For the past 25 years or so I’ve been interested in what are the high-leverage activities and strategies one can take to improve their health outcomes. I have been particularly interested in what contributes to longevity and quality of life by lessening the chances of disease, sickness (physical and mental), falling, injury, and pain while building up one’s relationships, conditioning, resilience, and sense of purpose. Given the large number of ingredients that go into quality longevity via avoiding that which can be harmful and focusing on those actions that can improve the odds of living longer and living well, there are obviously no magic formulas or potions to bring this about.
My Healthy Habits
I have come to learn that by building a tool chest of healthy habits that make a lot of sense to me and are backed by research (and intuition), I have been able to improve my life outcomes. The ones I have adopted so far that have worked for me as evidenced by my rarely getting sick, being able to play hard tennis for a long period of time, having very few injuries and a relatively pain-free life from a physical standpoint, and having had the great fortune to have experienced positive business outcomes and wonderful life experiences include the following:
- Making a daily smoothie that I’ve been having in one form or another for 20 years
- Before I put ice into my smoothie I use one piece and rub it all over my face and neck and wrist if I have pain from tennis. This is a new habit but one that gives me a great jolt in the morning.
- Adding a minimum of 30 seconds of cold water to my showers at the end. I have done this for over three years now.
- Although it was interrupted by Covid, now restarted, I have been working out with a personal trainer two days a week since 2016 to focus on strengthening my core which has great benefits for balance and stability and allows one to gain greater strength and stamina in other parts of the body once the core is strengthened.
- Writing a weekly blog since 2015 which helps me stick to my commitment to do so as well as helping me to think more clearly about topics that I think might be valuable in identifying opportunities, avoiding material risks, adding to my conviction to stay the course, and to share about life experiences that I hope others will find helpful or interesting, or maybe both. I write to gain clarity and conviction which, when combined with courage, allows one to take actions that can dramatically change one’s life outcomes for the better.
- Writing a quarterly article for our investors for over 20 years to help them understand the thought processes behind our decision-making at CWS and why we are taking the actions we are so they can understand in real-time why we are doing what we’re doing. It also has the added benefit of having created a body of work that people can read to gauge how effective our decision making has been since with over 80 articles and well over 100,000 words having been written, there is plenty there for our investors and prospective ones to see how we did over those 20+ years relative to what we predicted.
- Over a year ago I started to focus intently on nasal breathing while minimizing mouth breathing. This has great health benefits and added to my stamina in tennis and during my hikes. I have even worn tape over my mouth while hiking (people think it’s for Covid) and sometimes while I sleep to better train myself to breathe through my nose.
- About two years ago I took up tennis again and I have made a concerted effort to play multiple times a week and this has been tremendous for my conditioning, mental acuity, social relationships, the use of my will, and determination, and it is a perfect laboratory to analyze my in the moment emotional reactions and to have them serve me more effectively (pun intended) both on the court and off.
I’m going to focus more on the last bullet point but do so via another strategy that I was recently made aware of through a research report I read.
My new trainer has had me work out with a heart rate monitor. He likes to get my heart rate to a certain point and then see how quickly it recovers before starting the next exercise. I have tangentially known about the importance of heart rate recovery for one’s health but only very generally. I wanted to learn more, particularly since I had heart surgery in February and I want to do all I can to keep my heart healthy.
I also started wearing the heart monitor during tennis to see how high my heart rate would get and what my average beats per minute were during a match, particularly during singles which is far more strenuous than doubles. Here is an example from a singles match I played with someone who is six years younger than I am (I am 56) and who is in incredible shape. Our matches are always very competitive and highly strenuous as the following summary shows.
One can see that in spite of having had heart surgery a little over four months previously, my heart appears to be working quite well as evidenced by the average beats per minute of 152 and a maximum heart rate during that match of 177, which was the highest recorded since I started using the monitor for tennis.
With all of this background, let’s turn to the research report that caught my attention. Researchers studied over 40,000 subjects in the United Kingdom to determine what variables would be most predictive of coronary heart disease (CAD), death from CAD, and cardiovascular, noncardiovascular all-cause mortality. Heart rate recovery (HRR) was the focus of this study.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is the system that allows us to feel calm and relaxed whereas the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) tends to trigger our flight, fight, or freeze states which can amplify our stress and anxiety. Thus, the opportunity for all of us is to trigger the PNS as quickly as possible in order to subsume the SNS so that it doesn’t hijack our logic, rationality, and well-being. HRR is thought to reactivate the PNS and help withdraw the SNS. And, according to the researchers,
It has long been known that reactivation of the PNS is the main contributor to interindividual HRR differences and that the effect of this reactivation is strongest in the first 30 seconds after termination of exercise.8 Despite this knowledge, HRR is commonly determined at 1 minute after the termination of exercise.1, 3, 6 Recently, a study by McCrory et al9 described HRR within a 1‐minute interval after an orthostatic challenge, and found that speed of HRR in the immediate 20 seconds was the strongest predictor of all‐cause mortality. Whether HRR measured early after exercise cessation is also of increased value for prediction models remains to be determined.
We hypothesized that HRR is more predictive of mortality when measured early after exercise cessation, as this might better reflect PNS reactivation. The purpose of this work was therefore to systematically study HRR at multiple time intervals after cessation of exercise as predictors of mortality.
So what did the researchers conclude from their study?
The major finding of our study is that in all multivariable models, HRR was most strongly associated with death when measured early, at 10 seconds after exercise cessation, compared with HRR measured at later time points.
I’m going to take the researchers’ conclusion at face value that a very rapid HRR is incredibly beneficial. The conclusion made me think about this more expansively and how I could apply it in other areas of my life, especially in tennis where there are such highs and lows and you really have to live in the moment and not let your emotions hijack your game.
It’s funny how once you become aware of something then it shows up more often in your life. I started watching Ted Lasso, which I am loving, and in it, he asks one of his players (he coaches an English soccer team) if he knows what the happiest animal in the world is and the player shakes his head no. Lasso says, “It’s a goldfish. It’s got a 10-second memory.” There’s that 10-second challenge again, or opportunity. I started applying it to my tennis matches and I utilized it particularly effective in the singles match that generated the heart rate monitor data from above.
I can be very hard on myself when I make a mistake so I kept repeating “goldfish” and thinking about the HRR study after each point. I had also set a goal to play tennis with joyful determination so I kept reminding myself of this as well. If I’m not going to enjoy myself while playing then why play? Use my mistakes as learning experiences and aim for continuous improvement and growth while having the opportunity to exercise my will in such satisfying ways. All of these strategies and ideas were intended to help me decompress very fast and not hold on to the previous point, whether I won it or not. It was time to go to the next one and optimize myself for success and to do this as quickly as possible.
In spite of all of these strategies, I have come to learn that I can’t just talk myself out of feeling angry, disappointed, nervous, upset, etc. There are times in which the only way to kick the PNS into action is to change my physiology. In order to do this, I would smile, even laugh when not facing my opponent, or breathe in through my nose and heavily out through my nose or mouth. These can all be incredibly powerful and effective ways to change our mind-body status almost instantaneously. The mind alone is not sufficient to do the trick when triggered emotionally. It often must be accompanied by a powerful physical action to have the PNS take control from the SNS. You can’t think your way out of bad feelings but you can sure act your way out of them.
This also applies to anything that triggers me whether it be when I’m driving and someone cuts me off or someone is going too slowly in front of me or someone says something to me that bothers me or I hear or read about something that sparks anger or outrage or some other negative feeling within me. I have been reminding myself of the ten-second challenge and making a concerted effort to do what is necessary to bring my emotional heart rate down quickly so that I can regain my composure and focus on becoming the best version of myself that I can be in that moment.
I encourage everyone to take on the 10-second challenge. I am already finding that is changing my life in so many positive ways.