THE BLOG

Is Health Information That Focuses On Lifestyle Management Helpful?

02/20/2015 02:44 pm ET | Updated Apr 22, 2015
Andy Ryan via Getty Images

Does reading an article or listening to a health professional discuss eating, sleeping or exercising translate into meaningful change? The fact that people have gotten heavier and sicker at a time when health information is virtually everywhere suggests that knowledge, in and of itself, is not useful at all.

Let's explore this supposition by the reviewing the latest research concerning the aforementioned macro elements of lifestyle management, beginning with eating.

In December 2014 an article published in the journal, Cell Metabolism, and reported in The New York Times suggested that -- when you eat is more important than how much you eat. Briefly, the researchers discovered that mice that were restricted to daily feeding periods of nine or 12-hours remained sleek and healthy. Those that ate the same amount of food, but could eat anytime, became obese.

Apparently, meal times have more effect on circadian rhythm than dark and light cycles, according to Dr. Panda, the lead researcher. And circadian rhythm in turn affects the function of many genes in the body that are known to involve metabolism. The message is clear: if you compress eating into a shorter time period, you will burn more calories and lose weight. With late night eating being a major problem, one would assume that people that came across this information would utilize it. In all probability, they won't. Why?

First, employing this approach is a bit more complicated than other kinds of weight loss strategies such as eating less junk carbs or counting points like Weight Watchers. Those are one note strategies and easy to understand. The "time frame eating strategy" (my term) forces one to: 1) calculate how many hours you typically eat from first bite to last, 2) compute in calories how much you typically consume and, 3) make sure you don't exceed the 12-hour time limit. For most people, there are simply too many moving parts. Moreover, when you factor in how powerful an addiction late night emotional eating is, well, you get the idea.

The most recent -- and controversial -- bit of news concerning exercise was a Danish study reported by both the BBC and The New York Times. In brief, the research suggested that too much exercise -- in this case jogging -- was as bad as no exercise at all. It found that light to moderate jogging was associated with living longer compared with being sedentary, but strenuous exercise was not.

The Danish study has been attacked by a host of exercise experts on everything from the sizes of the groups being compared to the conclusions drawn. What matters most, however, is the headline because that's what tends to be remembered. In general, people distort and/or delete information in order to make themselves more comfortable with their behavior. So when people hear "strenuous jogging is as bad as doing no exercise," it only serves to reinforce inactivity by making people less anxious about not exercising.

Finally, sleep made some headlines at the beginning of February. The National Sleep Foundation came out with their new guidelines. We now have nine categories and some minor shifts in the sleep range for some. It seems this information is the most sort after on the Foundation's web site. This makes sense since sleep deprivation, like obesity, has reached epidemic levels.

But is knowing how sleep deprived you are really going to motivate you to change your lifestyle? Again, the answer is unlikely. If last year's most important sleep headline -- sleep cleans your brain and helps prevent Alzheimer's disease -- didn't have much of an impact in getting people's attention, then sleep guidelines stand no chance at all.

So where does that leave us? How can we raise the level of organic intelligence, so that a useful confluence occurs between information and behavior? But first, however, we need to know what went wrong?

Organic intelligence is wired into our DNA. Infants sleep, eat and move automatically. There is no overeating, sleep deprivation or intentional inactivity. Internal sensory information governs a child's behavior. Over time, due to a lack of feedback that labels and reinforces awareness of these states, sensory blindness occurs. Children lose their capacity to know when they're hungry, full, tired or need to be active.

Developing a program to access organic intelligence is a herculean task, but worth speculating about. So let's create a hypothetical website focusing on how it might be structured.

First, you need some way to monitor behavior. Fitness trackers are the obvious choice since they can provide both baseline data and subsequent changes in calories consumed, steps taken and hours slept. These numbers would be uploaded onto the site each day and continually monitored.

Second, videos as well as live seminars would be available focusing on sensory awareness so that the rhythms of hunger, sleep and exercise become part of conscious experience.

Third, courses providing additional information (e.g. foods that maximize immune functioning) would also be introduced complimenting the core elements of organic intelligence that are already in place.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the website would function as a supportive, life enhancing community that reinforces the multiple levels of learning structured into the program.

Rekindling the sensory knowledge we were born with is extraordinary difficult to do. Like a language you once spoke fluidly but haven't spoken in decades, it takes a while to become fluent again. But, eventually, you get the groove back. You will never speak a more important language.