Commuting to Happiness

That 10-minute walk to work each morning may be my favorite part of the day. Not because I don’t enjoy time with my family, but, as recent research supports, it may be one of the most important factors in my quality of life. Although 1 out of 4 members of the workforce say that their job is the single greatest stressor in their lives and nearly half say workplace stress is so high that it affects their overall health and well-being, there may be a component of work even more miserable than the work itself: commuting. According to Harvard researchers, how you get to work may have an even greater influence on your stress levels than what you do when you get there. And the longer their commute takes, the less satisfied individuals may be with their life in general.

The statistics are astounding. Based upon data collected from the U.S. Census Bureau, over 25 million American adults spend more than 90 minutes each day getting to and from their jobs. Nearly 750,000 are spending more than 1/8th of their day (3 hours) sitting on the freeway en route to a place where they don’t even want to be. Two recent surveys paint an even bleaker picture. When Ford Motor Company surveyed its staff, their employees ranked their work commute as the least enjoyable part of their day and more stressful than moving into a new house or visiting their dentist. In another survey, a very direct correlation between work commute length and life satisfaction was found, and participants with the longest work commutes admitted that they were less productive once they got to work. Another study found that in marriages where at least one spouse has a longer (over 45 minute) commute, there is a 40% increase in their chance of divorce.

So, I’m sure you get it: work commuting is bad. Bad for your stress levels and bad for your health. The more time you spend slowly creeping your way to work in a 3,000 lbs. aluminum box, the less you enjoy life. The unfortunate reality is that much of the workforce isn’t in a position to magically make the most miserable time of their day just disappear. Housing in the most bustling areas for business  come at a high cost, and in this day and age it’s a lot easier to job hop then it is to house hop. But, you don’t have to let your morning commute be a dreadful experience. Turning the journey from your bed to your desk into the best part of your day is a few minor steps away.

Find alternatives

Many years ago, while residing in downtown Houston, I decided that I had to reevaluate my commute to improve my quality of life. Those 45 minutes every morning I spent making the 7-mile commute to work resulted in bad moods and losses in productivity, so I decided to make a significant lifestyle change: I parked my car in my garage . . . permanently. As one study showed, some people actually enjoy their commute to work, and those people are cyclists. The benefits of alternate forms of commuting go well beyond saving money on fuel and vehicle maintenance, a little exercise before work can directly improve your mood and work performance, and in many highly congested areas (such as in downtown Houston), cycling may actually decrease commuting time. Utilizing public transportation has been shown to have similar influences on mood and work performance. One study found that people who eschew cars for the friendly confines of a train are happier in general, as it offers far more opportunity for social interaction and the possibility of safely handling other tasks on the journey to the office.

Mindset 

There’s that word again. Whether you’re stuck on I-5 in your car or happily cycling your way to work, commuting is an opportunity to consciously improve your mood and transition from the personal to the professional. Whether that is hitting the volume button several times and singing unaccompanied at the top of your lungs to your favorite guilty pleasure song or tuning into your favorite presentation about developing a growth mindset, there are a number of simple ways to turn the doldrums of commuting into happy personal development time. In our busy lives, how much time do we actually have with our own thoughts? Don’t waste that opportunity by being grumpy.

Reduce it.

If all else fails, proactively look for ways to reduce commuting. 24% of workers in the United States now telecommute (work from home) at least part of the time, and this number is rapidly increasing as data confirms that those who work from home are generally happier and more productive. Approach your employer about whether this is an option for you. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job-hopping has more than doubled in the last two decades and is even more common if you are in the technology or media industries. And it isn’t just millennials; the trend of not staying put with one employer is seen across all generations. If you’re looking for greener work pastures, why not make commuting one of the priorities when examining possible options? On the flip side, looking for a new home for your growing family? Do you want a spare bedroom for guests and a bigger yard or a more manageable commute? The research suggests that prioritizing your commute is significantly more likely to increase your happiness.

People generally look at work commuting as a necessary evil, but it doesn’t have to be, and commuting may not even be necessary. For your health and happiness, and that of those around you, make conscious efforts to alter, reduce, or simply change your mindset about commuting.

Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.

How to Avoid Decision Fatigue

Don’t let menial decisions effect your ability to make important ones.

There is more to minimalism than hipsters in tiny houses. While it can be cathartic to rid your life of superfluous worldly possessions, there is a real beauty and practical value in simplicity that extends well beyond the scope of not owning more “stuff” than you truly need. Cognitive minimalism has its benefits too. In examining the phenomenon of “decision fatigue,” scientists are beginning to discover that cerebral simplicity may be essential in getting the most out of those decision-making engines bouncing around within our skulls.

We’ve all experienced it: feeling intellectually spent. I spend my work days mulling over mountains of complex science, trying my best to make sense of the latest health, exercise, and nutrition research. After eight hours, I am mentally drained, to the point where choosing what to wear the following day seems like a herculean task. If my wife walks through the door and nonchalantly asks if I could prepare dinner for the kids, it’s almost as if she just asked me to solve the Hodge conjecture. That’s because intense focusing and repeated decision-making stresses our “executive function” capabilities. Executive function is the set of skills that allows you to make decisions, focus on complex tasks, plan and organize, remember details; basically, it’s your ability to get things done. These processes are controlled by the frontal lobe, the same part of the brain that regulates voluntary movement. It’s no coincidence that after a period of intense mental focus, you often feel physically fatigued; your frontal lobe can only handle so much.

The human mind is not without limits. Like a muscle, brain function decreases when its energy has been depleted. Although your brain (and your biceps) can be trained to produce more power and to be more energy efficient, there are strict boundaries on executive function capacity. We’d all like to believe that we are only using 10% of our brain (that, by the way, is a myth), but in actuality, we only have so much cognitive horsepower and we are not working with a bottomless fuel tank. When one executive function task requires a significant amount of your brain’s computing power, that fuel tank isn’t magically topped off when the next complex decision needs to be made. And the latest research is beginning to show that it isn’t just particularly strenuous cognitive tasks that tax our mental bank accounts. Whether you just finished taking the GRE or deciding which flavor of protein powder to put in your oatmeal, every decision you make depletes your executive function aptitude stores. Other studies have shown that when people are suffering from decision fatigue, they often resort to more basic thought processes and are more apt to make decisions they would later regret. Theoretically, this is due to what is referred to as tradeoff resolution. The process of consciously examining different options, committing to one, and then implementing it is cognitively draining.

Life is all about decisions. We can’t go about our day refusing to make menial decisions in order to save that precious and limited executive functioning energy for the big ones, but there are two simple concepts we can all use to maximize cognitive efficiency and reduce decision fatigue.

Automate

We’ve probably all heard stories about successful people unfailingly eating the same thing for breakfast or even wearing the same clothing for years at a time. Along with his tenacious approach to branding and marketing wizardry, Steve Jobs became well known for the black turtleneck, blue jeans and New Balance® sneakers that he wore literally every day. Albert Einstein once said that he was probed more about his one gray suit than he was about general relativity. Automating those mundane daily tasks that aren’t that important, leaves more in the frontal lobe fuel tank for those decisions that are. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it; and by “fix it”, I mean change it. If a particular brand and cut of jeans looks good on you, there is nothing wrong with buying several pairs. Find a consistent meal plan so that going to the grocery store and deciding what’s for dinner doesn’t turn into a daily brain-drain. Don’t use that finite amount of executive function capacity deciding when to fit in your workout, schedule a set time to exercise daily and put it in your calendar. Get into consistent morning and bedtime routines so that each action becomes habit. If you think about it (but not too much), you could probably automate half of the mundane decisions you make on a daily basis. Variety is the spice of life, but spice can be (mentally) exhausting.

Multitasking is no-tasking

Your boss (and your spouse) isn’t going to like this one, but research has actually shown that multitasking is counterproductive. This isn’t some new theory, studies older than your parents have revealed that doing more than one task at a time places considerable demands on cognitive resources and results in decreased execution of each isolated task. Multitasking is actually a misnomer because how the brain handles several tasks at one time…well, it doesn’t really handle them. Your brain is actually repeatedly toggling between tasks and simultaneous processing never really occurs. Every additional task further interrupts neural processing, resulting in disrupted information encoding, storage, and making future retrieval of said information that much more difficult. If the competing tasks involve the same sensory modalities, ability to complete either one is further diluted. Attempting more than one task at a time is driving around an icy information racetrack on ragged tires, then blowing a hole in that executive function tank. The quickest way to walk that decision fatigue line is to attempt several attention-dependent tasks at one time. Focus on activities one at a time, complete one with all eight neural cylinders firing, and move onto the next.

We all make hundreds, even thousands, of decisions each day, all with varying degrees of significance and quantifiable mental capacity cost. Don’t let a surfeit of breakfast options effect your ability to make other, more important decisions. Avoid decision fatigue by automating and focusing on one task at a time.

Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.

No. Mo’. Phobia.

Modern “friendship.”

I’m that guy, the one who still has a flip phone and who has to get tips from his five-year-old about how to effectively use my Twitter account. The first time I used the internet, as a college freshman, I couldn’t help but think, “Yeah, this ain’t gonna last.” Technophobe, luddite, whatever you want to call me, technology and this faux world created by social media confuses me—even scares me a little. And there is no denying it, my lack of technology acumen has been a shortcoming in my career and has hindered social interactive experiences on many occasions. But, research is showing that this constant, no-boundaries, digital age connection can have its downsides too. Nomophobia, being without one’s smartphone, is one of the fastest growing anxiety disorders and can cause legitimate, real-life, health issues.

The statistics are dumbfounding . . . but considering you are likely reading this from your phone, maybe not so much. According to the Pew Research Center, the average smartphone user checks their phone over 150 times a day and most do not go a single waking hour without connecting. We take our phones almost every time we need to use the restroom and never go to bed without it in reach. Nearly 1/3 of adults admit to checking their phones while eating with others at a restaurant, and worse: while they are driving. Our psychological need to remain connected is so extreme that 73% of adults state that misplacing their phone is one the most panic-inducing events they can think of, causing more stress than rush hour traffic or even a sick child. This digital addiction has even spawned a new industry of smartwatches, so you can inconspicuously check your email or receive texts while still appearing to be focusing your attention on the colleagues you are meeting with or the movie you paid $15 to watch.

The time we spend connected and in front of a screen has, no doubt, changed how we interact, how we read, and our ability to comprehend. As someone who has extreme difficulty recognizing and understanding nonliteral and nonverbal communication cues due to a diagnosed neurological condition, this is actually quite amusing. Texting, instant messaging, tweeting: modern communication is essentially fostering the development of Autism Spectrum Disorder characteristics in neurotypical people. Google provides all the collective wisdom of mankind at our fingertips, available with a few mouse clicks, but has done a number on our attention spans and ability to focus. I know very well that if the paragraphs of this blog are too text heavy or if I don’t include any infographics, the chances of you reading it drop dramatically. Among the sites which I am a regular contributor to, our metrics show that video logs often receive ten times the views as do our written content, and I am often asked to explain highly complex scientific topics in under 200 words because the audience often will refuse to read an entire piece if they have to scroll down. Thanks to the phenomenon of “transactive memory,” in which we do not properly encode and store memories because we know that information is readily accessible through other means, research has shown that our short and long-term memories are suffering. Thanks again, Google. And, for those of us who have had the opportunity to sort through job resumes of late, “Twitter language” is a real thing and is an issue resulting in universities having to expand remedial writing courses.

This condition is actually resulting in quantifiable negative health outcomes. According to a 2014 study, hunching over to use your smart device can add up to 50 pounds of pressure on your spine and is resulting in a dramatic increase in the number of young people suffering from chronic back problems. Constant use of technological devices is one of the greatest risk factors for Occipital Neuralgia, a condition in which the nerves that run from the top of the spinal cord up through the scalp become perpetually compressed or inflamed, causing intense pain in the back of the head and neck. Recent polls suggest that nearly 2/3 of adults are now falling asleep with their phone or other device in their bed, a habit which research has shown can dramatically increase sleep deficiency. Very similar to carpal tunnel, “text claw” is the latest condition making many orthopedic surgeons wealthy. Constant use of phones can cause unavoidable cramping, tendon inflammation, and numbness and tingling in the elbow and fingers, which there currently is little treatment for. Maybe scariest of all, your constant connectivity may be curtailing your weight management efforts. One recent study found that those who spend at least five hours per day using their phones were much less likely to engage in regular exercise, had less aerobic endurance, and were heavier than their peers. And the effects were directly proportional to the time spent connected: each additional text or tweet reliably predicted a further decreased level of fitness.

Get rid of the phobia, redevelop an appreciation for the amazing capability of these pocket-sized technological marvels, and improve your health in three easy steps:

  1. Put down the phone and pick up a dumbbell.

Commit to putting the phone away for some part of the day, every day. Use this time to sneak in a workout. For further clarification; no, you don’t need YouTube to get a good workout, and the workout still counts even if you didn’t post pics, so leave the phone in the car or at home. Setting aside a specific daily time to unplug and sweat not only kills two birds with one stone, but also can help you structure the rest of your day. Try setting the tone for the day by doing it first thing in the morning, subconsciously telling yourself that exercise takes precedence over your email.

  1. Sleep alone.

Sleep is one of the most undervalued aspects of health. Research has associated sleep deprivation with everything from developing heart disease to increased cravings for junk food. Not only does heading to bed with our face in a screen keep our mind racing, making it that much more difficult to transition from the state of being awake to the non-rapid-eye-movement phases of sleep, but our smart devices emit “blue light.” When we are exposed at night to this artificial light, it is erroneously detected as sunlight by our brains, causing a decrease in melatonin secretion. Melatonin is the hormone that helps regulate our circadian rhythm and provides our sleeping cues. By making interaction with your phone part of your bedtime routine, you are sending a direct signal to your brain that it is time to wake up. Leave it downstairs or physically lock it up in your night stand an hour before you are ready to hit the sheets and sleep your way to better health.

  1. Intermittent fasting.

It’s the new thing. My social media feeds are filled with statements from e-friends declaring that they are challenging themselves to refrain from social media usage for a day or even a week. It’s ironic that their eventual return to the digital world is broadcasted with statements that their “fast” allowed them to focus more time on their loved ones, get more exercise, and get several things checked off the “honey-do list.” Take it a step further and totally unplug. An hour, a day, even a week—you’ll survive, those emails won’t disappear, and you’ll likely reenter the real world with a new perspective. For your well-being and the health of your relationships, make it a regular habit to consciously disconnect for longer periods of time and focus on the tangible components of your life.

Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.

A Banana a Day, Keeps the Belt Loops at Bay

Bananas are rich in inulin and resistant starch, which has prebiotic effects.

Scientists may have found a novel way to address childhood obesity: through the gut. Obviously. No really, a recently published study suggests that prebiotics, those nondigestible carbohydrates often confused for probiotics, may be one of the keys to fostering losses in body weight and body fat in overweight children.

Researchers from the University of Calgary recruited 42 children aged 7 to 12 who were classified as obese to participate in a double-blind placebo-controlled trial involving the effects of prebiotic fiber on various metrics of health. The participants were randomly assigned to the control group, which was provided a maltodextrin placebo, or the trial group, which was given oligofructose-enriched inulin, a common prebiotic combination of two substances found naturally in many conventional foods, such as bananas and garlic. The supplements consisted of a powdered fiber that participants were asked to mix with water and take once daily. Otherwise, participants were asked to maintain their normal food and physical activity routines over 16 weeks. At the beginning of the trial, and every four weeks thereafter, various health metrics were collected, including fat and lean muscle mass measured using dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry. At the conclusion of the trial, children in the control group saw an average 0.5% increase in bodyweight and 0.05% increase in fat mass, while the trial group experienced nearly 3% decreases in both weight and body fat. The trial group also experienced significant improvements in blood glucose regulation and serum cholesterol levels. Furthermore, the trial group showed distinct and statistically significant alterations in gut microbiota population compared to the placebo group. Although the study was focused on preadolescent children, researchers found no reason why the findings would not be generalizable across all age groups.

This latest finding isn’t surprising when evaluated in context with the rest of the recent research evaluating the influence of gut bacterial population on obesity. Metagenomic and metabolomic studies have shown that a strong population of healthy microbiota in the gut, due to a diet focused on whole unprocessed and high fiber foods, may help modulate energy balance from both sides of the equation: by more effectively converting food into energy and increasing energy expenditure through increased fatty acid oxidation. It is also believed that gut bacteria may influence the chronic inflammatory state of obesity by regulating the level of endotoxins in our blood. Other studies have provided further evidence that gut microbiota is a cause and not a consequence of obesity or altered dietary habits. In one animal study, researchers actually transplanted the caecal microbiota from lean and obese mice into the gut of germ-free mice and found that the mice hosting the “obese microbiota” showed several markers of decreased metabolic efficiency and ultimately gained weight while the animals with the “lean microbiota” actually lost weight despite the exact same caloric intake and physical activity regimen. In human studies, researchers have found that a lack of gut bacterial diversity was highly associated with obesity, including one study that examined twins. While the unfortunate truth is that the composition of our gut microbiota is highly genetic, numerous human trials have shown that healthy whole food diets and probiotic and prebiotic supplementation can positively influence gut bacterial colonization. Possibly even more interesting, maternal and paternal diets have been shown to influence the gut microbiota of their unborn children. Even more reason for parents to eat healthy and include plenty of fiber and fermented foods in their diet.

There is no doubt about it, prebiotics can be beneficial to health and weight management, especially in children. But as usual, the primary takeaway from this latest research is the importance of a whole food diet. While supplementation is always a great alternative, the best sources of fat-fighting prebiotics are densely fibrous foods, such as leafy greens, asparagus, onions, and bananas. For the size and composition of your gut, and that of your growing children, stick to the periphery of the grocery store on your next shopping trip.

Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.

 

Prebiotic vs. Probiotic Intake

Artichokes are high in prebiotic plant fiber.

If you aren’t adding copious amounts of raw garlic to every entree or topping your scrambled eggs with kimchi, you are behind the times. Research into the gut microbiome, that complex system of bacteria and microbes that resides within our stomach, is beginning to make it even clearer how important our diets are to our health. While probiotics have gotten most of the publicity—and GNC® shelf space—we are discovering that prebiotics may be just as important. In fact, recently published research has provided some intriguing evidence that prebiotics may be the secret to emotional health, improved sleep, and stress resiliency.

Although often used interchangeably and working synergistically in the gut, probiotics and prebiotics are vastly different things. Probiotics are the healthy bacteria that have everyone rushing to stock up on Greek yogurt and experiment with new fermented foods. Dense and active probiotic populations have been linked to digestive health, improved hormone regulation, and decreased risk for various chronic health conditions. Prebiotics are non-digestible carbohydrates, basically a classification of fiber, that are the nutritional sustenance for the lactobacilli and bifidobacteria in your digestive tract. Garlic, asparagus, onions, artichokes and other whole, roughage-dense foods are full of those oligosaccharides that your gut bacteria feeds off of to induce its health-benefitting magic. Recent research suggests that prebiotic intake is closely associated with healthy inflammatory response, dietary bioavailability (allowing our bodies to get the most nutrition out of the food we eat), and possibly even weight management.

Previous research displayed that prebiotics can influence brain function and hormone regulation, but new evidence may make you want to ask for extra onions on that burger in the name of emotional health. In the latest study, researchers found that intake of a specific prebiotic, galacto-oligosaccharide (GOS), which is found in high concentrations in many legumes, not only decreased secretion of the stress hormone cortisol, but also improved several metrics of emotional processing. Compared to participants who were asked to supplement with a maltodextrin placebo, the research group taking 5.5 g of GOS each morning with their breakfast exhibited less of an effect from negative criticism and focused more on positive words. The data was so significant that researchers suggested that the anti-anxiolytic effect of prebiotic supplementation was comparable to many current antidepressant medications. A warm bowl of lentil soup may be the perfect antidote for another work day spent in cubicle torment.

Another group of researchers examined the influence of prebiotic supplementation on sleep and stress. What they found was that consumption of lactoferrin (LF) and milk fat globule membrane (MFGM), prebiotic substances found in high concentrations in human milk and in lower levels in cow’s milk, promoted increased time spent in non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep, the first four phases of sleep that focus on physiological and neurological restoration. Furthermore, they found that LF and MFGM supplementation following an exposure to a stressor resulted in longer rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, the final stage of sleep that is believed to be critical for sorting memory and recovering from trauma. Overall, consumption of LF and MFGM was highly associated with sleep quality, resilience to stress, and gut health. So, there may be a little more to that glass of milk before bedtime than calcium and vitamin D.

It’s amazing how the further we dig into nutritional science, the more we discover how closely linked our well-being is to the quality of fuel we provide our bodies. As science continues to reveal, a healthy gut microbiome can influence virtually every component of health. And it isn’t necessary that we feed those hungry bacteria with supplements, a diet of whole, fiber-rich foods will do the trick. Sleep the day’s stress away by adding a handful of leeks to your homemade bone broth soup, throwing some asparagus on the grill for dinner, and washing it down with a cold glass of milk.

Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.