Virtual reality meditation is my top health discovery of 2021
December 31, 2021 - I decided to write up my top discoveries of 2021 when it comes to personal health. There are quite of few of them! But I'd say virtual reality meditation is #1 this year.
Morning rocket launcher
I’ve never been an early morning exerciser. But I realized this year that a fast-paced 10-minute run first thing in the a.m. helps wake me up, and I can amplify this effect by combining running with other activities that spike the brain’s opioids and other feel-good chemicals. I listen to music during the jog, take in early morning sunlight and, back at the house, discuss the latest discoveries of dinosaur fossils with my six-year-old. Last but not least, I down some cold brew. Having high energy in the morning no longer seems impossible—in fact, I learned to mix pleasurable stimuli in Steven Kotler’s most recent book, The Art of the Impossible. As people like Stanford’s Andrew Huberman have pointed out, though, do these combos no more often than a few mornings per week, or the brain will habituate.
Good morning, sun
Speaking of which, on the days when I skip my morning dopamine blowout, I’ve started taking 20-minute walks for the main purpose of getting early morning sunlight. (Good news: you don't need to actually look at the sun / burn a hole in your cornea for this to help. Just seeing natural daylight through a thick cloudy cover has a much greater effect than indoor lighting.) It’s essential for waking up right and getting a good night’s sleep. Our ancestors evolved to set their circadian clocks with the rise and fall of the sun. Yet, over the past ten years, I could probably count on my hands the number of days I’ve absorbed unfiltered sunlight—no windows, no glasses—for 10-20 minutes. Now that I work from home, I can use my former transit time to take these walks on a daily basis while listening to podcasts. My sleep is more consistent, and I almost never feel groggy.
Power breakfast, not sand
Pre-pandemic, my breakfasts were slightly more nutritious than spooning a bowl of sand. I would grab a heavily processed power bar which I slammed in my car while high-tailing it to beat my boss to work. These days, I’ve become more thoughtful about breakfast. My repertoire has evolved into a concoction that actually improves health: a bowl of steel-cut oats mixed with berries, almonds, walnuts, pea protein, and sometimes even a scoop of marine collagen powder. I pour in almond milk and add MCT oil to really get the brain firing. For a while I dropped in some coffee fruit extract but stopped because I could feel my heart beating through my shirt. This mélange gets me excited about breaking fast at 9:30, following a 16-hour window without food.
With supplements, timing is everything
In 2020, I figured out a decent lineup of supplements that are good for longevity, don’t seem to be detrimental, and can be tough to get from my diet. This year, I realized that most of these critical substances were probably passing right through me because I wasn’t combining them with the right foods. I got serious about timing my supplements with meals and snacks that will better facilitate their absorption. That means having some fruit for citric acid when taking my quercetin supplement, as well as eating an avocado for good fats that support the absorption of Vitamin D2 and K3.
Meditate in outer space
I meditate with my eyes closed every morning for 15 minutes, but I’ve always strived for a second round of meditation in the afternoon. Once I’m into the flow of the day, I can’t seem to summon the discipline to press pause and meditate again. This year, I finally found that discipline – or, I should say, my new virtual reality headset gave me the discipline. I’m infatuated with apps like TRIPP that transport you to paranormal realms for deep-breathing exercises. For example, you might find yourself at the bottom of some other-worldly ocean, surrounded by iridescent corrals and marine creatures swimming past you. Meanwhile, the app guides you to inhale as stardust flows toward your nose; upon exhale, the stardust reemerges from your mouth, curling and spreading through the water. The “calm sessions” change daily, but they always conclude by transporting you to a perch in outer space, looking around at awe-inspiring planets, stars and other ethereal wonders. The benefits probably differ from regular meditation; VR can be so aesthetically pleasing, it’s gratifying like a good art museum or listening to a favorite band. The next generation may come to define art as immersing oneself in peak aesthetic experiences through VR. I have no doubt that deep-breathing with these stimuli does something valuable for my mental health.
It was kind of shock a few years ago when I realized that taking in too much animal protein is linked with myriad health problems, such as increased cancer risk. I’d been eating huge fillets of fish just about every day for most of my adult life. Whoops. Better than sausage, I suppose, but still not great. At first, I cut back to having just 0.3 ounces of fish 1-2 days per week, while getting protein from beans and soy for my other meals. But this seemed to play havoc with several readouts of my blood tests, especially my complete blood count. I decided to stick with the same serving size, 0.3 ounces, but upped its frequency to 2-3 days per week—and my CBC has normalized.
Get smart on fish oil
QuantOmega is a company that analyzes a person’s omega-3 levels for 75 bucks. They send you a prick and a blood collection card, and you mail them back a drop of blood. Couldn’t be simpler. In March, my omega-3s were basically on the border between normal and low. My protein changeup—involving lower intake of fatty fish—probably had something to do with that, so I invested in a good omega-3 supplement: triple strength wild Alaska pollock. After taking it for eight months, I recently tested my omegas again: my levels have ascended to the higher end of the normal range, a number associated with better heart health.
Be picky about fruit
Tropical fruits such as bananas and pineapples are loaded with sugar, so they’re more likely to spike glucose levels. It makes sense, but I’d somehow never thought about it until this year. I’ve stopped having a daily banana (sometimes two), opting instead for green apples, which are lower in sugar.
Wall squats while brushing teeth
I’m in awe of my fellow knowledge workers who manage to regularly fit in ‘exercise snacks,’ short bursts of movement to get the blood flowing instead of stagnating as we stare at computers all day. I find it damn hard, nearly impossible actually. Setting alarms throughout the day didn’t work. The problem is that it takes a lot of effort to stop procrastinating and actually start working. Once I succeed at that, the last thing I need is an alarm to announce that it’s time to stop working for 30 burpees. Gradually, though, I’ve found ways to combine exercise snacks with other activities. One favorite, in particular: wall squats while brushing my teeth in the morning.
Exercise snacks on steroids
For another potent source of exercise snacks, I pick up my VR headset again. Similar to VR meditation, VR provides the motivation I need to press pause during my workday—this time, to get my heart rate up. The prospect of taking a break to do pushups or burpees fails to tantalize me like stepping into a boxing ring and fighting “Ugly Joe” in the VR game, Thrill of the Fight. Similarly awesome is Eleven Table Tennis; I work up a decent sweat playing 15 minutes of “master class” ping-pong in VR. Virtual reality has improved in recent years—both the headset machinery and the software—and currently feels like a secret that few people know about. As word spreads—and as the user experience get even better—I predict that VR will replace gyms eventually. Personal trainers will migrate onto these platforms, people will join fitness classes from their living rooms to socialize with fellow avatars, and getting an excellent workout will become easier than ever before. VR will reshape how Americans exercise for the better.