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The Healthy Programmer : Making Changes - An Iterative Approach to Health

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Unit-Testing Your Health

You wouldn’t refactor some misbehaving code without running a few unit tests first, and you shouldn’t try to refactor your health without testing, either.

  • Do you lose your breath after climbing a single flight of stairs?

  • Do you regularly sit for more than one hour without getting up?

  • In the last year, have you experienced back, neck, shoulder, or wrist pain that interfered with your ability to do your job?

  • In the last week, have your eyes become dry, red, irritated, or difficult to focus after looking at your computer screen?

  • Have you eaten until you were uncomfortably full more than once in the last month?

  • Have you been exposed to direct sunlight for less than 10 minutes today?

  • Have you noticed an increase in the number of cavities you’ve developed in the last five years?

  • Is it uncomfortable for you to bend over and tie your shoes?

  • Has your pants size increased significantly in the last five years?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, there is a good chance your well-being is in danger—even if you think you’re in pretty good shape. That’s because each of these questions is related to risk factors associated with several diseases and health conditions.

Living longer and feeling better are great reasons to be healthy, but many people are not sufficiently motivated by these factors because they take a long time to pay off.

The Mind-Body Connection

The last decade of science has revealed remarkable insights about the relationship between the brain and other parts of the body. We’ve learned that exercise stimulates the production of proteins that strengthen neurochemical connections in our brain tissue. It also increases the brain’s oxygen and glucose levels, which can improve our cognitive abilities.

Individual laboratory experiments have shown that subjects learn vocabulary words 20 percent faster, memorize strings of letters more accurately, and shift their thinking between two different concepts more rapidly after a single bout of exercise. Other studies have shown that regular exercise can improve problem-solving skills, fluid intelligence, cognitive flexibility, and memory.

The evidence supporting the mind-body connection has become so convincing that it’s actually changing our understanding of how human beings evolved. Anthropologists have found that animal species with higher endurance capacities—such as rats, dogs, and humans—also have larger brain volumes compared to their body sizes. This research, coupled with the evidence that shows exercise promotes the growth of brain tissue, has led to a very recent hypothesis that the human brain “evolved due to selection acting on features unrelated to cognitive performance.” In other words, running after prey may be responsible for our superior brains.

An Iterative Approach to Health

Chad’s moment in Harajuku is an inspiring story, but it’s the least important part of his transformation. The year of dedication and determination that followed his epiphany was far more critical to his health. In that year, he learned what it takes to be successful.

“The magic is having a system,” Chad says. Chad realized that his success hinged on his ability to stick to a schedule and trust in the scientific data that backs it up. He began to view healthy food as medicine that could eventually save his life. “Pretty quickly, it got kind of easy,” he remembers.

Having a system or a process is crucial to getting things done. In software, we often use an agile method to guide our development efforts. Agile processes are characterized by an iterative and incremental approach to development, which allows us to adapt to changing requirements. The method you use to stay healthy shouldn’t be any different.

We’ll start with two-week intervals, but like with any agile method, you’ll be allowed to change that as needed. At the end of each iteration you’ll do a retrospective to assess your progress..

images/iphone-app-goals.png

Figure 2. Goals on the companion iPhone app

To achieve these goals you’ll need some kind of structure within your iterations. For that, we’ll use a checklist of action items that you’ll be asked to carry out every day (see Figure 3, Checklist of daily action items).

images/checklist1.png

Figure 3. Checklist of daily action items

Let’s begin with the first one: the Healthy Stand-Up. Every morning, just as with Scrum or some agile process, you’ll have a quick planning meeting with yourself (or with some friends if you can). During this stand-up meeting, you’ll ask yourself three questions:

  • What did I do yesterday to improve my health?

  • What will I do today to improve my health?

  • Is there anything blocking me from staying healthy?


The following figure shows the big picture. You can think of the outer loop being driven by goals and the inner loop being driven by the daily checklist.

images/iteration.png

Figure 4. The iterative model for health

As you continue reading, you’ll be asked to try new activities and learn new techniques. But more importantly, you’ll be asked to break bad habits. Habits are tough to change, but by understanding how the brain works you can make intelligent decisions that will help you overcome them more easily. Chad sums up his transformation as a process of creating new patterns, and the latest science is beginning to explain why he’s right.

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