This is the 7th in a series. Here is a link to #6, Preserving Health and Wellness
Consider my great, great grandparents. They lived on a small farm and were largely self-sufficient. They ate two or three meals a day and never snacked. Food was locally sourced; vegetables and fruits were fresh and ripe; chickens spent the day in the fields. Fish came out of nearby streams and rivers, and meat came from animals hunted in the forests or grazed on the farm.
There were no pesticides, no foods shipped thousands of miles, no meat from animals fattened with corn and soybeans, no fish from fish farms. Candy, soda, and junk foods were almost unknown. There were no processed and packaged foods as we know them, and there were no fast-food restaurants — foods that are all heavily marketed today yet are inherently unhealthy but tasty with their ingredients of white flour, fat, sugar, and salt.
Everyone moved all day long, mostly outdoors; that was just natural. And much of that movement was hard work, the kind that kept muscles strong from lifting, bending, digging, or hoeing. The kids were sent out, if not helping with farm chores, to play, play that included lots of movement.
Of course, stress was present, but somehow, they dealt with it, allowing it to “run off their backs.” After a day of good food and plenty of movement, they slept easily and soundly from when the sun went down until the sun came up. Very few people smoked; cigarettes were not available. Alcohol was abundant, mostly homemade cider, beer, and wine, but most did not drink excessively.
Life was a constant challenge to the mind as well as the body. Families worked and played together and interacted with their neighbors. There were no radios, TVs, or video games; families interacted with each other, and grandparents were honored and part of the family.
Many people, of course, died early, especially of trauma, childbirth, and infectious diseases. Still, many also lived to a “ripe old age” yet rarely developed the chronic diseases of today — obesity, diabetes, lung cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s, or heart disease.
We do not live like that today and there is no reason to try to go back. But is there anything you can do directly to avoid developing a chronic disease now or in the future? Yes. It is all about modifying your lifestyles.
There are seven key steps.
- Eat a healthy diet every day
- Get adequate exercise at least 6 days per week
- Manage your chronic stress
- Enhance your sleep
- Don’t smoke or overdrink alcohol; don’t get hooked on drugs
- Challenge your brain regularly
- Stay socially engaged.
Be sure to take good care of your teeth, don’t drink or text and drive. Develop a positive attitude and be sure you have thought about your purpose in life.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC,) Americans consume an average of 57 pounds of added sugar annually! Packaged in 4-pound bags, imagine 14 bags on your kitchen table — four times that for a family of four. Of course, you are sure you don’t eat that much added sugar, but someone else is consuming even more to make it average out. To top it off, we eat an excessive number of foods made from white flour (e.g., cereal, cakes, pies, cookies, pastries, and pizza) — which is digested directly into sugar. And, of course, many of those foods are high in added sugar and often fats and salt.
Here is a bit more detail: For adult Americans, men consume about 19 teaspoons (76 grams) of sugar per day; women 15 (60 grams), both well above the recommendations of the American Heart Association of 9 teaspoons (38 grams) for men and 6 tsp (25 grams) for women. In addition, the World Health Organization recommends no more than 5% of a 2000-calorie diet be from added sugars (including honey, fruit juices, etc.) or 25 grams per day.
Lack of exercise and an unhealthy diet go together. Today we drive to work, stop for a pastry and latte, sit at a desk most of the day, eat a fast-food lunch, enjoy an afternoon snack, drive home, call out for pizza, watch television, and go to bed.
Stress is everywhere — you need to check your emails and texts right up to bedtime. Your stress levels are off the charts. You probably don’t smoke and that is good. You have all too little time for socializing with true friends. The alarm rings all too early, and you are up and at it again.
What can you do? Will it really make a difference? Yes, focus on these 7 keys of lifestyle modifications.
1-Prepare meals from scratch; it does not take much time. Think of it not as a diet that eliminates something but one that includes abundant nutrient-dense foods. Eat locally sourced, preferably organic vegetables and fruits in abundance.
Vegetables should be the major components of your diet with a wide variety of types, colors, and textures to obtain all of the primary nutrients. Include dark green leafies daily — spinach, collards, arugula, and kale are good choices. Nuts, seeds, and foods like avocados and olives have healthy oils, and omega-3 fatty acids are in wild-caught finfish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Avoid vegetable oils; use cold-pressed virgin olive oil instead.
Don’t forget to have plenty of fresh fruits every day.
Choose chickens and eggs from hens that have been free-ranged. Eat red meat sparingly and choose cuts from range-fed animals that never saw a feedlot. Finally, and very importantly, avoid sugars like the plague and dramatically reduce your intake of foods made from white flour. It follows that you will cut back on processed foods and meals from fast-food restaurants. The Mediterranean Diet is the prototype for this type of eating.
2-Get up and move. Get 30 minutes of walking every day. That alone will have a massive impact on your immediate and long-term health. Add in a few sessions per week of strengthening (“resistance”) exercises. Remember that “sitting is the new smoking.” Park your car a distance from the building entrance. Take the stairs a few flights instead of the elevator. Get up from your computer and move around for five minutes at least every half hour. Consider a stand-up desk. Spend less time sitting in a reclining chair watching TV at night.
3-We all have chronic stress, but many don’t recognize or admit it. Give some serious thought time to your pressures. Eliminate the causes where possible and, for the remainder, consider ways to tamp them down. In addition to good food and regular exercise along with adequate sleep, add in perhaps yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, coherent breathing, or just a few moments every so often to take a couple of deep breaths with the exhalation longer than the inhalation (I will explain the rationale for longer exhales in a later article.)
4-To enhance sleep, allot at least three hours between finishing dinner and bedtime so that your meal has been largely digested. This, of course, means no late-night snack before bed. No caffeine after noon. Avoid reading or watching action or horror books, TV shows, and movies before bedtime. Early in the evening, please turn off your smartphone and the texts, emails, and Facebook with it. Instead, consider some soothing music before bed. Your bedroom needs to be pitch black with all your devices turned off. Keep to a schedule, and remember that you need 7 ½ to eight hours of sleep each night. Please don’t listen to the friend that claims they can get by on 5 or 6 hours; that person is only fooling themself.
5-No tobacco. None, including vaping. And keep alcohol consumption limited.
6-Stimulate and challenge your brain. It needs to be used just like your muscles. Learn a new language or play an instrument. Learn a dance routine. Do something creative like art or writing.
7-Social engagement is critical to slow aging, prevent disease, and enhance a sense of wellness. Maintain connections with close friends and relatives.
Does all of this make a difference? Yes.
In the Nurse’s Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study totaling over 100,000 participants and observed for more than 30 years, those who followed the five “low-risk lifestyles” lived substantially longer than those who followed none. For example, a 50-year-old female could expect to live 14 added years (life expectancy rose from 29 to 43 additional years), and for a male, 12 additional years (26 rose to 38 additional years.) I will explore this and similar studies in-depth in a later article.
Whatever the exact number of added years, the direction is clear. Healthy lifestyles mean more years of healthy life. And remember, it was not just more years of life but fewer chronic illnesses for a longer “health span.” Definitely worthwhile.
Does this seem like a tall order? Perhaps, but pick one or two areas to work on at a time. Don’t try to do it all at once. Don’t set the goal too high to start. Set some intermediate goals, ones that you can achieve. Then move up to a more comprehensive goal. After a while, you’ll be doing great; you’ll have more energy, more enthusiasm for life, much better health, and a longer, healthier lifespan. And as a bonus, if you get started early in adult life, you will reap the added benefits of compounding, just like saving for retirement. What could be better than that?