When I originally saw this article, entitled “Healthy living ‘can add 14 years,’” I snorted my oatmeal. Come on, 14 years? That’s so incredibly arbitrary. So I assumed it was something about how if you happen to already be thin and you happen to be able to afford good health care and you happen to have the leisure time and disposable income to buy and prepare whole foods and spend hours in the gym, you will add a predetermined packet of time onto your life. Another article treating the human body as a predictable system whose functioning can be described with formulae, like “3500 calories equals a pound.”
Turns out, now that I read it, that it’s kind of the opposite of that. I’ll let the BBC explain:
Taking exercise, not drinking too much alcohol, eating enough fruit and vegetables and not smoking can add up to 14 years to your life, a study says.
Research involving 20,000 people over a decade found those who failed on all criteria were four times more likely to have died than those who succeeded.
The findings held true regardless of how overweight or poor they were.
Did you just have to back up and read that again? It’s no illusion: the claim is that these four factors help extend lifespan regardless of size. That they contributed to health at, if you will, every size. The study doesn’t seem to have looked at general healthiness — whether or not people were likely to feel awesome throughout their increased lifespans. But the “fat will kill youuuuuu” wail seems to come with an official asterisk now: “unless of course you are active and eat nutritive foods, behaviors that we associate with thin people, so we assume you don’t.”
Well, no shit, Sherlock. We know this; we kind of write a blog about it. Y’all know this. Still, I’m thrilled to see Health at Every Size getting some media facetime. I would have loved more discussion of how difficult it can be to achieve these four factors if you’re low-income and, to a lesser extent, if you’re fat — it’s all very well to say “get enough exercise and eat enough fruits and veg,” but if you can’t afford produce or gyms give you panic attacks or you have a condition that makes you unable to exercise and also makes you fat, it’s not so easy. But just having it out there — the idea that healthy things just might be healthy for all people — is huge. It means that thin people don’t have a monopoly on health, and it means that fat people don’t have an obligation to work harder. It’s major.
And it gets better. Real easy to say “get enough exercise” if you’re flush with leisure time and can spend hours working out, right? Check it:
This last category was defined as either having a sedentary occupation and taking half an hour of exercise a day, or simply having a non-sedentary job like a nurse or plumber.
That’s right, half an hour a day — less than most people think they need to be fit! — or a non-sedentary occupation. Turns out that the energy you expend and the muscle you build on the job actually counts as energy expenditure and muscle building. They don’t take it away from you when you punch out.
But here’s the part that’s really golden. Observe the graph the BBC provides of the study data. (Please be aware that this is almost certainly an idealized version of the data — it never looks this good. It’s not an accurate depiction of the data collected, but an approximation that presents the gist of the conclusion graphically.)
Do you see what I’m looking at? The people with four points (which is to say, they didn’t smoke, got enough vitamins, were not sedentary, and drank only in moderation — no more than seven glasses of wine a week!) clearly have the best outcomes. But they’re followed by the people who got three out of four, and then by the people who got two, and so forth.
Again, no shit, if you’ve been thinking this way for a while. If four things are healthy, presumably three of the four are also healthy — basic logic. But if you do think of the human body as a machine described by formulae, as most of the population does if you judge by the “calories in < calories out” crowd, you’re highly susceptible to the idea that there is a set of processes that are required for optimal functioning, and that those processes and those processes alone will make your machine run smoothly. A car won’t go if you put it in drive and start the motor but don’t have gas in it. Pressing “ctrl-alt” won’t bring up your task manager. So why would it make sense to imagine that you could be healthy with anything less than being thin AND eating well AND cardio AND weight training AND regular checkups AND not smoking AND teetotalling AND wheatgrass juice? (You’d think there would be some kind of segfault when people realize that “eating well,” if you accept all available information, ought to mean “not eating fat AND not eating carbs.” Somehow they seem to be able to choose in that situation, usually by totally ridiculing the other position.) I mean, I’m clearly exaggerating, but only barely. This is where we get the “everyone’s an expert” phenomenon, which in its more ludicrous incarnations will involve someone sincerely insisting that you can only lose weight if you also only eat carbs after protein, or eat 1913 calories a day, or only do low reps with high weight or high reps with low weight, or drink apple cider vinegar, or eat cantaloupe before every meal. (I swear I am still not making the last one up.) Sometimes, instead of assuming everything is additive, they’ll throw some things out — yes, you’ll lose weight and live forever if you eat celery and do 100 reps on the lat pull, but NOT if you then RUIN it by eating peanuts. Same deal, though: people want a formula for health, beauty, and immortality. Hell, even this article is presented as “do these four things and live fourteen more years.”
Thankfully, however, it turns out that humans aren’t completely mechanistic. That means that if you have chronic pain and can’t manage half an hour of exercise a day, it’s still good for you to eat fruits and vegetables. It’s even probably good for you to do, say, half an hour of exercise every other day, or half an hour a week. If you’re allergic to most kinds of fruit, it’s still good for you not to smoke. If you’re powerfully addicted to nicotine and not ready to kick it, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your health through moderate activity. And so forth. There are factors, but there’s no formula. You don’t doom yourself by skipping a step.
And that, my friends, is a fucking radical idea. No shit.