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The healthy habits that will make you live longer and better, according to scientific communicator Tamara Pazos

Tamara Pazos (La Coruña, 1992) is biologist with a master’s degree in neuroscience and specialized in dissemination. While researching for his PhD on how to use disclosure to prevent health risks, he came across many things that he did not like because of the way they were being disseminated.

This book will make you live longer (or at least better) (Paidós, 2023) is his proposal. In a clear and casual way it teaches you how to improve habits without obsessing. There are five pillars that will make you live, if not longer, better: circadian rhythms, sleep, attention management, physical activity and nutrition.

The book is also a wake-up call about gamification and addiction to digital environments that promote bad habits. “They know how our attention works much better than we do,” she warns. For Netflix’s CEO, his main competitor is sleep, not other platforms: “We are more profitable awake than asleep,” he said in a Tweet.

There are so many recommendations for habits, diets, exercises… How to get it right?

We must listen to people who, in addition to giving us general guidelines, explain to us that the effect on each person depends on their own health and that, when there is a problem, they recommend that we go to a doctor. If they give you a solution to your illness from the Internet, we should be suspicious.

Always, and especially on social networks, you have to check the information, if they provide bibliographic references… If they don’t, we can ask for them. The people we spread on networks respond to the messages.

Why does taking care of your health involve rowing against the current?

There is increasing evidence of how context affects our decision making. Western culture is very focused on consumption. It usually encourages a sedentary lifestyle, ultra-processed foods and decisions that seek immediate reward.

This creates a brain that thinks more about the now than about long-term health. It is very difficult to ignore all those signs. Depending on where we live, it is more or less difficult to lead a healthy life.

How important are circadian rhythms?

The body works best at certain times of the day for each thing. Intuitively, we already know that eating at night makes us feel worse than during the day. That’s because our body is adapted to a diurnal species biology.

If circadian rhythms are not taken into account, the body clock does not fully mesh and generates stress, generally in the form of inflammation. And, in the long term, the chain of inflammation is very pernicious.

We all know how important sleep is. What to do about heat waves? You in La Coruña will not suffer so much…

The body is best cooled through the face, hands and feet. Almost intuitively we take our hands and feet out of the quilt. Then there are old tricks, like closing the blinds so that the direct sun does not enter through the window.

Ideally the room should be between 18 and 19 degrees. This depends, above all, on financial resources: whether you can afford air conditioning or a fan, whether the house is better or worse insulated… A slightly hot shower before going to sleep helps cool the body.

How does the current pace of life affect our attentional processes?

Much of our work and leisure consumption takes place in digital environments that are designed to capture our attention and give us immediate reward. I click here and it is sent, or it plays a nice little sound because it is like the execution of the task, or I just watched a series and it recommends another one that fits 98% with what I like…

This makes us prioritize immediate pleasure. Am I going to stay and watch another episode that is very pleasant or am I going to go to bed if it’s night, or take a walk if it’s day? Let’s say that these digital environments do not promote health much.

Digital environments know much better than we do how our attention works.

How does the brain select the information that is truly relevant to you?

This is closely associated with how our value system is built. From the moment we are born we acquire a criterion of what is dangerous and safe. There are basic things like fire, blows, scares or love, affection and social validation.

Then, each one, according to their environment, generates a system of priorities and your attention is directed to that. Social networks detect in a second what we like and where our attention goes. Advertising on billboards or on TV works the same, it tries to capture what is relevant to each person.

How to protect ourselves from the bombardment of offers?

There are two ways. One, regulate the digital and social media space that has grown without control. The second, educational. For example, in disseminating the risks of tobacco, it is very effective to explain to people the strategies that tobacco companies used to position their product. It makes the citizen a little empowered and reacts.

Therefore, we must explain how algorithms work and how vulnerable we are when we enter social networks and platforms. They know much better than we do how our attention works. To drive now we need a license, but when the car was invented it was not necessary… well with cell phones the same, we should learn to use them well.

Additionally, the European Union is developing good practice guidelines for algorithm design. They will not be legal when the intention of manipulation is excessive. Something similar has already been done with data protection.

Tamara Pazos tells in her book how to have healthy habits without becoming obsessed.

You compare the benefits of reading with those of meditation…

Reading stimulates empathy and critical thinking. This gives us more freedom of choice. On the other hand, it is an exercise in voluntary control of attention, which is similar to the bases of meditation.

Sometimes our ability to concentrate is so weakened by social media and the daily hustle and bustle that we get frustrated because we get too distracted and have to reread the paragraph. But, every time we get distracted and manage to return to the text, we train our attention.

Meditation instructors emphasize that there is no bad meditation, because the exercise does not consist of not being distracted, but rather of realizing that you have been distracted and returning.

The attention span of many children, and not so children, has decreased greatly. They have a hard time reading and understanding a page.

From the fields of neuroscience applied to education and pedagogy, there is a very critical view of the incorporation of screens into education, especially in children’s courses.

With the euphoria of digitalization, education began to be gamified, to bring the immediacy of platforms to the educational field. Learning through handwriting and physical reading is now being resumed. Mobile applications must be incorporated with great caution.

Reading is an exercise in voluntary control of attention, which is similar to the bases of meditation.

Why is the way we address ourselves important?

When you receive physical or verbal attacks there are parts of the brain that are activated. Your identity is under attack. They are also activated when we speak badly to each other. The worst thing is that many times we do not detect it, but the body perceives it as aggression and generates stress hormones.

If your day has been a disaster, you are stressed and on top of that you talk badly to yourself… You should talk to yourself as you would with a good friend or your partner. The proper thing is not to beat yourself up, but to comfort yourself.

Is it difficult to acquire new habits?

We tend to want to add habits to already complete lives. The day has 24 hours. You have to find the time of day to do it and detect what to replace it with. If we spend five or six hours on social media, we could reduce that time and take a walk.

Do you recommend the walk first thing in the morning?

Yes, if we are lucky enough to be able to give it. That’s why I insist on context, because not everyone can do what you recommend. The priority is to find a time of day when we can walk. The ideal is 45 minutes, but five or ten is always better than nothing.

It is very important to receive natural light during the day. It synthesizes dopamine in the brain that activates us, endorphins and other molecules that help us with motivation and concentration. It also activates vitamin D, essential for the digestive system, the immune system and the absorption of calcium. It is good for cardiovascular health.

What are compensatory behaviors?

This is greatly promoted by applications that count steps or calories. If he tells you that you have to take 10,000 steps and you took 7,000, the compensatory behavior would be not being able to go to sleep without making up the difference.

It is important to understand long-term health and not count everything down to the millimeter. Healthy decisions should be more abundant in our lives, but we must also enjoy, for example, a meal with friends or family because it is emotionally good. We need to find a balance.

Measure ourselves, weigh ourselves, keep a precise inventory of our habits… Is there an obsession with “healthy”?

Our brain is very squared. We like to think we can control health more than we really can, and diet and exercise are easier to control. But you are still patching other aspects in your life that you have no control over.

The social importance of the image also influences. There is a lot fatphobia labeling fat people as worse. I would try to eliminate that moralization of the body, food or habits. It makes us less free. In addition, these behaviors of measuring everything have been related to the appearance of eating disorders.

Healthy decisions should be more abundant in our lives.

To finish, sweet is better in dessert?

It is not advisable to give a lot of sugar to the blood at once on a continuous basis. If we eat sweets on an empty stomach, all the glucose passes into the blood at once. If we eat it in dessert, when the stomach is fuller, the sugar passes more slowly.

But, I insist, what is healthy is a nutritious diet, as well as including other things from time to time, an ice cream, a cake, as something pleasant…

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