13 Body Hacks, Evaluated: What Science Says About Shortcuts To Health And Wellness

Yes, you can use certain "body hacks" to improve your life—but don't believe everything you read on the internet.

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We hate to say it, but at this point in our lives, we’re starting to accept the fact that we’ll never become superheroes. We’re stuck with boring human bodies without adamantium claws, laser eyes, or any of the other awesome anatomical features we’ve been praying for since we were six (we’re 30 now, by the way—not that that matters). The good news is that, thanks to the internet, we’ve learned about dozens of “life hacks,” purportedly backed by science, that will let us unlock the secrets of our (horrible, boring) bodies. The bad news is that some of those hacks are, well, slightly misleading. We decided to take a closer look at some of the stranger examples floating around the internet. Some of them are pretty awesome body hacks—others are more like “writing hacks.”

1. Looking at the color green can make you more creative.

Need to sit down and write an essay? Looking for inspiration for your latest play? Are you a professional wrestler and you’re running out of fresh ideas for your armbar? Just look at a big green rectangle, and you’ll somehow trick your brain into jump-starting its creativity circuits, hackers purport. This hack actually has some basis in science. A 2012 study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed that the color green can aid creative tasks, although the authors were careful to note that the effect was limited. Researchers provided study participants with a “brief glimpse of green,” then asked them to perform various “creativity challenges.” For instance, in one experiment, participants were asked to come up with various uses for a tin can, at which point their responses were graded by a tester. Participants who saw a green rectangle performed more creatively than those who saw a white rectangle. “Green may serve as a cue that evokes the motivation to strive for improvement and task mastery, which in turn may facilitate growth,” researcher Stephanie Lichtenfeld, PhD, said in a 2012 interview. However, Lichtenfeld also characterized the effect as subtle. If you’re really looking to boost your creativity, you’re better off building a creative routine, according to the American Psychological Association. You’ll also want to minimize stress, get plenty of sleep, and collaborate with others—if you want to do so in an all-green room, all the better.

2. Rubbing “pressure points” on your body can prevent migraines.

This hack comes from a piece on Livestrong, which references some…unscientific sources. It’s based on pressure point therapy, a somewhat dubious interpretation of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), and an ebook that apparently came from an online health food store (not exactly the New England Journal of Medicine). Activating those “pressure points” can actually reduce the symptoms of a migraine, and some researchers recommend massage and acupuncture (another pressure-therapy) as a first-line course of treatment for migraine sufferers. However, there are some crucial caveats. For starters, we’re not really sure if pressure point therapy really needs the, uh, pressure points. One study notes that the positive effects “can be achieved even if point selection is not as dogmatic and precise as proposed by the Chinese system.” Rather than trying to find the one inch of your body that holds all of your Chi, you might be able to just rub for a while and get the same results. And since the placebo effect is more pronounced in people suffering from migraine pain, it’s also possible that pressure-point therapies provide a sort of enhanced placebo effect. One study found that trigger-point massage, while effective at limiting migraine pain, was no more effective than a placebo.If you suffer from migraines, you’re better off increasing your intake of folic acid, getting regular exercise, and seeing a physician if the headaches are occurring regularly. Don’t expect to cure severe headaches simply by rubbing the webbing between your fingers—but with that said, if you feel like rubbing your finger-webs, go for it. You’re not doing any damage. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of possible placebos…

3. Use placebos to cure…lots of things.

Placebos aren’t just sugar pills. Well, okay, they are just sugar pills, but they’re powerful medicine. “The placebo effect is more than positive thinking—believing a treatment or procedure will work,” explained Professor Ted Kaptchuk of Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in a piece published on Harvard Health. “It’s about creating a stronger connection between the brain and body and how they work together.” Kaptchuk’s research shows that placebos can be just as effective as other medical treatments. You’ve probably heard about that concept—it’s extremely well documented. What you might not know is that the placebo effect has its own placebo effect; oddly enough, some placebos work even when people know that they’re placebos. “People can still get a placebo response, even though they know they are on a placebo,” Kaptchuk said. “You don’t need deception or concealment for many conditions to get a significant and meaningful placebo effect.” In one of his studies, Kaptchuk gave patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) “open-label” placebos. Half of the study’s volunteers received the pills and were explicitly told that they were in the placebo group, while half of them received nothing at all. The group who received the placebos experienced a “dramatic and significant improvement” in their symptoms. How could that possibly work? Kaptchuk has some theories. “People associate the ritual of taking medicine as a positive healing effect,” he said. “Even if they know it’s not medicine, the action itself can stimulate the brain into thinking the body is being healed.” So, how can you turn this information into a superpower? Well, you can’t gain Wolverine-like healing abilities simply by scarfing down some sugar pills, but if you’ve got a condition in which pain or stress is a factor, try taking a harmless supplement and telling yourself that you’re treating the condition. As dumb as that might sound, the research shows that open-label placebos can work. Oh, and if the placebo doesn’t do the trick, be sure to see an actual physician. Seriously. Don’t trust your health to some advice you read in an internet article.

4. Bend over in a chair to get rid of the hiccups.

We know, we know—everyone’s got a hiccup cure. We’ve seen cures that include rubbing parts of your hand, covering your mouth, and chugging pickle juice. Those cures might be effective for some people. If you want a really powerful hiccup cure, however, you’ve got to turn to a neuroscientist.

“For non-pathological hiccups, there’s a really easy way to cure them for 99 percent of the population,” James Giordano, PhD, professor in neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, told Urbo. “You want to sit down and bend forward at the waist, and I mean really bend forward… Then, drink a room-temperature, non-carbonated fluid for 10 seconds straight, or 8-10 swallows of fluid. Stay in that position until you’re finished, then slowly sit up.” Why does that work? Hiccups are caused by excessive stimulation to the upper part of your digestive tract, including the soft palate, the top of the throat, and the top of the stomach. Giordano explains that his method overwhelms the spasm, allowing your muscles to relax. “It’s sort of a neurological override,” he says. “The swallowing reflex requires coordination of a number of different nerves, and you’re literally overcoming the spasm by super-coordinating a pattern response.” Of course, excessive hiccuping can be a symptom of a more serious condition, so if your hiccups don’t disappear in a few hours, you might want to see your physician.

5. Tweak your walking technique to burn more calories.

Walking has to be the best exercise of them all—if you can count walking as an exercise, that is. Running is hard on the knees. Lifting weights is just plain hard. But walking? Heck, we do that every day. Good news: Fitness motivation site Super Skinny Me says you can burn plenty of calories during a nice, relaxing walk, provided you know how to walk the right way. But the site only cites itself; all of its links are internal. So is this welcome exercise tip too good to be true? At first glance, Super Skinny Me’s prescription for strolling passes the common-sense test. They say you should boost your walking speed until your heart-rate monitor tells you your heartbeat is up to 65 to 85 percent of your maximum beats per minute. They recommend pumping your arms, weighing yourself down, and taking a hilly route. All of those things require more exertion, so it makes sense that they’d burn more calories. But what do the doctors have to say about walking as exercise? It’s a go, particularly for folks who aren’t used to being active, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Walking can help you burn calories and lower your risk of high blood pressure and heart disease. But Super Skinny Me definitely got one thing right: In order to get the most benefits, you’ll need to keep your pace pretty brisk. The NIDDK recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Walk fast enough to increase your heart rate, and you’re there. So while you don’t have to learn new walking techniques to burn calories, you do have to move faster than a shuffle. Try walking quickly for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. If that doesn’t help you meet your weight-loss goals, double your walking time to an hour per day, according to the NIDDK’s recommendations.

6. Refresh quickly with a “coffee nap.”

More than a third of Americans don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis. If you count yourself among them, we’ve got good news (sort of): You can get an extra burst of energy by consuming caffeine and taking a quick nap. Okay, when we put it that way, it sounds sort of obvious. “Drink coffee and nap to get energy” isn’t exactly groundbreaking advice. However, scientific research suggests that the technique is more effective than other methods, and the “coffee nap” trend has been promoted by dozens of sites, including HuffPost. Here’s the deal: Caffeine fits into your brain’s adenosine receptors. Adenosine naturally accumulates during normal brain activity and makes you feel tired, and when caffeine fills some of those receptors, you’re less capable of getting drowsy. Sleeping, on the other hand, naturally clears out adenosine. Drink a cup of coffee, then nap for 20 minutes, and your body will clear out some adenosine just as the caffeine makes its way to your brain. Sleep longer, though, and the effect won’t work as well, since you’ll enter the deeper stages of sleep (when that happens, your body needs more time to recover). Various scientific studies have established this effect, so this “hack” is actually supported by evidence. With that said, sleep is an incredibly complex process—so complex that scientists don’t really understand why we sleep—so your mileage might vary. Even so, it’s worth a try. If you’re suffering from midday drowsiness, try chugging a cup of coffee and laying down for a short rest. Just make sure to set an alarm, or all of your coffee-chugging effort will be for naught.

7. Improve your brainpower by chewing gum.

Ever hear someone say that a person “is so dumb, he can’t walk and chew gum at the same time?” There might be something to that (plus, it’s a sick burn). Some research suggests that chewing gum affects cognitive abilities, though the extent of the effect is disputed. In a 2011 study published in the scientific journal Appetite, participants saw significant improvements in their test-taking abilities when chewing gum. Researchers theorize that because chewing gum sends more blood to the brain for about 15-20 minutes, it actually enhances our ability to think. Of course, that was only one study, so it’s important to take it with a grain of salt (and a stick of Juicy Fruit). We’re not quite sure whether we can classify this as a functional life hack, and we’re even more critical of the other purported effects of chewing gum. For instance, several sites, including Cracked, have suggested that the habit can dramatically improve reading speeds by eliminating “subvocalization.” The idea behind the hack is that your brain tries to vocalize words as you read them, and when your mouth’s already occupied, it skips this step. That seems logical to us, and given the study referenced above, we’re sure that some people read more quickly when they’re chewing gum, but we couldn’t find any scientific research showing that the effect has anything to do with subvocalization. Go ahead and try using gum to enhance your brainpower—it certainly couldn’t hurt, provided that you choose a sugar-free product.

8. Study more effectively by taking a quick nap.

While chewing gum might not make you a genius, napping can help you during a late-night cram session. In 2015, a team of researchers at Saarland University performed a memory recall experiment on 41 study participants. About half of them were asked to take a brief nap after studying. “The control group, whose members watched DVDs while the other group slept, performed significantly worse than the nap group when it came to remembering the word pairs,” professor Axel Mecklinger, who led the study, told ScienceDaily. “The memory performance of the participants who had a power nap was just as good as it was before sleeping, that is, immediately after completing the learning phase.” Sleep plays an important role in encoding memories; our brains essentially reorganize our short-term memories while we’re resting, throwing out the useless stuff (the color of the dog you saw on your way back home) while keeping the important stuff (the speech you need to memorize for your presentation on Thursday). “A short nap at the office or in school is enough to significantly improve learning success,” Mecklinger said. “Wherever people are in a learning environment, we should think seriously about the positive effects of sleep.” There you have it: When your boss asks why you’re sleeping before the big meeting, you can simply explain that science told you to.

9. See in the dark (and in the light) by keeping one eye closed.

This one comes from Reddit, and it’s one of the simplest hacks on this list…and, oddly enough, one of the most effective. “If you’re like me, sometimes you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night,”  Reddit user jbondhus2002 wrote. Why, yes, jbondhus2002, we are like you. “[When] you do, keep one eye closed if you need to turn a light on. When you turn the light off, open your closed eye, [and it] will be able to see without much light. It’s a really cool trick—and makes you aware of how awesome your body is!” This one’s pretty easy to explain. In a dark room, your pupils expand in order to capture as much light as possible. When the lights are on, your pupils contract. By covering one eye, you keep one pupil contracted and one dilated, and by switching between them, you can see in either environment. Some Reddit users suggested that this is the reason that pirates wore eyepatches. Sailors had to move from dark cabins to the bright outdoors regularly, so they’d simply switch their eyepatch when going from one area to another. Mythbusters actually tested this idea and found it plausible, but the show noted that there aren’t any historical sources to support the idea that pirates actually wore eyepatches in the first place.

10. Clear a stuffy nose with a simple trick.

According to a video from Prevention Magazine, you can clear a stuffy nose by pressing your tongue to the roof of your mouth while pressing on the middle of your forehead. Alternate between pressing the two spots (one with your tongue, the other with your finger). If you’re having trouble visualizing that, here’s the video. https://youtu.be/gg8TWB7ux4s One Reddit user suggested that this works by moving the vomer bone, which separates the left and right nasal cavities. Your sinuses loosen, the gunk gets released (sorry for the visual), and you’re able to breathe clear again. There are plenty of anecdotes about this trick working, but we couldn’t find any scientific studies backing it up. Additionally, that explanation about the vomer bone might not be completely accurate. Another Redditor, this one claiming to be a doctor, replied that the vomer isn’t supposed to move and that it’s more likely that the simple muscular activity of the nasopharynx (which connects the nose to the throat) loosens everything up. Even if this trick is the real deal, you probably won’t get too much relief, since you’re not treating the cause of your symptoms; you’re only easing the pressure for a few moments, and it will build back up fairly quickly. Still, it’s a nice life hack to keep in mind during flu season.

11. Use your right ear to hone in on conversations from far away.

You’re at a party, and you’re trying to hear someone over the music. You can’t quite make out what they’re saying, even though they’re yelling. Not to worry: Turn your right ear toward them, and you’ll magically hear what they’re saying. This hack comes from a variety of sites, including BBC News, and it’s totally legitimate, even if it doesn’t quite rise to the level of “superpower.” It’s supported by research published by the Acoustical Society of America, and we just tried it out—in loud environments, your right ear is much better at hearing speech. What gives? When a sound enters your right ear, it’s processed by the left side of the brain, which is generally responsible for speech and language development. If you’re listening to speech, you’ll typically have an easier time using your right ear than your left, though we should note that brain organization is complicated—some people process speech on the right sides of their brains, and some people use both hemispheres. This is an especially useful hack for younger people, as young brains don’t have well-developed listening tools. Kids have trouble separating different auditory information, but as they age, they’re able to separate audio more effectively.

12. Hold your breath longer by intentionally hyperventilating.

Yeah, yeah, we know—this one doesn’t seem intuitive. It also seems incredibly dangerous. As LifeHacker reports, magician David Blaine claimed that he used this trick to hold his breath underwater for 17 minutes. “The buildup of CO2 in your lungs can get just as painful as the lack of oxygen,” Blaine explained. “Purge as much as you can before you begin. Repeatedly exhale and inhale. Hard. Imagine you’re trying to blow a toy sailboat away from you.” He’s not totally wrong. Hyperventilating can improve your ability to hold your breath; with less CO2 in your body, you’re able to stay calm and suppress your natural instinct to take a breath. Before you try this technique, though, you should understand that it can be extremely dangerous in certain situations. Intentional hyperventilation allows you to feel less pain as you hold your breath, but it doesn’t actually put more oxygen at your disposal.

13. Banish the call of nature by scratching your leg.

Back in 2006, Australian newspaper the Sydney Morning Herald published a bizarre little story with the headline “Leg scratch ‘controls’ women’s loo call.” The story popularized advice from a physiotherapist named Janetta Webb, who said that women can ease the pressure of a full bladder by giving the back of the leg a hearty scratch. Since then, this body hack has been picked up by a number of sites, including Lifehacker. There’s just one problem, and it’s the obvious one: Even Webb herself isn’t too confident the trick will work long enough to do much good. “If you scratch or rub the back of your calf for a few moments, really vigorously, you may interrupt the message from your bladder to your brain just long enough for you to make it to the toilet.” Webb told the reporter that the only real way to stop the leaks is to strengthen the pelvic floor through special exercises. Add that to the fact that, when she was interviewed for the article, Webb was working on a program to boost consciousness about continence problems and their cures. Could she have come up with the theory in an early bid for viral attention? We don’t know, but we wouldn’t recommend holding it in if you’ve got the option. That can stress your bladder muscles, leading to urinary retention (in other words, you’re not fully able to urinate). That’s a potentially serious medical condition. Your best bet is to truck it to the bathroom when you need to go—and save the leg scratching for when your leg itches. If there’s a lesson in all of this, it’s that some life hacks are sheer hackery. If you can call any beneficial behavior a life hack, which it seems you can, here’s our favorite: Do your research.

HealthyWay Staff Writer
HealthyWay’s Staff Writers work to provide well-researched, thought-provoking content.