One of the greatest forces that drives our bodies toward or away from good health is our choices. Often, these are clouded because we either believe that we have no options—which is rarely the case—or we struggle to know which choices are best. Clearly, we can see from the Blue Zones we discussed in the previous entry that what we intentionally surround ourselves with and participate in greatly influence our health. This is both liberating and devastating: Those who see the results of previous bad decisions impacting their current health wish for a “redo” button, yet, we look ahead to realize that we hold a vast amount of power over where we—and our bodies—are headed.
It is essential, in our view, that when we make a choice, we understand why we are doing so. By getting a grasp of what factors influence our decisions, we develop a conviction about the actions we take. For example, a person who gives no thought to what he or she eats may consume nearly anything that is perceived to taste good, with no further criteria impacting that selection. Once someone has resolved to try to eat healthy, a stronger element of conviction directs meal selection. This intensifies as the person begins to see pounds drop off or as he or she begins to physically feel better.
It seems that the vast majority of people navigate their lives by their own experiences or by what they personally find valuable. What we choose to prioritize becomes the fuel that reinforces our decisions, but sadly, this has a profoundly negative effect when considering those who have minimal knowledge of how the body and the environment interact. This often yields negative health consequences, and in response to diminished wellness, we tend to return to less-healthy choices in search of comfort…which perpetuates the cycle.
The first and most important decision you must make you want to change your lifestyle is the determination to be brave. In a world where everyone seems to have an opinion, advocating for your own health can mean stepping out on our own and stating that you have chosen to pursue the avenue of health in the way your convictions lead. This may cause some backlash from those who don’t agree with you. However, you are closer to your own body than anyone else can possibly be, and these people will need to trust your connection to it. While there is wisdom that should be prayerfully considered when friends and family weigh in regarding your pursuit of health, ultimately, we hope they will accept and respect your decisions.
As we’ve already touched upon, the decision to think positively enhances health in ways that are both mental and physical. In addition, sometimes keeping stress—and its impact—out of our lives must be a cognitive choice. Recall that we mentioned that the body reads all negative chemical responses in the same way: It doesn’t matter if you’re stressed over money or about being eaten by a bear. Thus, it is vital to keep stress to a minimum for optimal health. Yet, it seems that we are all capable of being inundated with stress if we allow this to happen. It is necessary to make an intentional effort to manage stress at all times. We can do this by eliminating the source of the problem (when possible and appropriate), praying and meditating, creating space, confiding in a comrade, or even finding activities to take our mind off the problem altogether.
Technology is a source of many joys and much pain in our modern society. It’s how we keep in touch, follow local and worldwide news, pay bills, attend school, and watch movies or television programming. However, technology can be intrusive in many ways as well, and it’s necessary to keep this tool in balance within our lives. Social media is a cruel tease, often only showing us what we want but don’t have. Instant messages and texts can invade our private lives and create a lack of quality time with friends, loved ones, and families. Surely we’ve all, at some point, seen a family at a restaurant together, with each person at the table so enthralled in their phones that they didn’t even speak to one another. This is another way social media robs us of community while posing as precisely that. Further, spending too much time staring at an electronic screen actually has the power to throw off our circadian rhythm (which we’ll discuss in an upcoming chapter), making it difficult for the body to create chemicals that encourage vital functions such as metabolism, activity, and sleep. All in all, technology should be used as a tool when it’s needed, and then set aside.
Particularly as it pertains to children, there are many health risks associated with excessive exposure to electronic devices. First, the screens put out enough amounts of blue light to interfere with the body’s ability to wind down for sleep—thus fostering insomnia, which is detrimental because sleep is vital to healing, growth, and cognitive function (this will also be covered in an upcoming chapter). So, for young people whose bodies and minds are still developing, this is particularly damaging. Additionally, the blue light emitted during screen time can damage the eyes, causing them to age prematurely.[i] “It can also trigger serious conditions later in life such as age-related macular degeneration, which can lead to blindness.”[ii] Worst of all, the younger the eyes are that stare at the technological interface, the easier it is for the damaging properties of this type of light to be carried to the retina, meaning that the youngest viewers are most vulnerable.[iii] How do parents combat this risk? By requiring children to take frequent breaks from media so that their eyes are not exposed to screens for long periods.[iv]
In addition to premature aging and potential damage to the eyes, doctors cite poor posture and inactivity, over long periods of time, as extremely negative byproducts of overindulgence in sedentary lifestyle. The profits of exercise, clean air, and exposure to sunlight (discussed later) are vital components of a healthy life—especially for those still developing physically and mentally. This multitude of benefits is missed for children who spend their days lounging on a sofa and staring at a screen.
The psychological interference of digital intrusion upon the young, developing mind must not be overlooked, either. In her groundbreaking book, Unscrambling the Millennial Paradox, Allie Anderson reveals many ways the necessary growth of a child’s psyche—even including the brain chemistry and neurological development of the mind—is inhibited by overindulgence of this pastime. While the information gleaned can easily cover hundreds of pages, for the sake of time, we will mention just a few points from that work here. To begin with, Anderson explains the science around how personal and interpersonal development are hindered by the interference of technology:
For many people, the mass amounts of screen time that they have been subjected to literally reroutes and alters the neural pathways of the brain, impacting one’s ability to connect emotionally and socially with other people, interfering with such human attributes as empathy, relatability, and contributing to isolation, depression, and an inward focus (often interpreted by others as narcissism). Beyond this, excess of digital interface diminishes a person’s ability to feel a sense of mastery or personal competence [due to feelings of inadequacy which are fostered by comparison games played over mediums such as social media], and these are detrimental losses, because it is these attributes which allow a person the courage and self-confidence to venture into purposeful life pathways, such as pursuing academic success, overcoming personal obstacles with problem-solving, critical thinking, and even taking larger risks, such as entrepreneurial endeavors or stepping out on a limb to take a professional promotion.[v]
It is easy for parents to overindulge the kids’ desire for and dependence on electronics; after all, screen time seems to entertain them, keeps them occupied, and thus, seemingly keeps them out of physical danger. But few who give their children free rein in this activity stop to count the sheer number of hours children spend mesmerized by screens over the period of a week. Anderson gives shocking statistics:
Statistics show that most children begin watching television before the age of two, and between the years of 2 and 5, the typical time spent engaged in this activity is 32 hours per week. From 6 to 11 years old, the reported allotment drops to 28 hours per week. Of this activity, 97% of viewing is spent watching live TV. Beyond this, 71% of children between 8 to 18 years of age are stated to have a TV in their bedroom, and likewise spend an average of 1.5 hours more than those who do not have a private television. As a result, those who spend the most time engaging in this activity also often do so in isolation and without supervision or parental filter. Furthermore, two-thirds of households report leaving television sets on while eating meals, substituting interaction with one’s family for a digital interface.[vi] The danger that this activity poses surfaces over time and on many levels: the damaging manifestations range from encouraging a sedentary lifestyle, to robbing children of healthy interactive relationships, to barricading their willingness and interest in constructive responsibilities such as chores or homework.[vii]
Worse than this, between the ages of two and six years old, the brain finishes most of its physical development, reaching 90% of its adult capacity.[viii] During this time, and particularly between the ages of four and five, a process called synaptic pruning takes place: “neurons that are seldom stimulated lose their connective fibers, and the number of synapses gradually declines.”[ix] What takes place during this process is the brain’s selection of which neural connectors to fine-tune, and which to slowly “phaseout.” In a nutshell, neural connections within the brain which are not being stimulated are at risk of atrophy.[x]
As if this isn’t bad enough, Anderson goes on to explain that dopamine is released during some interaction with technology, a sensation that drives such new epidemics as video-gaming addiction, which is proving to be accompanied by urges for screen time comparable to that of drug cravings.[xi] When children are allowed to become addicted to media, and are denied, they can experience mood swings, depression, and other behaviors not unlike those of people who are addicted to chemical substances. (This is due to the decline in dopamine as a result of screen deprivation).
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WHAT HAPPENED TO SHARON GILBERT!? THESE SIMPLE CHOICES DID THIS!?
Hours spent interacting with media feeds isolation and loneliness (a great disadvantage to good health). Additionally, a child’s capacity to utilize and hone all five senses during the developmental phases is disabled, which can inhibit him or her in countless psychological and physical ways throughout his or her lifetime. This is made worse when we consider that the secluded, still-developing child will—thanks to media—be “exposed to as many as twenty acts of violence every hour, while other statistics reveal that the average child in America will witness up to twelve thousand acts of violence per year through this activity.”[xii] What this means is that children who overindulge in digital interaction experience diminished intellectual development, illusions about the real world (via social media), remain sedentary, miss vital physical developmental cues, and potentially lose out on segments of their ability to emotionally connect with others—all while witnessing repetitive violence.
These authors both challenge and beg you to examine the technological balance (or imbalance) within your home and make any corrections you can to ensure the psychological and physical health of everyone in your household.
Isolation v. Community
Two of the biggest inhibitors to good health are loneliness and isolation. While these may sound like two words for the same thing, they’re not. Loneliness springs from limited interaction with others, while isolation is the feeling of being disconnected from others. Some people can be in a room filled with people and still feel isolated, while others who spend a considerable amount of time by themselves may not necessarily feel lonely. And, while these might seem like strictly social issues, they actually have a large capability to influence our health in physical ways. Medical research regarding the elderly has recently established significant links between these two factors and various psychological and physical health conditions such as “high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s disease, and even death.”[xiii] On the other hand, those who engage in fulfilling acts with others in a setting of family, social support, or community find that such interaction improves positive thought patterns, reinforces healthy cognitive processes, and even promotes longer life.[xiv] Doctors John and Stephanie Cacioppo, in their studies on loneliness and isolation and the impact on health, social integration, and general lifespan, concluded that “loneliness automatically triggers a set of related behavioral and biological processes that contribute to the association between loneliness and premature death in people of all ages.”[xv]
It may seem obvious that one of the ways loneliness and isolation affect a person is because both can allow thoughts to migrate toward negativity. But there’s more to it than this. According to Dr. Steve Cole the University of California’s Social Genomics Core Laboratory, the mistrust experienced by a person who feels this way will trigger a defense response within his or her biological makeup. For example, negative feelings may cause the body’s defense mechanism to trigger inflammation, which is both the body’s response to injury and at times can promote the healing of injury. But long-term inflammation also contributes to chronic illness. Dr. Cole states that in this and other ways, loneliness is “a fertilizer for other diseases.”[xvi] Elaborating on this link between loneliness/isolation and other diseases, he adds that a compromised immune system leaves an individual vulnerable to other viruses and infectious diseases.[xvii]
Some statements asserted by prominent experts regarding the link between loneliness/isolation and mental/physical health are stunning. For example, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience, notes that “lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder…[and that] loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.”[xviii] Lunstad also states that interpersonal connection is a necessity “crucial to…well-being and survival.”[xix]
Yes, you read that right. Let’s give that a minute to sink in. Loneliness and isolation are twice as harmful to your health as obesity. Furthermore, the heightened health risk is comparable to smoking fifteen cigarettes a day or regularly abusing alcohol!
How can this be?
In the beginning, we see that God created man, and said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him…[a companion]” (Genesis 2:19). When God looked upon the man and woman he had made in His own image (Genesis 1:27), He told them to be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth. Why? Because God wired mankind for community. No one should be alone. This doesn’t necessarily mean that every person should get married, nor does it suggest that a person can’t live alone. Some people are very happy having their own space or remaining single. But it does mean that we all have the fundamental need to be plugged into some sort of community. Many who are lonely or isolated don’t even realize that this is the cause of their suffering. The symptoms surround us daily; Look at how oversexualized our society is. This is a byproduct of the widespread lack of intimacy many people are suffer. Perhaps you’ve noticed how many people are sending samples of their DNA to companies promising to link them to ancestral connections. This, for many, is a way to make up for a lack of family association. Social media promises friendships, but often becomes the basis of a cruel, unobtainable game of comparison. The list of ways loneliness and isolation manifest in our time and place goes on and on. The commonality among all the symptoms is this: They are offshoots of a lack of community.
We can’t stress enough how vital it is for your holistic well-being—your spiritual, psychological, and physical health—that you find a community outlet and become part of it. Perhaps it is church, a mentoring program, or a volunteer position at a local school, food drive, or library. Or, you might find connection with others via activities that don’t necessarily involve volunteerism, such as taking a dance class or joining a book club. The possibilities are all around.
This advice may seem to run counter to our earlier encouragement to consider cutting some activities from your schedule. The difference is this: Work that is obligatory, dreaded, or for pay often doesn’t yield the positive friendship and interpersonal rewards as community involvement. Sometimes we must set aside good things to make room for better things. That doesn’t mean that what we eliminate isn’t valuable, but rather, there are some things that cannot be traded. Once you have created space in your life by editing out some of the activities that drain you, you’ll probably find it intriguing to pursue your interests and surround yourself with others who enjoy similar things.
For many (even those who suffer from loneliness/isolation), the idea of making new friends is completely intimidating. For one thing, busy schedules make maintaining a friendship seem impossible (hence the notion of creating space). For others, trusting is hard. But good friendships are both necessary and rewarding. There is a time in everyone’s life when God will send us a friend to enhance our person’s joy. We believe an intervening friend comes into our lives at the right time when we are receptive, an individual whose very presence has life-changing value. This exchange is mutual, although sometimes it may seem like one is helping the other more, depending on the season. Often, one friend’s knowledge or influence will be just what the other needs that moment. When we begin to foster bonds such as these, we have a greater understanding of our ultimate Friend who sticks closer than a brother: Jesus (Proverbs 18:24). Science proves that our choices affect our long-term health and can even lengthen our lives. In the next entry we will look at scientific proof of these facts!
UP NEXT: What Scientists Have PROVEN Can Literally Lengthen Your Life!
[i] Fischer, Kristen. “Screen Time Hurts More Than Kids’ Eyes.” Healthline Online. October 12, 2015. Retrieved April 23, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/health-news/screen-time-hurts-more-than-kids-eyes-101215#1.
[v] Anderson, Allie. Unscrambling the Millennial Paradox. (Crane, MO: Defender Publishing, 2018), Pg. 79.
[vi] “Television and Children.” University of Michigan: Michigan Medicine. Accessed January 4, 2019. http://www.med.umich.edu/yourchild/topics/tv.
[vii] Anderson, Millennial Paradox. Pg. 84–85.
[viii] Berk, Laura. Development Through the Lifespan. (Hoboken: New Jersey: Pearson Education, 2018), Pg 217.
[x] Anderson, Millennial Paradox, Pg. 89.
[xi] Dunckley, Victoria. “Gray Matters: Too Much Screen Time Damages the Brain.” Psychology Today. February 27, 2019. Retrieved April 7, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/mental-wealth/201402/gray-matters-too-much-screen-time-damages-the-brain.
[xii] Graham, Judith and Forstadt, Leslie. “How Television Viewing Affects Children.” Extension: University of Maine. 2011. https://extension.umaine.edu/publications/4100e/. Last Accessed January 4, 2019.
[xiii] “Social Isolation, Loneliness in Older People Pose Health Risks.” National Institute on Aging Online. April 23, 2019. Accessed January 28, 2020. https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks.
[xvi] Editorial Advisory Board. “Editorial: Meals on Wheels Serves Greater Good.” The Garden City Telegram Online. October 14, 2019. Accessed January 28, 2020. https://www.gctelegram.com/opinion/20191014/editorial-meals-on-wheels-serves-greater-good.
[xvii] “Social Isolation, Loneliness in Older People Pose Health Risks.” National Institute on Aging Online. April 23, 2019. Accessed January 28, 2020. https://www.nia.nih.gov/news/social-isolation-loneliness-older-people-pose-health-risks.
[xviii] Novotney, Amy. “Social Isolation: It Could Kill You.” American Psychological Association. May 2019, Vol. 50, No. 5, pg. 32. Accessed January 28, 2020. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/05/ce-corner-isolation.