Optimizing Health

I think it’s self-explanatory why one would want to optimize their health. So I’ll save that rant for another time. What I will say is that the flood of misinformation and pseudo-science in this space makes it difficult to understand how one should optimize their health.

Here, I’ll briefly summarize the things I do to stay healthy, and link to relevant sources that I consider trustworthy. I won’t pretend to be the healthiest person around. But I do consider myself more aware and informed of the tradeoffs I’m making when I make adjustments to my diet, training, and sleep regimen.

Sleep

I spent too much of my teenage years being sleep deprived and am definitely worse off because of it. Nowadays, I aim for a minimum of 7 hours of sleep per night, while getting 8 hours of sleep most nights.

I avoid drinking any caffeine 6-8 hours before I expect to go to bed. And on days I drink alcohol, I expect to get a poor night’s sleep.

There are a number of other things you can do to improve your sleep quality, but unfortunately none of them are in my routine. My understanding is that you want to keep your bedroom or bed cool when you’re about to go to bed (a little lower than body temperature) and avoid blue light 1-2 hours before your bed time. Additionally, you want to get at least 10 minutes of sunlight within an hour of waking and another 10-15 minutes of sunlight right before sunset.

These habits are meant to help keep your circadian rhythm on track and make falling asleep easier and your rest more effective. I find I sleep a little bit better when I do these things, but I don’t do these things regularly (maybe I should).

Intermittent Fasting (IF)

There’s quite a bit of literature supporting the idea of intermittent fasting, or timeboxing when you eat throughout the day. I typically don’t eat anything until ~12pm everyday, and stop eating around 8pm.

Originally I picked up IF as a way to lose weight, but as my schedule picked up throughout university I found myself falling to a smaller “feeding” window because it was more convenient for me. Having to only prep and eat one meal a day bought me some extra time to study or work.

Nowadays, I’m very flexible with when I eat. If I share meals with family or friends I don’t mind eating earlier/later, but 90% of the days I follow the 16-8 IF schedule.

In the future I’d like to experiment with extended fasts (48h+ of <250 kcal). There seems to be some literature that suggests this can increase longevity and a myriad of other postive health factors. But extended fasts is at odds with a personal goal of mine to build more muscle and strength. I’ll probably make a future post or add to this document when I find a way to experiment and fit extended fasts in my schedule.

Cardio

On days where I do strength training, I warm up with a light 1 mile jog at a pace where I’m able to sing lyrics without being too out of breathe. Other days where I’m focusing on training cardio, I will do longer distance runs (3-5 miles) at a pace where I’m able to sing along to songs, but be mostly out of breathe. I believe this roughly correlates to zone 2 (60%-70% of max heartrate) and zone 3 (70%-80% of max heartrate) cardio.

In the future I’d like to incorporate higher intensity cardio training (80%+ of max heartrate). I’m not quite sure of the benefits this training has, but I’d like to try it and do some more research on its potential benefits/tradeoffs.

Strength Training

I’ve been on and off weight training for a number of years. When I do train, I’ve been predominantly focused on building strength, but not necessarily muscle growth.

I’ve tried some variations of push-pull-legs programs, full body programs, and calisthenic programs. I find that full body programs work best for me, but it’s still something I’m actively experimenting with.

Training goes hand-in-hand with diet, however, and so I’ve noticed quite a bit of stagnation with my progression over the last two years. This is a combination of training less frequently (the pandemic made me lazy) and eating less/eating less protein (the pandemic made me fat).

One of my 2023 goals however is to get back to a stricter training and diet regimen and my hope is to reach new PRs for all of my lifts. If any of my experiments seem notable or especially successful throughout the year, I’ll update this page accordingly.

Supplements

AG1

I’ve been using Athletic Greens for a few months now and have had a noticeable improvement in my energy levels and mood on the days when I take it. On days I take AG1, I drink less caffeine and find it a bit easier to dial in and focus on the things I’m interested in.

It could be placebo, or it could be a genuine effect produced by the supplement. Once I reach a longer time for taking this supplement (~6 months) I may update this page with some additional notes.

Creatine

Creatine is well supported as a supplement that athletes can take to improve their performance, particularly for athletes who are looking to increase strength and build muscle. Surprising to me, there is also literature which supports creatine being helpful for cognitive function.

I took creatine in the past for ~4 months and didn’t notice any cognitive improvements. But I did notice an improvement during weight lifting sessions.

As Dr. Huberman from Huberman Labs notes, the literature points to getting about ~5g/day to see improvement.

Caffeine

I have 1-2 cups of coffee everyday, which comes up to about 80-160mg of caffeine. It’s been a pretty consistent habit for 5 years now, except for a 1 month period where I took a break from all caffeine as an experiment.

The experiment was terrible. The first week I had minor headaches, and throughout the entire month I felt less focused than I usually do. It seems like my baseline has been so adjusted to caffeine that I can’t go without it.

I also find that caffeine right before a gym session (whether cardio or strength training) greatly improves my performance.

More recently, I’ve started delaying my first cup of coffee until 60-90 minutes after I wake up, per some advice I heard on the Huberman Lab podcast. It seems to have leveled out my energy levels and I don’t experience as many afternoon crashes as I did during high school/univeristy.

Things I’ve Tried

In my quest for better health, I’ve also tried a variety of behaviors that seem to work well for some people in studies, but didn’t work too well for me in practice.

  • ~30 minutes of zone 3 cardio right after waking up
    • For about 2 weeks, I would go on a run in the morning right after waking up. Some studies show that spiking cortisol levels shortly after waking up helps improve mood and focus for the rest of the day. While I found my mood and energy was a little higher in the mornings after the run, I found that I would slump in the afternoon and my mood and energy levels would dip (compared to days I didn’t have this morning cardio session).
    • If I were to make this a habit in the future, I think I would have to pair it with an afternoon nap or some kind of relaxation/rest habit.
  • cold showers
    • There’s some research showing cold exposure therapy (e.g. ice baths, ice cold water baths) can help increase mood and focus, and also reduce body fat levels and increase muscle recovery after workouts. A hacky way to get this exposure is through cold showers. What I found is that some days I would have an elevated mood after the cold shower, but most days I didn’t notice a large enough difference to justify making it a habit.
    • I think temperature and type of cold exposure determines the effectiveness of this habit. I think ice baths or submerging myself in freezing water would’ve been much more effective for the physiological effects I was looking for (reduced body fat, improved recovery post workouts).
  • fish oil
    • Omega-3 fats have gotten a lot of buzz in popular health magazines to reduce body fat and improve cognitive performance (as well as some other health benefits). I took Athletic Greens omega-3 supplement for a few months, but didn’t notice a large enough difference in either my physical or cognitive performance to justify the expense.
    • Admittedly, the quality of the supplement matters a lot here. And I already get quite a bit of fish and nuts in my diet normally, so I possibly didn’t need to supplement this anyway.
  • vegetarian diet
    • I ate a completely vegetarian diet for 2 months and found that my energy levels were more stable and I was a little bit more focused. I think this is partially because my typical diet included more processed foods (e.g. fast food, processed snacks) which isn’t great for energy levels and focus. I ended up giving up the vegetarian diet because I love pork belly too much and I’m a sucker for pizza. I have made an adjustment to eat less processed foods, but it’s an uphill battle.