The Betterment Project

Modern Men and Ancient Health Advice

When it comes to health advice, it’s easy to feel as though your head is being spun in a different direction. Between Instagram ads selling you countless water bottles, trackers, and sneakers and a new fitness studio cropping up almost daily, it’s tough to know what’s worth trying.


That’s why we turned to time-tested advice—not trends. These wellness tips have all been backed by research and floated through the wellness space in some form or another for centuriesand they’re still surprisingly relevant today.


Hit a Seasonal “Reset” Button, Ayurvedic Medicine 

It’s been happening for years: As soon as the first wisps of fall float in (or the flowers start to bloom come spring), there’s this inherent pull to go outside, KonMari your closet, and dial in on healthy eating and exercise. But this urge isn’t random—it’s seasonal.


Known as Ritucharya in Ayurvedic medicine, “ritu” translates to “season” while “charya” means “routine.” And it’s rooted in the notion that elements like temperature and daylight hours influence the body’s natural cycles. So, to maintain balance in digestion, sleep, immunity, and energy, your routine must change whenever these elements do. 


While it may sound kind of kooky to base your health decisions on the seasons, it actually makes sense. Think about it: Approximately half a million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), reports the Cleveland Clinic. And while the cause of SAD is unknown, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) says that in winter—when darkness is more abundant—people with SAD struggle to regulate serotonin and overproduce melatonin, which can affect your sleep and energy levels. If left untreated, this can throw your body out of whack, eventually compromising your body’s immunity. It also may be why light therapy is such an effective treatment: by changing your seasonal habits in the winter (ie: exposing yourself to more light), your body is able to strike a better balance.  


So, the next time you feel the urge to kick-start a new routine, check your calendar. If it’s in timing with a seasonal change, it could be your body telling you it’s time to mix things up. 


Adjust Your Diet Slowly, Greek Physician Hippocrates 

Fad diets may love the quick sell of “get results fast!,” but medical experts (including those at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) have been saying for decades that slow, gradual changes to your diet—or any health plan, really—are best. And it seems like they actually took that note from Hippocrates. Now known as the father of medicine, the Greek physician wrote around 400 BCE that total diet overhauls can lead to disaster.


“But there are certain persons who cannot readily change their diet with impunity; and if they make any alteration in it for one day, or even for part of a day, are greatly injured thereby,” he says in On Ancient Medicine. “Such persons, provided they take dinner when it is not their wont, immediately become heavy and inactive, both in body and mind … they are seized with flatulence, tormina [abdominal pain], and diarrhea, and to many this been the commencement of a serious disease.” 


Now, we’re not saying that making a change to your diet is going to result in a severe medical diagnosis like Hippocrates may have thought. But the basis of his thinking—slow and steady over a quick overhaul—was correct. When researchers followed 183 people for an Obesity study, they found that those whose weight fluctuated more during the first six to 12 months—usually a result of drastic diet changes—lost less weight after both one and two years’ time. And while 14 Biggest Loser contestants lost an average of 129 pounds on the six-week show (thanks to extreme diet and exercise), all but one had regained an average of 90 pounds after six years, per a 2016 analysis.


Practice Aromatherapy Before Bed, Ancient Egyptians

While the official recommendations for how much sleep you should get has varied over the years, experts agree that quality trumps quantity when it comes to shut-eye. And with the rise of alternative and integrative medicines in modern society, there’s been a reintroduction of sorts to aromatherapy. The use of essential oils is rooted in various ancient cultures—though the Egyptians deserve a lot of the credit—and the National Sleep Foundation says they’ve been thought to improve just how well you rest and recover.


Of course, lavender is one of the most well-known for sleep, but a blend works well, too: Recent research published in the Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine journal found that an essential oil blend that included lavender was more effective than lavender alone.


Eat Bitter Foods Every Week, Traditional Chinese Medicine 

It’s easy to load up on salty and sweet stuff, but bitter foods like black coffee, arugula, Brussels sprouts, and apple cider vinegar shouldn’t be underestimated. After all, traditional Chinese food therapy stresses the importance of balance through diet, noting that skipping an entire taste category, or flavor, is a no-go. (There are five, by the way: spicy, sweet, sour, bitter, and salty.)


The reason is two-fold: First, according to traditional Chinese medicine, overdoing it on one flavor can send your body into a tailspin. The thought process is that going too sour can hurt your liver and spleen; too salty could lead to bone and muscle damage; too sweet may cause asthma and kidney problems; too spicy may impact energy; too bitter could cause bloat.


Plus, if you’re overdoing it on one flavor, it’s likely you’re shortchanging another. That’s no good because each one plays a purposeful role in maintaining a healthy body. Specifically, bitter foods may stimulate enzyme production and encourage bile flow, both of which support a healthy gut and digestion. (It’s also why bitters were used as a natural remedy for upset stomachs before Pepto-Bismol or Tums were around.) 


The lesson here is, of course, balance. Take note of how often you’re incorporating those five flavors into your diet, and if you notice you’re lacking on some, experiment more often. And while you should always talk to your doc before trying something new, those with acid reflux, ulcers, or other gastric conditions should definitely do so, as it may not be best to further stimulate your stomach acids. 


Forest Bathe As Often As Possible, Japanese Tradition 

While it’s likely you never told a friend, “hey, I’m headed out for a forest bath,” chances are you’ve already participated in this now-trendy practice. It’s simply walking through nature. 


Rooted in Japanese culture since the 1980s, the practice is actually called shinrin-yoku—“shinrin” translates to “forest,” whereas “yoku” means “bath.” And it means “bathing in the forest atmosphere,” or taking in your surroundings through your senses. It’s a form of preventative medicine, helping your mind to relax and energy to increase. 


Science shows it can be effective, too. A 2013 study published in Environmental Science & Technology found that simply viewing nature scenes before a stressful moment (like, say, a big business meeting) can help your mind handle the stress better, and a 2015 study from the Agriculture and Food Science Centre in Dublin found that group forest walking helped those suffering from long-term mental illness. And a small 2016 study in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that following a forest-bathing program improved participants’ energy levels while lowering their scores for depression, fatigue, and anxiety. 


Plus, we all know about the benefits of walking. The CDC reports that those who are regularly active have a lower risk for early death, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, depression, and some cancers. Meanwhile, a Harvard report found that walking—even just 5.5 miles per week at a casual pace of 2 miles per hour—reduced the risk of cardiovascular events by 31 percent and the risk of death by 32 percent. 


To forest bathe properly, Qing Li, Ph.D, a Japanese researcher and author of Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happinesstold TIME that it’s best to walk aimlessly and slowly, letting each of your senses guide where you go. “You are savoring the sounds, smells, and sights of nature and letting the forest in,” he says. “Listen to the birds singing...look at the different greens of the trees...taste the freshness of the air as you take deep your hands on the trunk of a tree.” Doing so, he continues, releases your sense of joy and calm; tapping into your sixth sense, which Dr. Qing Li says is a state of mind. “You [will] have crossed the bridge to happiness,” he says. And we could all use a little more happiness, don’t you think?

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