The New Rules of Healthy Living
From virtual-reality meditation to infrared saunas, these are the latest innovations and insights for improving your well-being
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Welcome to our guide to a better you, starring the self-experimenting guru Ben Greenfield. This is a step-by-step plan anyone can follow: take a happiness lesson. Use tech to set your mind free. Stop with the supplements already.
1. Upgrade Your Home
You spend roughly half of your time at home, so your surroundings should be as healthy as possible. Rachel Gutter, president of the International WELL Building Institute, suggests some simple ideas that can improve your indoor environment.
Add Circadian Lighting
Lighting is an important factor in how well we sleep. To help address that, companies like Lighting Science sell fixtures and bulbs that are specialized for different rooms and times of day. “They adjust the spectrum of light to provide the right levels and temperatures to wake you up naturally in the morning—through rich white light that promotes alertness—and encourage relaxation and sleep at night, through warmer color schemes,” Gutter says.
The Human ExperimentBen Greenfield has radical ideas for living healthy. The thing is, most of them work.
Breathe Cleaner Air
“Poor indoor air quality can contribute to conditions such as asthma, allergies, and other upper-respiratory challenges,” Gutter says. One fix—in addition to ventilation, cleaning, and removing pollutants—is an air purifier. But don’t settle for the first one you find. Some filters produce ozone, which can cause the same health problems as bad air. The California Air Resources Board has studied purifiers extensively and lists the safest options on its website.
Use Nontoxic Cleaning Products
“Regular cleaning is important because it helps remove potentially harmful debris and maintain a healthy indoor environment,” says Gutter. “However, harmful ingredients in cleaning products can lead to eye, nose, throat, and skin irritation, and emit noxious gasses, which can lead to other health issues.” There are plenty of highly effective green products from brands including Lemi Shine, Mrs. Meyers, and Simple Green.
Filter Your Water
Tap water may contain toxic metals like lead and mercury. Studies have shown that prolonged exposure to these substances has been linked to high blood pressure and kidney problems in adults, as well as developmental delays and deficits in children. Reverse-osmosis systems, like the ones made by Pelican and Aquasana, attach to your sink’s tap and help remove harmful metals.
Test for Mold
Mold, which can grow anywhere with excess moisture, can trigger many maladies, including asthma, headaches, and allergies. Trying DIY removal of serious problems, like black mold, can make you even sicker. Find a local contractor with the tools and know-how to do it for you.
Grow Your Own Veggies Inside
The benefits here are twofold: A 1989 NASA study found that indoor plants effectively removed formaldehyde, benzene, and other indoor pollutants. Other research suggests that gardening can lead to better eating habits—and has even been associated with lower BMI. Plus, companies like Glowpear make us want to grow inside: they offer self-watering planters with a built-in reservoir.
Ditch the Foam Mattress
In 2005, an Atlanta lab tested a memory-foam mattress and found that it emitted 61 chemicals, including the carcinogens benzene and naphthalene. Some other foam mattresses may release gasses that have been associated with upper-respiratory problems and headaches. If you’re sensitive to allergens, you’re probably better off with a mattress that has wool or cotton components. When shopping, look for a mattress that meets the minimum requirements for organic material content as recommended by the Global Organic Latex Standard and the Global Organic Textile Standard.
2. Eat Real Food
The science is clear: dietary supplements are usually ineffective—and sometimes harmful—so you’re better off sticking to a balanced diet that consists of good whole foods.
In 2016, The Journal of the American Medical Association examined supplement studies conducted over the past 20 years and found “disappointing results about potential health benefits,” along with mounting evidence of potential harm. (According to 2015 findings, supplements account for 23,000 emergency-room visits per year.) In the May Journal of the American College of Cardiology, a review of 179 published studies showed that many supplements that supposedly prevent heart disease and stroke, such as calcium and vitamins C and D, didn’t do much of anything.
So it’s no surprise that some professional athletes are leaving tinctures and gelcaps behind. “Athletes are finding they can get all the nutrients they need from a whole-foods diet,” says Greg Wells, a Toronto-based sports physiologist. To get a feel for what a smart modern menu looks like, Noah Elliott—a Paralympic snowboarder who won two medals in Pyeongchang—shares how he fuels himself, and Wells offers advice on how Elliott could do it even better.
Omelet with peppers, onions, broccoli, and ham; mango Greek yogurt; apple or banana; coffee and orange juice.
Greg Wells: “I’d make a few changes here. The orange juice is simple sugar that gets absorbed quickly by the body for immediate fuel—but if not used right away, it turns to fat. I’d rather see athletes eat more whole fruit instead. Fiber helps the body use fuel in a more time-released way, so you avoid the energy crash from a sudden drop in blood sugar.”
Clif bar; dark chocolate; cheese and crackers; salami; homemade trail mix.
Wells: “Replace the salami, because there’s good evidence that processed meats are associated with increased cancer risk. Swap it out for fresh meat or fish.”
Grilled chicken; mashed potatoes; green beans; banana bread.
Wells: “This looks great—he has protein and carbohydrates covered. Add a healthy fat source like avocados, which can have an anti-inflammatory effect, to make the next training session easier.”
Beef or chicken tacos with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and pineapple-mango salsa.
Wells: “This also looks great. There’s protein, vegetables, and fruit. Athletes can never eat enough veggies. They contain antioxidants, polyphenols, and flavonoids—all great for recovery, physiological functions, and overall health.”
3. To Go Farther, Lift Heavy
Exos, a human-performance company that works with some of the world’s top pros, has taken an atypical approach to the way it trains endurance athletes: instead of high-rep, low-weight exercises in the gym, Exos embraces a higher-weight, lower-rep routine.
“Runners and cyclists often prepare just by doing more of their sport, and many of these athletes are lacking strength and power,” says Stefan Underwood, a performance specialist at Exos. “But if you increase those measures, you can push more watts on the bike, or run at a faster pace. And added strength helps cut down on injuries.”
The plan has worked: According to the company, the triathletes, runners, and cyclists in their stable are performing better than ever under the anomalous program. And Underwood is quick to point out that contrary to popular belief, this type of regimen won’t bulk you up. “Your strength gains will largely come from neuromuscular increases,” he says. “Lifting weights is not all about getting bigger—this is about becoming better at generating force in a coordinated effort.”
Underwood prescribes the following strength program to endurance clients. Twice a week, complete the full cycle four times, using a weight that’s heavy enough to make the last few reps difficult but not so heavy that you sacrifice form.
Attach a resistance band to a post or doorknob. With your back to the post, kneel on one knee and hold the band in both hands at the side of your hip. Press the band forward in front of your chest, making sure to maintain a solid, upright position. To increase difficulty, put more tension on the band. Do ten to twelve reps. Repeat on the other side.
Holding dumbbells in each hand at your waist, lower the weights to your knee while keeping your chest up, allowing one leg to extend behind you. Do six to eight reps. Repeat on the other side.
Holding a barbell across your upper back, take a large step to the side, allowing your weight-bearing leg to bend to 90 degrees while keeping your chest up. Do six to eight reps. Repeat on the other side.
Start by kneeling, with a partner holding down your calves. Then slowly lower your torso to the ground. To increase difficulty, hold a weight in your hands. Do eight to ten reps.
With one foot resting on a bench behind you, and holding a dumbbell in each hand, lower your body until your back knee touches the ground. Then lift back up again. Do six to eight reps. Repeat on the other side.
While lying on a bench, hold a dumbbell in each hand, one by your head and the other straight up. Lift the weight up to meet your other hand. Do six to eight reps. Repeat on the other side.
4. Learn to Be Happy
Laurie Santos, a professor at Yale, created a new course last semester called Psychology and the Good Life, which focuses on how students can make themselves happier. “I had moved into a new role, living on campus with students and seeing them up close,” she recalls. “I realized that they were stressed, anxious, and unhappy. And it isn’t just here—this is a national problem.”
The class obviously filled a need—it has quickly become one of the most popular offerings at the university. Here, Santos shares a few tips for boosting joy.
Give Your Body Some Love
Never underestimate the power of a workout and the benefit of a good night’s rest. Research shows that for some people, a half hour of exercise can be as effective as taking an antidepressant. A week of sleep deprivation—defined as sleeping only four or five hours a night—can negatively affect your mood.
Do Nice Things for Other People
When we need a pick-me-up, we often feel the urge to treat ourselves, but studies show that redirecting this impulse toward someone else has a stronger positive effect on your mindset. Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that spending $5 to $20 on another person improves your mood more than spending it on yourself.
Guard Your Time
People who sacrifice their free time to make money are not as happy as people who do the opposite. Leave room in your life for unscheduled hours.
Every night, write down five things you’re grateful for and spend some time thinking about why.
Work on Your Social Connections
Researchers have found that happy people spend more time with friends and family and less time alone. A survey conducted by the University of Chicago’s business school found that simply talking to a stranger on a train can make you happier.
Savor the Present
Studies suggest that we let our minds wander too often, dwelling on the future or the past. Surveys done by Harvard psychologists show that our mood improves when we pay attention to the moment we’re in. Meditation is a great way to accomplish this.
Put in the Effort
Becoming a happier person takes work—it’s like practicing to become a better athlete. It won’t come easily, but the payoff is worth it.
5. Invest in Better Sleep
Until recently, hiring a sleep coach may have seemed absurd. But many athletes—including soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo and some players for the Chicago Bulls—are already employing their services, and new research makes the practice seem like a smart idea for the rest of us.
In May, a 12-week study conducted by the Exercise Physiology Research Laboratory at UCLA found that amateur athletes who used a sleep coach experienced remarkable benefits. The test’s 38 subjects each received a ten-minute education session from a personalized trainer once a week. For 19 of the participants, these sessions focused on specific ways they could improve their sleep. The other participants were presented with more general information about personal wellness that covered a wide swath of topics, like recommending routine checkups and how to relieve stress. All of the participants were subjected to the same physical training three times a week.
At the end of the 12 weeks, average sleep quality improved across both groups (possibly because of the well-established sleep benefits of exercise). But more notable was that compared with the people who received general wellness training, the sleep-coaching group tested far better in every category related to fitness, including improved VO2 max, body power, blood sugar, and heart-rate variability. “We think that we were able to biologically correct their circadian rhythms,” says Brett Dolezal, one of the researchers. “That’s hard to measure, but that’s our hypothesis—that their bodies were realigned, and that’s what allowed for better performance.”
This is just one study, and the exact process behind the results is likely more complicated. But according to Ingrid Prueher, a sleep coach based in Connecticut, the reasons the practice works are simple: it holds clients accountable, and it allows experienced coaches to pick up on root causes of sleep issues that people might miss on their own.
Prueher, who’s certified through the Family Sleep Institute, says these underlying problems can include things like bedroom clutter. “It’s not just about sheets, pillows, and mattresses,” she says. “It could be the laundry detergent you’re using. It’s my job to figure that out.”
Be Your Own Coach
Sleep coaching isn’t cheap. Ingrid Prueher charges $997 for the first month of virtual sessions, and $2,429 for a month of in-home appointments. Typically, she says, a month of coaching is all it takes to get people on track, but it can sometimes take up to three months. If you’re not ready to drop that kind of money, here are a few sleep-promoting habits you can try on your own.
Remove Visible Stressors: Don’t underestimate the impact of the last thing you see before you close your eyes. For example, if you have your briefcase in your room, the thought of looming deadlines may keep you awake. Even a basket of clothes that needs to be folded can make your mind wander.
Breathe Right: It’s no surprise that a dry bedroom can keep you awake. Among other things, it could cause skin and throat irritation. A humidifier is a simple fix if there isn’t too much moisture in the air already.
Wash Your Sheets Often: Ideally every three days. That may seem like overkill, but germs in your bedding can cause respiratory distress, and frequent washing is the best remedy.
6. Heat Things Up (and Cool Them Down)
Extreme-temperature therapies—both hot and cold—have boomed in recent years. But between infrared saunas and cryotherapy tanks, it’s hard to separate the snake oil from the science.
Nora Gilman, a board-certified athletic trainer at RX Sports Recovery, a Denver-area clinic that uses state-of-the-art technology to help athletes compete at their best, explains which treatments are worth your time and which ones you’re better off skipping.
What it is: A normal sauna uses wood and heats up to about 175 degrees. This one uses infrared light, a form of radiant heat, and warms your skin to a max of 130 degrees.
How it works: Our bodies absorb infrared light, leading to increased blood flow and improved tissue oxygenation. This boosts levels of ATP, which is what we use as energy. Research on athletes and infrared saunas is still limited, but a small 2015 study suggested that infrared saunas can reduce recovery time after intense exercise. The performance benefits of regular saunas are well established, though: for example, a 2007 study of distance runners published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport found that after three weeks, the participants who did 30-minute post-exercise sessions in the sauna lasted 32 percent longer in a time-to-exhaustion test.
When to use it: There’s not enough evidence yet to suggest ideal timing, but the athletes in the 2015 study did evening sessions lasting 40 minutes, which seems to be the preferred duration among infrared practitioners.
Spot Heat Therapy
What it is: The direct application of heat to one specific part of the body, typically to treat injury. A standard heating pad works well for this. However, low-level laser therapy, a technology for targeting problem areas that doesn’t involve heat, will provide similar results more quickly.
How it works: Localized heat drives blood flow to an injured area, which promotes healing. Multiple studies have found that heat application significantly reduced discomfort for patients with lower back pain, and other research suggests that this method can improve mobility and alleviate other forms of acute pain.
When to use it: If you’re able to exercise, apply heat right before your workout, which will have the added benefit of loosening the affected area. Low-level laser therapy should only be performed by a trained technician, who can determine an appropriate session length and frequency based on your injury.
What it is: An après-ski ritual that needs no introduction.
How it works: A 2017 study found that hot-water therapy helped athletes recover markedly better from vigorous exercise compared with those who were treated with cold-water therapy. Other research also suggests that heat stimulates growth hormone, which helps build muscle.
When to do it: Post workout, but for no longer than 15 minutes, according to research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
What it is: A bag of ice on a sore part of your body.
How it works: For decades, traditional thinking was that icing an injured body part promoted healing. Recent research has found that’s not the case. It is now believed that icing delays healing because of reduced blood flow to the injured area.
When to do it: Don’t. For injuries like a twisted ankle, Gilman suggests compression and elevation, which have been shown to reduce swelling. For persistent injuries, she recommends cross-training. “If you’re a runner and have shin splints, get on the bike instead,” she says. “Doing a different activity stretches separate tissues and promotes healing.”
What it is: A fancier, updated version of a full-immersion ice bath. You walk inside a cylindrical chamber and get blasted with extremely cold, dry air (around minus 159 degrees) for up to three and a half minutes.
What it does: Studies have shown that this method decreases inflammation in athletes. It also increases the production of norepinephrine, a hormone that’s partially responsible for alertness and attention.
When to do it: Once a day, three to four times a week. According to US Cryotherapy, which has locations throughout the country, you shouldn’t spend any longer than three and a half minutes inside the chamber—longer than that can cause frostbite.
Cold-Therapy Compression Sleeves
What it is: These sleeves are filled with cooling gels and apply compression. There are designs that fit various parts of the body, including your torso, legs, and even head.
What it does: “The compression promotes circulation,” Gilman says. “But the cold isn’t really achieving much other than maybe numbing your sore muscles.”
When to do it: Not recommended, because according to Gilman, the cooling effect doesn’t speed recovery—it just acts as an analgesic. She suggests compression on its own, for 30 to 60 minute periods.
7. Modernize Your Quiet Time
There’s plenty of evidence suggesting that meditation is healthy for both body and brain. For example, in a 2018 Harvard study, when 24 people with clinical hypertension meditated regularly for eight weeks, 13 emerged with markedly lower blood pressure. Research has consistently shown that meditation can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. So, yes, you should slow down and turn inward on a regular basis. And there’s no reason it can’t be fun, thanks to an innovative wave of technology with a new-school feel.
Headspace App ($13 per month)
With a million paid subscribers, Headspace is one of the most popular meditation apps in the world. Choose a quiet place to sit with your phone, press Begin, and a male voice will deliver soothing instructions like this: “Take a couple of big deep breaths, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth.” The sessions start at three minutes and progress to 20. At first even the shortest amount of time might feel like a chore, but after two weeks you might find yourself doing the full 20 and feeling sad to stop. Morning sessions are best for improving your focus for the rest of the day.
Muse Headband ($200)
Muse uses a “brain-sensing” headband, paired with an app, to optimize your meditation practice. The company claims that the band detects brain waves and gauges the intensity of your concentration by measuring electrical activity along your scalp. If it decides your mind is properly on point, you’ll hear birds chirping. If you’re drifting, the sound of gentle rain in the background will gradually become a downpour.
Smith Lowdown Focus Sunglasses ($350)
These sunglasses also run on Muse technology, so the experience is somewhat similar to using the headband. But there are differences. For one thing, the sensors are placed in the nose pads and earpieces of the frames, which makes for a more stylish setup. And the meditation prompts are targeted specifically to athletes. “We choke when we’re uncomfortable and overwhelmed,” the app’s tutorial says. “The key to peak performance is shifting into the present moment.” The background sound is ocean waves, but if the app detects that you’re losing focus, you’ll hear them crashing loudly against the shore.
Cubicle Ninjas Guided Meditation VR Software (Free)
Chicago-based Cubicle Ninjas, a creative design agency, has developed an interesting meditation app, the first in a series of health and wellness programs. Once you’ve loaded the technology onto a pair of VR goggles (such as the new Oculus Go), you’re treated to a number of imaginary locales: a redwood forest, a waterfall-filled bay, and a realistic winter scene with a light wind, fat snowflakes, and brilliant northern lights. Don’t splurge on a VR unit for this purpose alone, but if you already own one, it’s worth downloading the program.