Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

How to live (according to WHO)

It seems a big deficiency to me that life doesn’t come with a clear set of instructions. At least when it comes to nutrition and physical activity. The lack of defined guidelines results in abundance of weird speculations and recommendations spreading though the Internet. Some couches advise going to the gym 6 times per week and eating 10 meals per day. Other experts recommend renouncing sugars (even fruits) and embracing diets consisting of pure fats. Luckily, there’s no need to rely on questionable experts from social networks. The instructions for living actually exist. WHO has them prepared. Here and here.

Why listening to WHO? The Nobel prize laureate Herbert Simon has shown that if each of us aimed at optimizing every single task in life, it would require paramount time and infinite energy expenditures. Human rationality is essentially bounded by its limited capacity. Historically, labor specialization proved to be the most beneficial strategy when it comes to improving efficiency. Therefore outsourcing basic concerns over physical activity and nutrition to a group of specialists whose full-time job is to research this exact area is clearly more productive than conducting experiments on your own.

At the same time, it’s absolutely crucial to remember that, just like Hannah Arendt postulated, life maintenance activities are essentially secondary to human nature. They’re barely worth any extra cognitive effort. That’s why people whose main hobby is exercising and optimizing dieting and nutrition have always seemed suspicious to me. Since human cognitive power has a limited capacity, it’s a bit wasteful to spend it on activities the only aim of which is to maintain body functioning, when you could spend your limited time on intellectual and creative pursuits.

Alas, the overall trend is the opposite. Francis Fukuyama wrote that in the 21st century we’re getting closer to the Nietzschean definition of the Last Man who has lost any strives and passions, and whose only pursuit is the preservation of a physical body. That’s why the public discourse is deteriorating: no one debates over what constitutes a virtuous life, but everyone is eager to debate over questions of fitness and nutrition.

Anyway, back to the WHO. First of all, when it comes to physical activity that an average adult of the age of 18-64 needs in order to be healthy, the experts from the organization recommend the following:

– At least 150-300 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. Moderate activity includes cycling or walking. Which translates into 20-40 minutes of walking per day (I assume this would be around 2-4,000 steps, if you’re using iPhone tracker). More than doable, especially if you go to (or from) the office by feet like I do. Although… it’s less doable for people living in America.

– 75-150 minutes of high-intensity aerobic activity per week. This could be 30-60 minutes on a treadmill twice per week or playing some team sport on a weekend (yikes). Additionally, WHO says that such activity can be combined with the low-intensity one, so hiking or very fast walking should also do. Although intensive activity is deeply unpleasant, alas it’s important for maintaining cardiovascular system in order: as heart diseases constitute the number–one cause of deaths in the developed countries.

– Speaking of going to the gym, WHO recommends doing exercises aimed at muscle strengthening twice per week. Anything extra (even 3 times!) is mainly intended for those who have a specific goal of building extra muscles for either improving aesthetic appearance of the body or doing body-building as a hobby. In other words, extra time in the gym is primarily aimed at goals other than health improvement.

In any case, one undeniable fact is that sport is terrible and unpleasant (I’m sure people who think otherwise must be fooling themselves). Therefore it’s a real pity that extensive research shows a high positive correlation between aerobic activity and cognitive performance (I wish it didn’t). It seems to do so by facilitating blood flow in the brain and training the hurt muscles. Physical activity even seems to help facilitating work of neuromediators in the brain (mice that run in a wheel are better at memorizing labyrinth maps). Fun fact: such correlation is only observable for moderately intense activity, while extremely demanding physical activity seems to actually do the opposite: instead of a better blood flow in the brain, it redirects all blood to cooling of the body. Professional sport makes people dumb indeed.

Speaking for nutrition, WHO has the following recommendations:

– It’s not advised to consume more than 50g of sugar per day (or 37,5g if you only consume 1,500 calories daily – relevant for ectomorphic people). One chocolate bar of 100g contains around 50% of sugar, so 50g of chocolate per day is an absolute maximum. Sigh.

– Obviously, it’s recommended to eat a lot of vegetables and fruits: WHO recommends 400g per day combined. On the one hand, seems quite excessive. On the other, one orange with breakfast and a side-dish of fresh or grilled vegetables with lunch and dinner should weight approximately the same.

– It’s advised to eat whole grains and legumes on a regular basis. Well, after reading this I have already incorporated pasta (wholegrain, of course!) into my daily diet. Thanks WHO.

– No more than 30% of daily calories intake should come from fats. Sorry, keto adepts, you’ve been following a speculative fad diet. But how much is 30% anyway? One portion of Indian butter chicken or greasy French fries with bacon is definitely more than 500 calories, so this stuff obviously shouldn’t be eaten daily.

The conclusion is that it’s not sensible to listen to Internet experts who prohibit eating chocolate and fruits because sugar is a poison. Large amount of sugar is obviously unhealthy, but a small amount doesn’t cause much harm. Most people are lucky to have a functional pancreas, the purpose of which is to process sugars efficiently. Try measuring your blood glucose at home: even after 100g of chocolate it’s not likely to increase by more than one mmol/l.

One more important thing worth noting is that recommendations of WHO represent: 1) a consensus among scientists and researchers, 2) summary of evidence-based research findings, proven by professionally-conducted tests and experiments. Because of that, this method doesn’t exclude that 1) there might be scientists who have theories that don’t go in line with the consensus (and thus only have a marginal support in the scientific community), 2) personal experience of single individuals who believe that some non-traditional approaches work for them better (personal testimony cannot be called scientific, as it’s not proven by experiments conducted on larger sample groups). Carl Sagan once examined the case of Lourdes, a miraculous water spring in France that magically cured cancer of few people. He collected statistics on the remission rates among the visitors and colluded that they were actually below average. ‘The rate of spontaneous remission at Lourdes seems to be lower than if the victims had just… stayed at home’ – Sagan concluded.

Anyway, the instructions above seem pretty comprehensive for removing the extra cognitive load of thinking about such mundane things as sustenance and exercising from the already limited capacity of our imperfect minds.

I’m wondering if WHO considers creating similar guidelines for mental health. Perhaps a step-by-step instruction on how to determine your internal motivations and ultimate values, and work on achieving self-actualization would be pretty useful. Abraham Maslow and Milton Rokeach were reasonable guys. If their stuff was taught and practically applied from the young age, perhaps the demand for therapy among adults wouldn’t be as excessive as it is today. But… that’s a different topic to ponder on.

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