Are you living like a machine?

LINDA MCSWEENY
Last updated 15:39 26/05/2014
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Actress Marilyn Monroe once complained she was treated like a machine - a money machine. Today many of us are actually choosing to live like machines, mindlessly working non-stop, bereft of proper sleep, regular and healthy meals and exercise, and forgetting our vital need for routine to flourish.

It's widely accepted that children need routine to thrive but by the time we're on the cusp of adulthood, many of us have long abandoned routine in this frenetic 24/7 world. We've forgotten how crucial daily rhythms are to well-being.

''We do the best we can to turn ourselves into something we're not - 24-hour-a-day machines,'' says University of Sydney psychiatrist Professor Ian Hickie from the Brain and Mind Research Institute.

Routine implies the humdrum or the boring to those who avoid living life in an orderly, habitual fashion, but our bodies and minds have little chance to excel if we ignore routine, or ''rhythm'', as Hickie prefers to call it.

''Many of us are largely inactive during the course of the day, with screen-driven white-collar type jobs. We continue to do those into the evening and at various periods of times to convince ourselves we don't require sleep; we don't require physical activity; we can eat randomly; it doesn't really matter - as if we are a piece of 24-hour productive machinery,'' Hickie says.

''We're not. We're a biological mechanism with in-built rhythms and the co-ordination of those rhythms is critical to your health.''

Hickie says an analogy often used is an orchestra, with many different instruments needing to act in concert with each other via a conductor to produce something truly fabulous, not simply noise.

Humans have a critical need for daily regularity to be mentally and physically well - adequate sleep, good food, exercise, sunlight and social interaction - but ''just about everything we do with our modern life mitigates against those levels'', Hickie says. Minor tweaks, such as earlier sleep times, can bolster our ability to cope with life, he says.

A Sleep Health Foundation evaluation of the sleep habits of Australians, published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2013, revealed a high prevalence of frequent sleep difficulties or inadequate sleep in 20 per cent to 35 per cent of respondents. Half of these problems appeared attributable to poor sleep habits.

Hickie says we have ''this dumb idea'' that as adults, it's no longer necessary to attend to daily rhythms.

''As adults, you've got to have true regularity by being in employment, being in a routine, being in a daily schedule that is predictable and regular,'' he says. ''That daily schedule needs to include physical activity and socialisation and a greater regularity of meal times ... if you want to live a long and productive life.''

American doctor David Agus argues in his book A Short Guide to a Long Life that ''optimal health begins with our daily habits'' such as simple efforts like trying to eat lunch at the same time each day.

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''Many of my patients could have prevented their cancer or other life-altering disease had they done a few things differently earlier in life,'' Agus argues in his book.

''I'm pretty sure most people could delay or help prevent a vast majority of the illnesses we see today, including not only cancer but heart and kidney disease; stroke; obesity; diabetes; auto-immune disorders and dementia and other neurodegenerative disorders, if they just adopt a few healthy habits early on and avoid the ones that lead to illness.''

Routines don't have to be military-like. Sydney artist Michael Muir has a sturdy but flexible personal and professional routine. It includes a daily surf in the ocean, which, he says, aids his creativity.

''Although I am in a creative field I find routines helps by making lists and breaking down what I need to do for the day,'' Muir says.

''It's a great balance for me mentally and physically to incorporate surfing or some form of exercise into a daily schedule.

''Working in the studio I can only sustain blocks of time concentrating so it's important to break the day up ... there is something immensely invigorating about immersing yourself in the ocean.''

There are inevitable changes to his home routines with his wife Emma and their three boys but ''as long as we keep adjusting and making compromise to the routines, everyone remains happy, mostly''.

- Daily Life

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