Last week, I saw my doctor for my annual physical. No worries, I’m as healthy as can be. But looking around the waiting room, I was saddened by the terrible physical condition of most of the people surrounding me. This particular waiting room on this particular day was now special. Look around your grocery store (except for Whole Foods!), look around the airport, look around your audiences, look around… We are not in good physical shape.
Why am I writing about health in a jazz blog? Because playing a musical instrument is an athletic activity. Each instrument requires a particular physical effort, but regardless, you and I are extending our bodies to produce our particular sound and rhythm. We’re pushing air, striking objects, plucking strings, rapidly pressing buttons and keys. Our bodies are working hard.
So it makes sense that once we surrender our bodies to the atrophy of aging, our physical ability to play our instrument diminishes. We no longer sound as good. We lose our technique. Maybe less so for a piano player than a trombonist, but the decline will occur. Knowing this, I think we each have an opportunity to keep the “engine” tuned and in peak shape for as long as we wish to play.
With that in mind, I want to share with you some things very few people think about regarding the big three: nutrition, sleep, and exercise.
Now I’m not about to lecture you on what to eat, how much to exercise, and how long to sleep. Instead, I want to motivate you to think about your own lifestyle and whether it is working to keep you healthy, happy, and playing music at your full potential.
There are some basic principles to the big three, but even the experts will admit that some of what was considered settled science just 10 years ago has been proven wrong–and ten years before that, and ten years before that… Remember the food pyramid? Plus, what works for me won’t necessarily work for you.
This article is to motivate you to just be more aware of your lifestyle. I grew up with two parents in very poor health. My dad contracted polio at 16 and lost the use of his legs, and at mid-life lost functional use of his arms. My mom contracted rheumatoid arthritis at 12, spending her young years in hospitals and the rest of her life in rigid crumpled arthritic pain.
Living with them taught me first hand the life-altering consequences of poor health.
Tens of thousands of years ago, humans roamed their territory searching for food–anything they could find as they competed with faster and stronger animals. Life was hard. Food was scarce. It’s been just the past couple hundred years (just a tiny fraction of our time on Earth) that humans have evolved to the luxury of choosing what tastes good and eating as much of it as they wish – at least in first world countries where I’m assuming you live.
One remanent of that genetic programming is that we are still conditioned to seek out foods that are calorie-dense and highly rewarding (yumm!). In ancient times, consumption of that type of food sustained us during food scarcity, so nature built into us a craving that once we found some, to stuff as much as possible into our pie holes. These are foods that, by eating them, make us want to keep eating more and more and more. And it’s not broccoli that we just can’t stop eating, is it?
The question to ask yourself about the food you buy is, “Am I choosing my food just for taste, just for nutrition, or for some combination?” Take a honest guess at the percentage of taste versus nutrition when you choose the food you eat, over a typical day. Taste versus nutrition is not “either-or” but absent of deliberate decisions over food choices, you can very easily fall into the taste-without-nutrition category. What’s your percentage of taste over nutrition? When did you last eat a Twinkie?
I’m not trying to make you feel guilty. I’m asking you a super important question, the answer to which defines your health and longevity. Are your food choices conscious decisions, and if so, based on what criteria?
I can’t tell you what you should eat. What I eat probably wouldn’t work for you, and vice versa. The difficulty with nutrition is that there isn’t just one best food and eating schedule for everyone. Unlike most every living thing on the planet we are built to be omnivores. I’m simply encouraging you to be deliberate and intelligent over your myriad of food choices (your fuel choices) that you believe will work best long-term to extend your lifespan and healthspan.
Because once those sliding doors open up into your beautiful brightly lit local grocery store, it’s hard not to become hypnotized by the fun colors, familiar brands, and the imagined dopamine rush of all that wonderful bounty. Don’t get hypnotized!
Think about the kind of fuel with which you’re filling your body. Is it high octane jet fuel or watered down kerosene? How well will it work for you long-term? Unfortunately, our bodies have tremendous resistance to bad fuel. It allows us to feel fairly healthy and functional for decades, as we consuming low-quality food. The results often don’t show up until late in life. And by that time, we’ve become set in our ways and are probably unwilling to make material changes in our lifestyle, even if it’s not too late at that point.
Most people have no idea how life-sustaining sleep is. There are all sorts of issues that arise from poor or limited sleep. It’s scary.
I wear an Oura ring. It monitors all activity, but it specializes in sleep monitoring. I want to know how much REM sleep, deep sleep, total sleep I am getting each night along with monitoring my resting heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV). HRV is a useful indication of overall heath and of your ability to recover from the prior day’s activity. The image to the right is a readout of just some of the many data points for one night of my sleep as measured by my Oura ring last night. You can do the same thing with an Apple Watch or Fitbit bracelet. Remember the adage, “You can’t manage that which you don’t measure”?
You don’t need any wearable, however, to simply be more conscious of your sleep habits.
A tiny percentage of the world’s population possess a gene that allows them to remain healthy with only six hours of sleep. I’m not one of them and you probably aren’t either. We need a minimum of eight hours. I used to resist that need as a badge of honor, but after learning more about the health hazards of less than eight hours of sleep, I realized that my attitude toward sleep was bullshit. Now I sleep more.
I’ve never been afflicted with poor sleep, but some of the things to be aware of that can contribute to poor sleep include:
- Food or alcohol just before bed
- Exercising just before bed
- Going to bed stressed
- Lying in bed too long if you cannot fall asleep.
Let’s return to our ancestors of tens of thousands of years ago. They exercised. No, they weren’t spending their mornings huffing on Peloton bikes. They were running from predators and waring tribes, tending to their crops throughout the day, and chasing after the elusive animals that gave them high-value energy from protein. Their lives depended on maintaining strength, speed, and flexibility.
Our bodies are built to move, and do so throughout our entire life. Sitting at a desk or a piano for hours under artificial light is a modern anomaly. From everything I’ve read, our modern sedentary lifestyle is killing us.
Again, the first step is for you to simply be conscious of your daily activity. How much are you moving and exerting? Do you have lots of energy throughout most of the day? If not, it could be from a lack of movement. “Use it or lose it” pertains to your body.
Find ways to put more movement into your life. You can join a health club, but there are tons of things you can do instead of that. Walk or bike to work. Stand and pace in meetings. Walk to lunch. Don’t take the elevator!
Keep a timer that pings you every 60 minutes to get up and walk. The Oura ring I mentioned tells me throughout the day when I need to get up off of my ass.
In fact, it just pinged me ten minutes ago, so I’m taking a break soon to head up my mountain to practice for an hour or so.
A study was done in the UK many years ago that compared the lifespan of two train employees. What they discovered was that the train engineers pretty consistently died earlier than the conductors. Why? Because the conductors spent their careers walking up, down, and around the train while the engineers sat throughout the day while driving the train. It’s not like these conductors were running marathons. It really doesn’t take much to become healthier.
I can’t tell you exactly what you should do regarding food, sleep, and exercise. What I hope you gain from all this is to simply become more conscious of your diet, sleep, and exercise. At least think about what you want your decisions in these areas to be based on. Just thinking about that could give you a whole new perspective. No one ends up at the end of their life wishing they had more fat and less lean muscle mass. Prevent that regret now!
Far too many people go into autopilot when it comes to their health. As they age, they surrender to gravity and taste while they blindly accept their doctor’s bandaid suppression of symptoms.
They do that rather than think about what their body needs from them in order to stay healthy with abundant energy to play jazz well until life’s curtain closes at their ripe old age!
You may be saying, that’s all fine and good dude, but I’m on the road or I’m playing all hours of the night and don’t have the luxury of taking care of myself like you recommend.
Within the next post, I offer some practical guidance for making the best of your health-challenged musician’s lifestyle. So please read on…