Health Books, The Perfect Christmas Gift!

Christmas is only a couple of weeks away so you may be feeling mild panic setting in as you think of all those presents still to buy. But do not stress! I’ve selected four amazing books that will make the perfect gift for somebody in your life this Christmas, or maybe this is an ideal opportunity to treat yourself to a new book or two. I’ve selected a range of different books written by highly knowledgeable authors that approach the topic of health in their own unique way.

In The Praise of Walking – Shane O’Mara

Now bare with me on this book – I’m sure you’re thinking “I already know walking is good for health” – but the beauty of this highly readable book is that it’s written by the neuroscientist Prof Shane O’Mara who offers an accessible insight as to why walking is good for us, not only in the physical sense (good for posture, muscle tone, organ repair and slowing brain ageing) but also how with our minds in motion we can think more creatively, our mood improves and our stress levels reduce. And all his observations are backed up with scientific evidence,

Okay, I confess that I’m a neuroscientist myself so I was always going to connect with this book but what I liked about this read is the well-presented scientific explanations. Prof. O’Mara has a very wise style of writing with a humorous, practical and intelligent analysis of the physical and mental health benefits of walking. For example, there’s a chapter on the mechanics of walking – not very interesting you might initially think – I walk every day so know what I’m doing! But Prof. O’Mara’s discussion around the rhythm of walking alongside the involvement of the eyes (optic flow) and inner ears and how this connects to the part of the nervous system that reduces stress is fascinating. There are also practical tips like using walking apps and which environments are best to walk in (though being outdoors whether you’re in a city or the countryside is the overall recommendation) and a whole chapter devoted to how to open up your creative brain when walking.

I would say that this book is focussed very much on the neuroscience/ cognitive side of walking and its benefits so if you hoping for a celebration of walking based on sociology, social psychology or cultural history then other walking books will be more for you. Some other reviews state that if you’re after what type of walking gear to buy then best consult with your local outdoor centre but this book was never meant to be a ramblers guide – more understanding the power of walking and using it to your health advantage.

It is a wordy book with no pictures or imagery, which would maybe have helped with some of the scientific explanations, but it’s not a long book and one I found an easy read as it was so well written.

Hippocrates famously claimed that “walking is the best medicine” yet in our modern world most of us spend all day indoors sitting down to potentially disastrous health consequences.  As Prof. O’Hara says “although walking arises from our deep evolutionary past, it is our future too; for walking will do you all the good that you now know it does”.

So get motivated by this book, get out there walking around the shops for Christmas presents instead of shopping online – your bodies and minds will thank you for it!

The Body – Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson does it again! Though this time he delivers extraordinary stories about the human body in his own inimitable style. Throughout this fascinating book, Bryson wades through myriad facts of the human body taken from his research of scores of interviews with physicians and biologists, scientific papers and library books and brings us such facts as:

The more exercise we do the more our bones produce a hormone that boosts mood, fertility and memory – staving off frailty, depression and dementia.
A study of 60 people’s belly buttons found 2,368 species of bacteria, 1,458 of them “unknown to science”.

Many more of which could be read around the Christmas table or tree this year with great amusement!

Okay, so Bryson’s style is to run many jokes along with the factoids but the book is easily accessible to everyone with an interest in the human body and holds enough science to keep even those with already ample knowledge of human health engaged. He also tackles the subject of human life expectancy and a very interesting section on the first 1000 days of life from conception and how this relates to crucial future health outcomes – stress in the early childhood and in the womb makes you an unhealthier and more miserable adult Bryson concludes from the all the research.

What I like about this book is it’s not just facts. Towards the final few chapters, Bryson actually gets quite angry, which makes the book even more interesting. He points out that rich Americans die younger than average-income Europeans because of diet and the hyper-expensive American healthcare system. Diet is widely discussed, as are country and government attitudes to health and healthcare systems pointing out that UK government austerity between 2010 and 2017 lead to around 120,000 preventable early deaths.

“You are a walking, talking catalogue of wonders. And how do we celebrate the glory of our existence?” Bryson asks. “Well, for most of us by exercising minimally and eating maximally.” For all Bryson’s encyclopaedic reading, his brain-picking sessions with medicine’s finest minds, the ultimate conclusions of his book could stand as a prescription for life: eat a little bit less, move a little bit more.

Indistractable – Nir Eyal

This is probably my favourite read of the four books under review and from a very interesting author: Nir Eyal has previously written a book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” – a bible for technology designers intent on hacking human psychology to increase engagements with their products. Now, five years on Eyal has returned (poacher turned gamekeeper) and written a self-help book for technology users and how to regulate and adapt our focus and attention and become “indistractable” in a world that is continually angling for our attention.

This book has two aims – one is the tips and techniques to resist distraction including managing technology input such as simply disabling device notifications; scheduling your life through the art of prioritising and managing your calendar ensuring “you time” is scheduled alongside other work commitments. Many of these practical tips have been written about before but compiling them all in one book can be useful so you can choose which ones to start with and build up an “indistractable prescription” over the weeks and months.

The other aim of the book is to persuade you why being “indistractable” is of benefit to your health and future. Eyal discusses that distraction is “any action we take that’s misaligned with our broader intentions”. Human behaviour, Eyal postulates, is motivated by the desire to minimise discomfort, the root cause of distraction, therefore, lies within us and not our external environment like technology – we use technology to distract ourselves rather than dealing with the root cause.

So whilst this book provides insight into managing daily distractions to maximise our health, focus, performance and desired results, it also presents (albeit via the author’s interpretations rather than grounded in referenced science) a really interesting and engaging insight into managing our minds at a deeper level.

The book also covers areas such as improving family life and relationships through resitting and managing distraction with content such as:

  • Why your relationships depend on you becoming indistractable  

  • How to raise indistractable children in an increasingly distracting world 

Maybe a timely reminder and help for us all over the festive period 😉

Invisible Women – Caroline Criado Perez

Caroline Criado Perez is a writer, broadcaster and award-winning feminist campaigner who was instrumental on getting a woman on the Bank of England banknotes and successfully campaigned for a statue of the suffragist Millicent Fawcett to be erected in Parliament Square.

Her book “Invisible Women” is peppered with startling facts of gender equality such as:

  • 71% of women wear protective work clothing that isn’t designed for women’s bodies
  • British men enjoy 5h more leisure time per week than women
  • The average smartphone is 5.5 inches: too big for the average women’s hand
  • British women are 53% more stressed than their counterparts at work (often due to lesser pay and/or greater responsibilities within the family)

All of these facts have implications for women’s health – and that’s before I even start reviewing the section where medical trials and medicinal dosing is all set up around the male body with the majority of medicines still not tested in women despite them being widely recommended throughout the population.

A wide range of inequalities are covered from the medical world to infrastructure (lack of street lights in many populated areas of the world present a high safety risk for women; lack of child care facilities in many work places present a dilemma for a far greater percentage of women wanting to continue their careers compared to men).

In short, Perez argues that there are so many factors that make a person less visible in society – race, poverty, and disability but also when so much of the world we currently live in is designed around the physically average white man. Perez is quick to point out that change to areas such as medicines, infrastructure and workplace facilities are key but in the end, women are the majority and creating an equal world means people have to change in the area of mindset, attitude and behaviours.

I believe that despite many of these issues being raised before Perez does so in a way that provides revelatory content – it’s one of those sit up and think kind of books and not just because I’m a scientist that has been involved in mapping clinical trials. Invisible Women takes on the neglected topic of what we don’t know – the powerful and eye-opening analysis of the gender politics where the world is still mostly designed by men for men; from medicinal dosing to government policy. This has wide-reaching implications and is a game changer in the health world. It really should be required reading for policy and decision makers everywhere along with anyone who is interested in why medical science does such as disservice to half of the population!

Well, I hope that I’ve inspired some last minute Christmas presents or some reading that means you can take some time out of the hectic festive season to sit and enjoy a new angle on health.

That leaves me to wish you all a very happy and healthy festive season.

Elisabeth

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