6 Healthy Habits With Huge Downsides (Nobody Talks About)
It takes real willpower to take a healthy activity, like jogging or eating most of a salad, and make it part of your regular routine. But it's worth it, right? After all of the struggle and strife, after you've given up your fun vices and your more interesting friends, you can look in the mirror and feel proud.
Or at least you can until you read this article and discover that a bunch of your new "healthy" habits are bullshit, and hear that pride farting out of you like air from a leaking balloon.
Fitness Trackers May Be Actively Hurting Your Fitness
Fitness trackers keep track of how long you've been working out, and your heart rate, and the number of steps you take in a day, all while coming in a conveniently small, conveniently $200 package (which you'll lose in a drawer in a month). And that sounds pretty harmless, even useful. Who doesn't love data? Well, what if the data isn't accurate? A study of a pair of Fitbit products found that they miscalculated heart rates by up to 20 beats per minute, and that they got worse as the exercise got more intense. You may recognize intense exercise as the time when it's most important for a tracker to get an accurate reading, since you don't really need that much monitoring when cramming Cheetos in your mouth and yelling at Wheel Of Fortune. A second study found an average error rate of 14 percent -- a margin that doesn't just make the product useless, but dangerous to someone who has heart disease and needs to know precisely how much their ticker is ticking.
14 percent being the difference between a healthy activity and a "go into the light" activity.
OK, but what about their main purpose, reminding you to exercise every day? Yeah, so ... another study found that while wearing a fitness tracker does make people take more steps in a day, every step is as begrudging as a child choking down Brussels sprouts. Exercise stops being fun and becomes a chore you hate. And well, that both sucks and is entirely predictable, but isn't the end result still good? Exercise is good for you regardless of whether you like it or not. Except, as you've probably now guessed, fitness trackers don't appear to help you stay fit either. Yet another study took 470 overweight young adults and put them on a low-calorie diet and exercise program. Half self-reported their exercise, while the other half used a tracker. And the group with the trackers lost less weight.
The issue seems to be that people who see a statistic on how much they exercise promptly decide that they deserve a reward, and that said reward should come in the form of chocolate cheesecake. Another possibility is that while trackers motivate you to hit goals, they also discourage you if you fail to hit that goal, which makes it harder to stick to the process. By keeping the results of exercise nebulous, you don't have those damaging highs and lows -- it's just a thing that you do so you don't die.
Or so you can attract higher-quality mates.
There's Next To No Evidence To Support The Benefits Of Flossing
We've all desperately flossed on the eve of a dental appointment and watched blood flow from our mouths like the elevator in The Shining. But all this time, it turns out that we should have been saying "No, because I'm not one of the sheeple enslaved by the siren song of Big Floss propaganda."
"Have you been reading Cracked?"
While the government used to recommend daily flossing, probably because politicians' wallets were stuffed full of bills scented with mint and cinnamon, that recommendation was dropped in 2016, largely because there's no scientific research that supports the practice. In fact, despite all of the claims about how flossing fights gum disease, eliminates plaque, and prevents cavities, the available evidence was dubbed "weak," "very unreliable," of "very low" quality, and open to "a moderate to large potential for bias" by Uncle Sam, who hasn't flossed since 1931 and is getting along fine.
Kiss him and see for yourself.
Almost every study on floss has been funded by the companies that manufacture it, and they've been about as rigorous in their methods as a remedial junior high science class, littering their studies with sample sizes that were too small or that took place over too short a period of time. One study reached a conclusion about the awesome power of flossing after its subjects flossed once. And outside of manufacturer-funded studies, the science simply isn't there. Now, it would be irresponsible of us to claim that Johnson & Johnson thugs have been muzzling scientists with research disputing them.
So we'll just suggest it instead.
Dental research is not for cowards.
All of this doesn't mean that flossing is bad for you. More rigorous research may prove that it helps, and if nothing else, it's great for getting rid of that one piece of popcorn that got stuck in your teeth five minutes into a 183-minute movie. But don't feel bad or let anyone give you shit if you happen to go without it for a few days. Your mouth isn't going to devolve into a plaque-filled wasteland.
Standing Desks Totally Work ... In Conjunction With Exercise
America is a proud nation of sitters. We sit in our cars, on our couches, at bars, at the sitsateria, all of them.
But it's at the office where sitting hits hardest -- eight hours a day of nerves getting pinched, cardiovascular problems developing, bodily fluids clotting, and your body generally becoming flabby and useless, all while you work on a spreadsheet that organizes all of your other spreadsheets. That's why standing desks have become trendy. If you stand while working, your body will be immune to all of the problems caused by sitting! Logic.
"Science" according to people who are not scientists.
According to scientists who pored through 16 years of health data on over 5,000 people, how and how often you sit is far less important than the activities you do when you're not sitting. The sands of time don't start dropping faster when you're plunked in a chair, and "sitting time was not associated with all-cause mortality risk." Sitting isn't inherently the issue; the problem is that after work is done, instead of going to the gym and eating a healthy dinner, we have a tendency to order pizza and zone out in front of Frasier.
Ironically, tossed salad and scrambled eggs wouldn't be a bad choice here.
It's being stationary that's bad for us, regardless of what that stationary posture looks like. Far healthier to just sit comfortably while working and then do some actual exercise, as opposed to standing in the hopes that will keep the Grim Reaper away with no other lifestyle changes. So you either need to find a way to work at an exercise bike desk, some kind of knife-fighting desk, or The Desk Of Agony. Or you could cut 45 minutes from your weekly TV regime in favor of some rec league basketball.
Genetic Testing For Future Health Problems Is All But Useless
As anyone who's skimmed the trailer for Gattaca knows, your life is basically hardwired into your genetic code. Maybe you're a genius Adonis who will change the world, or maybe you'll drop dead at 37 after a career in the custodial arts. And now, thanks to the miracle of modern technology, anyone with some spare money can get a scientific analysis of their DNA to find out what will probably end up killing them.
"So your kidneys are going to stab you to death for insurance money."
Companies like 23andMe, deCODE Genetics, Gene Planet, Gene Biohackman, and others will let you send them bodily fluids -- preferably the ones they requested -- and return a report on diseases you're at risk for, how you'll react to certain medications, and other fun details. But what they're best at testing is whether you're gullible enough to fork over a couple hundred bucks in exchange for consulting a Swami machine with lab access.
"We've finally isolated the chump gene."
The problem is twofold. First, the human genome is incredibly complicated, and while our knowledge of it is significantly better than when we thought all diseases were caused by humours and ghosts, we're not at the point where we can read it like an instruction manual. So when genetic testing companies give specific dietary advice like "drink apple juice daily" or "jog more instead of lifting weights," they're pulling those suggestions straight out of "their ass." These steps might improve your health if you were previously drinking vodka for breakfast and getting your only exercise by lifting the bottle, but they didn't discover a cheat code in your DNA that will make you a superhuman. Eating healthy and exercising is a good idea no matter what your genome looks like.
Come on. We've talked about this. In this article, no less.
The other issue is that we suck at understanding risk. Having a gene that makes you prone to skin cancer doesn't mean much if you shun the sun like a vampire. Meanwhile, your friend who's on a first-name basis with everyone at the tanning salon is probably going to be at a greater risk, even if there's nothing in their genes to suggest it. Unless you drew the marked piece of paper in the genetic lottery, how you live has more of an effect on your life than your genes. And even if you are susceptible to a disease like ALS or cystic fibrosis, being told to eat more sunflower oil isn't going to change that.
But we don't pay companies with sciencey pictures on their websites for long essays about how the human body is complicated and genetics is still a relatively young field; we pay them to tell us what kind of tea will make us immortal. The bigger issue, as Gizmodo points out, is that people who use these services take the wrong lessons away. They cite one example of a cardiologist whose patient turned down heart medication because their DNA test said to avoid it. So please don't pay some sketchy company a bunch of money to tell you what you should eat -- just, you know, try eating better.
Workplace Wellness Programs Are Great ... If You're Already Healthy
Workplace wellness programs are based on the idea that if your employer spends a little money to help you catch a looming disease before it gets serious or change an unhealthy habit before it causes a bigger problem, they'll save a lot of money by avoiding lost time and insurance claims down the line. It sounds like it makes perfect sense, but like that time we thought it would be a great idea to fill the Cracked office pool with vermouth, reality is a lot more complicated.
Wellness programs vary between companies, but they generally involve employees getting their blood pressure, BMI, blood sugar, cholesterol, and other attributes measured, then providing lifestyle advice tailored for employees based on those measures. While encouraging businesses to have these programs, the government doesn't oversee them in any way at all, meaning companies can do just about anything they want and call it a wellness program.
"Do they come in human-sized?"
For starters, some companies, like Safeway, punish employees who don't pass the tests with increased health premiums, turning an idea that's supposed to save money for everyone into one that screws employees for having health issues that may very well be beyond their control. Do you have a preexisting medical condition and are looking for a new job? You can legally be boned by your company's health insurance, to the tune of thousands of dollars.
The programs have other problems too, like the fact that their advice is often simplistic to the point of being useless. Even worse, they might get basic health knowledge flat-out wrong -- Slate's look at the issue found examples of wellness programs peddling dumb myths about BMI and saturated fat. BMI is a rough measurement, but some wellness programs treat it like gospel ... and then use it as an excuse to raise premiums.
It was so much nicer when companies concealed their evilness.
Screenings of healthy people can also generate false alarms that do more harm than good. And some of the more expensive diseases to treat, like MS or Crohn's disease, kind of just happen and can't be solved by your employer telling you to eat more broccoli. Oh, and most major diseases generally don't strike until after people retire anyway, even if they haven't updated their frat lifestyle in decades.
So to sum up, wellness problems absolutely do accomplish their goal of saving companies money, but they don't do it by preempting the need for expensive treatments -- they do it by making you pay instead.
Just something to keep in mind the next time you get weighed before a budget meeting.
AA Doesn't Have A Very Good Success Rate
Alcoholics Anonymous is easily the most famous alcohol recovery program in America, but you might be surprised to learn that they're ranked the 38th most effective of 48 methods in the authoritative Handbook of Alcoholism Treatment Methods. So they're like the Transformers movies of alcohol addiction -- inexplicably popular despite persistent low quality.
Also, attending both is the end result of painful life choices.
Addiction is a complicated beast, and if AA has helped you or someone you know, that's great; they definitely do help some people. But AA was founded in 1935 on decidedly non-scientific principles, and the program hasn't been updated with anything we've since learned about the human brain. It's obviously hard to study an anonymous organization like AA, no matter how many false mustaches you employ, but one estimate put their success rate at between 5 and 8 percent.
AA, meanwhile, claims a 75 percent success rate and argues that anyone who fails in their system doesn't have enough willpower. Which itself is a rather sinister statement. Imagine that you're an alcoholic and you know you need help, and you enter a famous and successful program, but you still can't kick your drinking habit, and they explicitly tell you that it was you who failed, not them. How do you think someone who already has a drinking problem will react to the revelation that they're a "failure"?
Go on, guess.
AA cornered the market by being first, and has been cruising on that initial success ever since. But their support groups are run by people with no professional training, their famous 12 Steps don't take into account mental health issues, and they inaccurately view alcoholism as something you either have or don't have, despite modern science treating it as a spectrum. We now know that some people need to quit completely, while other heavy drinkers might not be dependent on alcohol and can, with help, successfully change their habits to that of a light social drinker. But AA views drinking one Coors Light at your buddy's BBQ the same as drinking an entire bottle of scotch while playing Russian Roulette with the cat -- a comparison which can devastate members when they "relapse" with a glass of wine at dinner.
Modern data says that what works best is medication and cognitive behavior therapy provided by trained doctors, not the AA's spiritual approach based on ideas their founder had on a hospital bed in the '30s. AA is right when they call alcohol dependence an illness instead of a moral failing, but they've ignored every scientific discovery about how the brain reacts to booze in favor of a system of promises, lectures, and little trophies.
Mark is on Twitter and has a book with no known health benefits.
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