bad habits

Six bad habits that are surprisingly good for you

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Don’t be a slob. Don’t swear. Don’t fidget and for heaven’s sake, stop complaining. We think of them as bad habits, but according to the latest research, some bad habits are surprisingly good for you. Here’s why.

Being a bit of a slob.

Growing up, my mum used to tell us that we ‘had to eat a peck of dirt before you die,’ usually when we dropped food and she’d just brush off the dirt before handing it back. Gross? Maybe, but Northwestern University research looking at 1500 Filipino children found the more dirt pathogens you’re exposed to early in life, the lower the risk of chronic inflammation later on. Scientists at the University of California also found that the more bacteria you have on your skin, the better you can fight off inflammation.

While it’s important to wash your hands regularly to avoid common cold and flu, being too clean has a downside, too. A 16-year study of more than 13,000 British children linked early exposure to cleaning chemicals with a 41 percent increased risk of developing asthma by age seven. In other words, when it comes to washing yourself, your food and your home, choose natural products to get you clean—but not too clean.

Dozing off mid-day.

What did Leonardo da Vinci, Napolean Bonaparte, Thomas Edison and Winston Churchill have in common? They were enthusiastic, unapologetic nappers. And they may have been on to something. Despite its unfair reputation as a bad habit that disrupts nocturnal sleep patterns,  research from the US National Institutes of Health suggests short power naps during the day increase concentration and alleviate stress.

“If you nap less than 30 minutes, you’ll wake up sharper and reduce mid-afternoon sleepiness,” says renowned Simon Fraser University sleep researcher and happy napper, Professor Ralph Mistlberger. Anything more and you’re likely to suffer longer ‘sleep inertia’, that groggy period between sleep and wakefulness. He recommends a coffee just before your nap. The caffeine takes a half an hour to metabolize, by which time you’ll awake refreshed and ready to explain yourself to the boss.

Swearing.

“#$%@ing toe! Ow! That hurts like a son of #%$@!”

Do you swear like a trucker? It may actually help ease pain. During a study at England’s Keele University, 67 students immersed their hands in freezing water; half repeated a neutral word, the other half swore. The result: The potty-mouthed students reported less pain and endured the frosty water 40 seconds longer.

Those results come as no surprise to McGill University psychology of pain professor, Frances Abbott. “When men first started going into the delivery room, they noticed a woman in pain would scream and swear. But when the husband wasn’t there, she kept quiet but reported more pain.” In other words, women felt free to let it all hang out when they felt safe. Anthropologically, says Abbott, swearing has always been a way of communicating pain levels to those helping you. “Swearing and expressing pain is a good thing. The intensity of the pain might be the same,” she adds, “but you’ll endure it better.”

Fidgeting.

Tap. Tap. Tap. Flick. Tap. Tap.

Rather than throwing a slipper at your fidgeting kid, relax—and try it yourself. You might even lose a few pounds with this bad habit. Studies at the Mayo Clinic on “non-exercise activity thermogenesis,” or calories burned during routine activities found that slim fidgeters used 350 more calories a day and sat for 150 fewer minutes than sedentary obese people.

It’s a finding that doctors at Ottawa’s CHEO Research Institute are using to treat childhood obesity. There, teens are encouraged to learn restless habits, like getting up for frequent study breaks. Eventually, as they become more active, they’ll take on moderate physical activity.

A bit of fidgeting can help adults, too, says former CHEO researcher Dr Rachel Colley. “There are little things like having ‘walking meetings’. Instead of calling someone, walk over to see them. Drink lots of water so you’ll have to go to the bathroom more often. If you’re talking on the phone, get up and pace.” Her parting advice: “Just do things that won’t annoy your neighbours.”

Complaining.

“Good morning, Pooh Bear,” said Eeyore gloomily. “If it is a good morning. Which I doubt.”

Eeyore may be a regular old grumble-bum, but according to science, his negativity isn’t really that unhealthy. In fact, venting about frustration, anxiety and even mild depression are not defects, but part of our brain’s early warning system that we should be attuned to, says Dr Paul Keedwell, a UK mood disorders expert and author of How Sadness Survived: The Evolutionary Basis of Depression. Like a psychological yellow flag, a case of the grumps can indicate bigger issues, such as unacknowledged pain in a relationship or unrealistic expectations in our careers or goals.

Positive thinking is also a great habit—but there is a catch. People who already have high self-esteem feel even better about themselves after repeating positive affirmations, while it just drives those with low self-esteem to further despair, says a University of Waterloo study.

Snacking.

“I don’t believe in cheating,” says diet guru and author, Dr Joey Shulman. “I believe in indulging.”

A diet doctor who indulges? You bet, says the Toronto-based author of Healthy Sin Foods and The Natural Makeover Diet. Having a weekly little indulgence, whether it’s a glass of wine or strawberries dipped in chocolate prevents binge eating when you feel deprived.

The key is to savour your snacking without hiding it, or making it a way of life and therefore a bad habit. “The French are masters at taking a forkful of something and walking away. Their portions are 25 to 45 percent less than ours. They don’t eat pounds of chocolate,” she says, “they have one square and they savour it. But that does take practice.”

Just remember: Avoid sugary treats that leave you wanting more, never snack before bedtime (unless you’re a diabetic) and don’t indulge when you’re feeling emotional. Aside from that? Pas de problème!