(this one is fueled by many conversations with Alexandra Geelan and is dedicated to Sue Geelan1)
I do like my music extreme, but in almost everything else, it seems like the Golden Mean is a principle to live by. To seek balance between competing elements, rather than to rush to the extreme end of any spectrum, is often healthier. Obviously that statement is over-simple: moderation in that as well! But I’d argue that (for example) extremists tend to cause more problems than the ‘luke warm’2 moderates.
The particular context in which Alex and I have been discussing it is (perhaps unsurprisingly) diet and exercise. Extreme diets like Atkins or the various juice ‘cleanses’ and ‘quitting sugar’3 are dangerous – and ineffective in the longer term. They’re not sustainable because they’re extreme: they’re all ‘going on a diet’ rather than ‘changing your diet’. They’ll lead to some quick weight loss initially – which is actually more ascribable to losing water weight and to realignment of gut flora – but in the end people have to go off them (or get sick because they don’t offer balanced nutrition) and they just go back to the diet that got them sick and overweight in the first place.
The whole ‘food as nutrients’ thing plays into this – if food is thought of as a package of quantifiable fats and sugars and carbs and proteins and vitamins and minerals, rather than as… well, food, it just becomes tempting to think that maximising the ‘good’ stuff and minimising the ‘bad’4 is the road to success. But nutrition is a much more complex picture than that – our body builds many of the nutrients it needs, and nutrients interact. Better to think of food as food, and have an interesting, enjoyable, varied diet. Maybe less (or no) red meat, less sugary ‘treats’, less processed stuff and more fresh veg is part of that… but that’s more because our diets tend to be quite unbalanced to begin with than as a medical approach. Sure, some foods can be eaten in larger quantities than others, and you’ll want to keep an eye on the balance and the overall energy intakes and outflows, but cutting out carbs or ODing on protein or whatever is not what is going to work long term. ‘Meal replacement’ approaches5 with shakes or whatever don’t work long term either, for the same reasons – it’s not a sustainable lifelong diet, so you’re likely to end up back on an unhealthy mix rather than a healthy one.
The same applies for exercise: an all-cardio approach for weight loss or an all-weights approach to muscle gain is likely to be less effective than a mix. Part of the reason is similar – it’s likely to get too boring to be sustainable long term. You want to be having fun with an exercise program, not gritting your teeth and doing it because you ‘should’. So going for a walk or bike ride to get somewhere – hopefully somewhere fun, but work will suffice in a pinch! – rather than as ‘exercise’ for its own sake. Play some kind of sport – team, pair, small group or individual – for the fun of it. Lift some weights and mix it up. Take the stairs. Lots of multijoint, large movement exercises that do both resistance and cardio. And so on.
Going on a diet and going to the gym won’t change your life if you go so hard that you can only go for a little while. Going easy but consistent, and having a balance, is just more effective.
Now, I just need to get better at applying this insight to work-life balance…