It’s one thing to look at studies. What if we look at “finished products”? What if we look at whole organisms that appear to be doing things right and try to learn from them? People are always looking at the “Blue Zones” or this guru or that celebrity and trying to glean insights about healthy diet, lifestyle, and behavior. I say expand that outlook to encompass other populations you might not have considered. LIke kids.
Kids are kids. We tell them what to do, they learn from us, and they are put on this earth to watch us and do what we do. What if we flipped that? What can we learn from watching kids? How do children approach life, health, and movement—and what can we take from that approach and apply to our own lives?
Here’s what we can learn from kids.
Keep asking why.
Kids never stop asking why. They don’t just accept answers from authorities because they want to understand why the answer is what it is. They want to know your reasoning. They take nothing for granted, even or especially such “mundane” facts like the sky being blue, rain falling from the sky, and dogs having fur.
Never stop asking why. The eternal student doesn’t just learn more. The eternal student is never bored.
Never stop moving.
If you watch your kids, they don’t stop moving. They fidget. They dance. They stand up then sit down then stand up again. They twitch and pace the room and climb over furniture. Even if they’re sitting in a chair, they’ll rock, lean back, sit on their knees, and never stop moving. Kids are constantly adjusting their position throughout space and time. And while you can’t say their constant movement is a cause of children’s well-avowed high metabolic rate and energy expenditure—it’s most likely both cause and effect, a virtuous cycle—we can still emulate their.
Now, don’t fidget in the board room. Don’t climb on the desk during a job interview. But constant movement is one path to better health, and it will keep you limber, supple, mobile, and energetic. Try moving throughout the day for a solid week and see how you feel. See if you’re less stiff. See if you have more energy. I bet you will.
Kids sprint everywhere. Watch kids at play together and they don’t just walk slowly and orderly in single file lines. They dash off to go play, run up and down hills, sprint up the stairs. If they want to go somewhere, they go and they go quickly. But, and this is crucial, they aren’t sprinting non-stop. Unless they’re playing freeze tag or some other playground game, they sprint and then rest. They sprint as a mode of transportation, not training. Kids aren’t concerned with “working out” or “running intervals.” They go hard, as hard as they can, and then stop when tired and do something more quiet and sedentary until it’s time to sprint again.
They are the perfect example of moving frequently at a slow pace walking/fidgeting/playing on the floor doing relatively sedentary low level movement interspersed with bouts of all out high intensity sprinting.
Eat whole foods that taste good.
Kids at least from the start of their lives absent processed food have pure appetites. Before their taste buds and reward systems are corrupted by industrial foods expressly designed to corrupt by food engineers, they make excellent food choices. In one old study, researchers took a group of breastfed infants and. placed a broad selection of whole foods in front of them. Without any adult input, the kids chose what to eat from the following foods:
- Bone marrow, bone jelly
- Beef, lamb, and chicken muscle meat
- Liver, kidney, brain, sweetbreads
- Cod liver oil
- Whole wheat cereal, whole barley cereal, oats, corn, rye
- Raw milk
- Oranges, apples, tomatoes, peaches, pineapples, bananas
- Cabbage, carrots, turnips, potatoes, peas, beets, spinach, cauliflower
Each kid took a different route. They all chose different foods. Some ate a fruit and meat-heavy diet. Others ate more grains. Some kids ate a ton of fish and organs. But whatever they ate, they managed to satisfy their nutrient requirements. One child even cured his rickets by eating a ton of cod liver oil. He didn’t know he was low in vitamin D. He didn’t know what vitamin D even was. They just knew what they needed. They ate what was most appealing in the moment and managed to provide what their bodies required. Amazing, right? Or is it just normal?
Children are in constant awe of the world around them. Of course if they have their nose in a tablet all day that sense of awe quickly gets subsumed and extinguished. But if you take a four-year-old kid out for a hike through the redwoods or along the water or anywhere natural they are in awe of everything around them. The bird overhead, the squirrel scampering up the tree, the sand crabs bubbling under the sand, the waves crashing, the seagulls swooping overhead. In the past I have written about the importance of cultivating a sense of awe, and I stand by it. You can get that back, even as an adult who’s “seen it all.”
“Awe researchers” induce awe in regular adults by showing them nature scenes on television screens or having them stand in eucalyptus groves on college campuses and looking up. Awe isn’t hard to find. It’s all around us.
Get five kids in an empty room and within ten minutes they’ll have figured out a game to play.
Get five adults in an empty room and within ten minutes they’ll be crawling up the walls trying to deal with the awkwardness and boredom.
Don’t be like the adults. Be like the kids.
This appears to be the secret to life. Kids turn everything into a game. And the adults who live the best, longest, happiest lives do the same. They laugh about life, they joke around. And of course, play for adults looks different than kids at play. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend you go play cops and robbers or play with Barbies. The point is to find something that you enjoy doing, particularly with other people (but not necessarily). Something where the reward is the activity itself, not some goal or prize glittering at the end of the game. Bonus points if it’s physical play.
I’ve long made this a cornerstone of my life: the insistence on play. For too long, I trained to endure. I trained to win races. I trained so I could deal with more and more pain and suffering. And it ended up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, as I grew unhealthier and unhealthier and accrued more and more damage. But when I made the switch to training so I could play—Ultimate Frisbee, standup paddling, snowboarding, and anything else I truly enjoyed doing—everything opened up.
Trust your intuition.
Kids come into this world with nothing but their intuition. They don’t have “empirical evidence.” They don’t have “research.” They don’t even have language—they can’t get advice from people. All they have is instinct, urges, and intuition to guide them. Oh, and the benevolent helping hand of their parents and other caregivers. But mostly it’s just the feeling that something is right or wrong, good or bad, healthy or unhealthy.
You still have intuition, and it’s still worth heeding, it’s just drowned out by the stories and narratives other people, society, and even your own brain tell you. The little voice inside you that instantly reacts to a situation, a person, or a choice is your intuition. You can still say no to that initial reaction, that gut feeling, but you should at least consider and vet it.
It doesn’t matter if magic is “real” or not. For one, we can’t really even define magic, can we? What we can know is that children readily ascribe huge amounts of meaning to seemingly inconsequential natural phenomena. And perhaps they’re right to do it.
Dragonflies actually look an awful lot like dragons if you look closely. They shimmer. They hover. They dart to and fro. They’re brightly colored, almost scaly.
Making a wish before blowing a dandelion—what if it does work? What if by envisioning what you want to occur and then consecrating it with the forced dispersal of dandelion seeds into the spring wind you trigger something in your subconscious that drives you to accomplish the goal and never give up? Isn’t that a kind of magic?
Be present more.
Kids are often extremely present. They focus on the moment, the situation at hand. They squat down to look at the ant trail. They spot the turtle in the pond before anyone else. They can play, and dance, and read and really be there for the moment. They aren’t thinking about the bills, or the fact that they have to go into work tomorrow, and yes, that’s a bit of a luxury because they by and large don’t have as much to worry about. But we can learn from that. We can inject some of that presence into our own lives.
I won’t say “be present at all times.” Sometimes it’s good to be distant from the situation at hand and sometimes we need to worry about the future, but adults are way too good at doing that. We’ve got “lack of presence” in the bag. Most of us need more presence.
Lose yourself in your pursuits.
I can remember playing in the woods from morning til dusk, not eating, not drinking, ignoring the skinned knees because the immediacy of the moment and our pursuit demanded our full attention. That was true living. That was an archaic form of flow that every biohacker and meditator and nootropic-taking coder would pay thousands to tap into.
If you can capture that, if only for an hour or two a day, you will become unstoppable.
Stop eating when you’re not hungry.
Kids are finely tuned metabolic machines. This is why you get so many struggles at the dinner table—a kid won’t be hungry but his parents will force him to keep eating. Or a kid won’t eat anything all day and then wake up and eat six eggs, two potatoes, one banana and two glasses of milk. It’s hard to understand as a parent, and even I had issues dealing with our kids not eating their meals, but eventually I learned to trust them.
What it comes down to is that kids stop eating when they aren’t hungry, as long as they’re eating whole foods and not processed industrial junk. If you did the same, you’d have a lot less issues with your weight. Now, this is easier said than done. We aren’t kids with pristine metabolisms. We’ve had decades to cultivate dysfunctional appetites and satiety mechanisms. But if you look deep within, you’ll see glimmers of the old signals telling you when you’ve had enough food. Listen to them.