Off-the-wall ways to stay healthy

By Charlie Williams
Published September 9, 2020

Key Takeaways

The human body is magnificent and mysterious—so much so that after thousands of years of scientific experimentation, we’re finding ways to improve it.

Most health-improvement strategies are well-known. Ditch the bad habits, like smoking and overeating, and develop the good ones, like exercising and consuming more healthful foods. But some methods challenge our assumptions about health. Others are downright weird.

Here are some of the weirdest ways to improve your mental or physical health.

Exercise less

If you exercise, even occasionally, there may be a more effective way to burn fat and build muscle: high-intensity interval training (HIIT). People who use HIIT max out their physical exertion in short spurts instead of slowly burning energy over time. For example, rather than jogging a few miles at 60% effort, a HIIT session might involve several hill sprints at 95% effort. The big idea, which is backed by scientific research, is to get better results in a shorter amount of time—hence, exercising less. In a systematic review and meta-analysis that included seven randomized trials, researchers found that HIIT was more effective than moderate-intensity continuous training (MICT) at improving brachial artery vascular function, cardiorespiratory fitness, traditional cardiovascular disease risk factors, oxidative stress, inflammation, and insulin sensitivity.

Drink coffee for better naps

Sleep and coffee don’t mix, right? Not necessarily. Mixing coffee and sleep simply requires timing. Time them right, and you can improve your reaction time and memory. In a small study conducted in Japan, 10 adults took naps under several conditions. Taking 200 mg of caffeine—the equivalent of about 2 cups of coffee—prior to a 20-minute nap was found to be the most effective strategy for reducing sleepiness and improving performance on computer tests 1 hour after napping.

So how does this work? Experts think it’s because the caffeine kicks in just as you wake, maximizing alertness. Results from the Japanese study have been replicated in several additional studies, showing improvements in outcomes for commercial vehicle drivers, during the day and at night.

Take handwritten notes

To the disappointment of Luddites, manual writing tools like pens and pencils have been conceding ground to the keyboard for decades. Still, their utility stands the test of time, according to scientific research. When it comes to note-taking, studies have shown that students who use pens, pencils, and a notepad perform better on conceptual questions than students who take notes on laptops. The reasons? First, laptops are wellsprings of distraction and increase the likelihood of multitasking. Secondly, taking notes on a laptop results in shallower mental processing because students are more likely to transcribe lectures verbatim rather than processing information and reframing it in ways helpful to their personal understanding.

Tap into the Earth’s electromagnetic field

Despite its marvels, modern living often takes a toll on our health, from pollution, to climate change, to processed foods. Now, mounting evidence suggests we can add physical detachment from the Earth to that list. If that sounds weird, allow the science to clarify. Emerging research suggests that direct physical contact with the ground generates a kind of electric nutrition, with surprisingly potent and rapid anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. However, shoes and floors often come between us and the ground. A new interest in this developing scientific hypothesis is called “grounding” or “earthing.” According to one study, a young body of research has demonstrated its potential to be a simple, natural, and widely-accessible clinical strategy against noncommunicable, degenerative, and inflammatory-related diseases.

Close the toilet seat

It’s more than the polite thing to do—it can help avoid some seriously nasty consequences. Closing the toilet seat before you flush prevents the release of “toilet plume,” aerosols produced by flush toilets that waft into your bathroom and end up just about anywhere, from your soap dish to your toothbrush. In a review published in the American Journal of Infection Control, researchers found that potentially infectious aerosols may be produced in substantial quantities during flushing. This can continue through multiple flushes, meaning you’re not the only one at risk—flushing with the lid open can expose people who use the bathroom after you, too. To make matters worse, leaving the bathroom door open afterward means these aerosols are free to travel on air currents into other rooms. Scientists need to conduct additional studies to determine exactly how dangerous toilet plume can be, but in the meantime, it can’t hurt to drop the lid before flushing.

From rejected to accepted

Earthing and coffee-before-naps may not catch on with physicians at large, but who knows? Plenty of medical treatments—from handwashing to cancer immunotherapy and balloon angioplasty to the intraocular lens—took a long time before they were widely adopted. So, “HIIT” the gym and close the toilet seat, and you can say you were at the forefront of these new health advances.

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