s flu season is during the summer, and does not coincide with sugar-filled holidays. Do you know who understands this? Medical doctors. Do you know who doesn’t understand this? Chad, your personal trainer who failed basic algebra because math is for nerds.
One of the greatest things you can do for your health is find a family doctor that you trust. We all have heard the stories from our friends and neighbors of the doctor who didn’t listen. That might be so, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a doctor out there who is right for you. Search around, find one you trust, and give them a visit once a year.
Obviously, things such as environmental hazards, personal choices, and living situations play a part in disease prevention. Individuals who smoke or drink in excess are more likely to wind up with health problems at some point in the future. But here is where we’ve gone a little bit crazy. We turn to the Insta-crazies for advice, throwing away anything that might be a chemical, avoiding toxins at all costs. It is important to remember that health is not just the absence of disease, but the attainment of wellness. If you are overly obsessed with avoiding germs and toxins at all costs, chances are, you’re a bit frazzled. Frazzled folks are going to be a bit high-strung, anxious, and in turn, more susceptible to illness. Relax a bit, humans are resilient. That shampoo bottle you have in the shower isn’t going to kill you. Learn to enjoy life and try not to be so uptight about everything.
Education, believe it or not, plays a huge role in the chances of illness and hospital admissions. Yes, those who have attained higher levels of education are far less likely to wind up in the hospital. Does this mean you need to quit your job and go back to school? No. But it should show us that health is closely related to things such as socioeconomic status, job status or title, affluence, and so on. If you think learning is for nerds, I’d highly suggest you put down the jock-mentality, and understand the great importance of a sound education. If not for you, then for your kids or grandkids.
Sleep is extremely important for health. In fact, lack of sleep has been found to be linked to cancer, heart disease, and countless other diseases. More folks have heart attacks on daylight savings time than any other day of the year. Why? We’ve lost just one hour of sleep. To quote coach Michael Bann, “Sleep as much as you can without getting fired or divorced”.
Nutrition will play a pivotal role in one’s health. But just like everything else, we’ve butchered the idea of what good nutrition means. Eat real protein, eat your fruits and veggies, minimize processed foods, and you’ll be good to go. We’ve overdone it with the “gut microbiome” and “hormone health” crap. These are simply silly claims that yield minimal to no results. Supplements are the same principle here, my dudes. Stop spending your money on supplements and just go eat an apple. We’ve made nutrition and supplementation so complex and confusing to protect our fragile egos. We gain weight due to being lazy and eating garbage. We then attempt to lose weight via exercise and eating healthy. We realize it is too hard, so we make up excuses as to why we can’t lose weight. We then turn to supplements and specialty diets, spending money to fix a problem that can really be fixed with some behavior change and honest self-assessment.
*Massive Disclaimer because someone will get their panties in a bunch: Yes, I get it, there are folks with certain conditions who absolutely need a specialized diet. But chances are, that ain’t you. Again, just eat the stupid apple instead of wasting your time arguing with me. I’m a pretty decent internet troll, I can argue this stuff all day.
Stop Screwing with Your Dopamine
We’ve become a society that has completely lost our minds when it comes to what pain and suffering does for human health. We have made every effort to completely eradicate our lives of any type of physical or emotional pain. This in turn, completely diminishes us of cortisol, which is the chemical produced during stressful times. Although this sounds good in theory, this in turn reduces the amount of dopamine (ya know, the stuff that makes you feel good). Lack of dopamine causes a lot of problems, but mostly, just makes you a miserable cuss. You won’t find nearly as much enjoyment in life, which in turn screws up our desire to go out, be active, and live a healthy lifestyle.
Bottom line, micro-dose some suffering into your life. Pick up that project you’ve been putting off. Quit avoiding tough conversations. Start exercising (yeah, it’ll hurt, it’s supposed to hurt). Eat the broccoli, even if it makes you feel crummy because it doesn’t taste like sweet apple pie.
Disease Prevention is Impossible but Disease Minimization is An Achievable Goal
So, you’ve made it this far and I haven’t given any solid solutions for avoiding disease. That is because, in my humble opinion, nothing can be done to avoid it. But we can start living lives knowing we’re doing what we can to minimize the risks. Chances are, I won’t fall off my bike. But, wearing a helmet sure comes in handy if I ever do. This doesn’t mean I am now perfectly safe, however. No helmet will help me if I decide to go toe-to-toe with a Mac Truck. Put things in your life that will keep you healthy. It isn’t a cure-all, but it sure can help in plenty of situations.
You Scrolled to the Bottom Hoping for the Shortened Version
Spend less time stressing about life. Enjoy your family and loved ones. Pet your dog, hug your kids, and smile at your neighbors. Find things in life to enjoy and stick with them. Chances are, you’re overly stressed and under-appreciating life. Reverse that and you’ll start to feel better.
Eat the apple, I beg you. It can be really that simple. Increase your fruits and veggies, minimize your internal ouchies.
Sleep like your life depends on it, because it absolutely does.
Befriend your doctor. He or she knows more than your glorified personal trainer, I promise you that.
Exercise regularly, but don’t overdo it. Addiction takes many forms, including exercise. Remember, the gym isn’t a personality trait. Learn to live your life outside your gym walls.
Stop avoiding pain. It is killing your happiness, and in my opinion, making you a prime candidate for the sniffles.
Oh, and the flu will still come around, regardless if you eat Halloween candy.
One final one. Stop over-medicating yourself with antibiotics. And when you do take antibiotics, take the whole bottle as if your life depended on it. We’ve become an overly medicated society and those germy-boys are figuring it out. When your doc says “take the whole script”, he absolutely means it!
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Mitchell Davis is the Director of Remote Coaching at Power Train Sports & Fitness. He is a PhD candidate at Liberty University where he is pursuing his doctorate in Health & Exercise Science. He has been a coach and educator for 13 years, serving in roles such as collegiate strength and conditioning coach, high school strength and conditioning coach, adjunct professor, personal trainer, and fitness consultant.
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