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Our culture has a habit of putting diet up on a pedestal, telling us that it is the be-all and end-all, for a healthy body and mind. But the truth is that what we eat only determines part of our wellbeing.

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For instance, consider the communities that have the longest life expectancy on Earth. While all these populations eat real food (usually whole grains and beans), there are other aspects of their lifestyle, which crop up over and over again. These factors can sometimes seem a little strange to those of us who’ve grown up in diet culture. But science backs them up. Eating healthy is just one part of a more holistic picture of health, achieved by these indigenous populations. 

Common sense also tells us that diet isn’t sufficient to guarantee our wellbeing. While eating whole foods can help avoid conditions like diabetes, if our homes have a carbon monoxide leak, we will feel tired, lethargic and get endless headaches. 

So what else does it take to get healthy? Let’s take a look. 

Forming Positive Social Relationships

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Public health officials rage against cigarettes. Smoking, they say, damages the lungs, prematurely ages the body. In short, it’s a disaster. 

They don’t, however, say the same things about toxic relationships, even though these can be just as harmful. 

Researchers have found that people in dangerous, unsafe relationships have shorter telomeres – the caps on the ends of their chromosomes. This evidence suggests that they might not live as long as those who avoid such connections. 

By contrast, people who have stable and healthy long-term relationships tend to massively out-live those who don’t. People who are happily married, for instance, tend to gain a few extra years of life – and remain healthier throughout. 

But you don’t have to have romantic relationships to benefit from this effect. When researchers investigate the lifestyle of long-lived adults living in so-called Blue Zones (places where people regularly live to ages over one hundred), you find that they all live in tightly-knit communities. Whenever they get into trouble, they know that there are people who can help and support them. And that fact alone, many people think, is one of the reasons why some people live much longer than others. 

Physical Activity

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What about the role of physical activity? 

The story here is quite impressive. Researchers believe that diet will allow you to live longer. Feed yourself plenty of greens, beans and berries, and you’ll wind up aging more slowly than your friends. Exercise, however, doesn’t appear to lengthen life. Instead, it seems to make the time you have on Earth healthier. 

Evidence from animal studies, for instance, show that exercised lab rats tend to live as long as their non-exercised counterparts. However, they get fewer diseases and body ailments while they are alive, suggesting a protective effect. 

We know this from human studies, too. People who exercise more than 150 minutes per week tend to have much better outcomes than those who don’t – in terms of their overall health. 

Physical exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous to be effective either. What’s interesting about long-lived populations is that they don’t engage in conscious activity. Instead, they just find ways to incorporate movement into their days. Furthermore, the Linda Loma Adventists – the longest-lived population in the world – barely do anything we would call exercise. Instead, they focus on getting on with the work of life – something which typically involves a lot of walking. 

Peacefulness

Being peaceful also seems to be a requirement for a long and productive life – not something you want to hear if you spend most days stressed out of your brain!

When researchers were first trying to understand why so many were dying of heart disease in their forties and fifties in western countries, their first hypothesis was the stress of modern life. Researchers found that heart disease was much more common in people working fifty or sixty hours per week in stressful occupations than it was in those taking a more leisurely approach to life. 

Their research was partly right. If you eat a western diet and feel chronically stressed, you’re much more likely to develop serious cardiovascular complications. Thus, stress appears to make the modern diet worse. 

Achieving peacefulness, therefore, should be a goal. But how? 

  • Try yoga. Exercise is one of the best ways to calm down and unwind after a stressful day. What’s more, it’s something that you can do wherever you happen to be. Pilates and yoga equipment is compact enough to fit in your home – even if you live in a one-bedroom flat. 
  • Rethink your day job. A lot of us assume that work is stressful, and that’s the only way that it can be. But that’s not always the truth. In fact, the way we think about our jobs can make a massive difference in our conscious experience of them. Sometimes, you can find psychological tricks not to allow the stress to enter. And when that happens, it has a knock-on effect on your biology. Rethinking your day job, therefore, could be seeing it in the proper context. It might seem like the most stressful thing in the world, but that could be an illusion. 
  • Rethink your relationships. Relationships are the source of a lot of stress in the modern world, and they can affect your overall health and wellbeing profoundly. What people say and do has a massive impact on the activation of the stress response centres of the brain, leading to all sorts of issues, such as chronic fatigue and digestive trouble. Rethinking your relationships, however, can prevent them from having such a massive impact on how you feel. And that, in turn, has knock-on effects for the rest of your wellbeing.

The secrets to getting healthy, therefore, are more diverse than many people imagine. It’s not just a question of going on the cabbage soup diet and hoping for the best. Instead, you need to think about your wellbeing holistically. Only then can you undo some of the damage done by modern lifestyles. 

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