There are many factors that will determine your health through the years, including but not limited to: genetics, environment, attitude/outlook, risk taking, stress, chemical consumption (medications or otherwise,) smoking, sleep (or lack there of,) food, “food like substances”, movement ( exercise, etc...) and many others. Boy, that’s a lot of stuff. So which one is most important? Which one should I focus on and really pay attention to the most so that I can be healthy, live long, and prosper? Although all these things will surely impact your health as you attempt to age gracefully, I believe the things that we can control and do everyday will have the most long term impact on your health maintenance through the years. Namely: eating, sleeping and moving!!!
To begin with, our state of health is not an “and/or”, “all or nothing” proposition. It is a continuum that is changing day by day, or more accurately, second by second.Our bodies are nothing short of amazing! So wonderfully amazing that we constantly take them for granted, unconsciously expecting that they will continue to work without our paying them any care or attention. This is due to the fact that, usually, our bodies do function with little or no effort. This may be a unique combination of ignorance and arrogance. Thoughts like:“ I don’t know what’s in this soda or what it’s doing to my body, but it tastes good and everyone else is doing it, so I will too.” Or the ever popular: “I don’t care what the experts say, I’ll smoke if I want to, it won’t hurt me.” Now it is true that it may be rare to die from just one cigarette or one soda. However, what you do over time, day in/day out, is what will move you along the health continuum toward the more healthy or less healthy side. Oh and just for the record, if you’re not sure, each cigarette and each soda will most definitely move you toward the less healthy side.
Let’s get back to “the big three” as I referred to them earlier; eating, sleeping and exercising. Interestingly enough, these are 3 things over which we have total control, and do virtually everyday. Let’s start with eating, shall we? Sounds simple enough. In America, there is no shortage of things to put in your mouth (although, very few people pay any attention at all to what they gobble up.) We go with what’s easily available, cheap, in reach, or in other words... exactly what the “food industry” tells us to eat. Eating has a purpose. We eat to provide our bodies with the nutrients that will not just allow us to survive, but to thrive. We need water, protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, electrolytes, etc. In what foods might you find these essentials of life you may ask? (at least I hope you are asking....) I know it can seem very complicated, especially when everyone is telling you to spend you money on their products! But don’t panic. Take a deep breath. We need eat mindfully , not mindlessly. Stick to real foods produced by nature, not man-made “food-like” substances. Companies make these food-like composite impostors to help you make mindless choices and boost their profits. Eat mostly plants: vegetables, whole grains, fruits, beans, nuts and seeds in as close to their whole natural form as possible. Dull you say...boring? No way!! Cooked, baked or raw, there are unlimited combinations of natural foods and spices (learning how to use spices is the key) that will taste infinitely better than anything man-made, processed food-like substance. You will need to experiment a little to open your mind and you taste buds to the wonders nature has provided for us. It’s the only way to break away from the fat-salt-sugar combo that the food industry has trained us to eat. Be adventurous! With a little exploration you will make significant movement toward the healthier side of the continuum and your taste buds will be glad you did.
Now what’s so important about sleep? EVERYTHING! It’s so important that we can’t even decide not to do it. Oh, we can postpone it for a short while but no matter how hard we try not to, we will eventually fall asleep. We spend almost 1/3 of our lifetime sleeping. But why? Sleep is our brain and body’s time to renew and heal itself. Did you know that there are more parts of your brain active when you are asleep than awake? Stage 2 sleep is when neurotransmitters (such as seratonin and dopamine) are synthesized and stored to replenish what was used that day. Then in stages 3 & 4 the brain must completely shut down (there is absolutely no muscle movement at this time) to reconnect the neurons that disconnected during the day. Stage 5 (REM) sleep is the functional testing of the new neural circuitry connections. It tests the higher functions, (emotions etc.) with the artificial reality of our dreams. Dreams are also where we discard irrelevant memories. Sleep is a time of checking and recalibrating systems that can’t be done while our conscious mind is working. This renewal, growth, storage and reconnection is why we sleep more when we are sick, injured, or dealing with chronic pain or disease. It’s also why children need more sleep than adults.Generally, 6-8 hours is good for adults. You’ll know when you are getting enough sleep when you can wake up on your own without an alarm clock. Too many people take sleep for granted. As we get older we spend less time in stage 3&4 making it even more critical. There are a multitude of studies connecting proper sleep with better health. For example: studies confirm time and again that students who get a full nights sleep perform consistently better on exams than those who stay up late studying. This holds true no matter how well prepared they are prior to that last night. You should plan for it everyday, just as you should with eating. We all know we can’t make up for lost sleep. Everyone has tried at some point in their lives and discovered that it never works. So go to bed early tonight and feel better tomorrow!
Use it or lose it! We’ve all heard this before because it is so true. Not just for our musculoskeletal system, but also our cardiovascular, digestive, lymphatic and neurologic systems as well. Every system in our bodies works better when we move. Our muscles get stronger and more flexible, joints get lubricated, neurons send signals more efficiently and the digestive system rids waste and absorbs nutrients better. Every cell in our body is nourished by increased blood flow while the lymphatic system eliminates toxins better. The only bad news is that exercise is the easiest leg of our health tripod to forget about. Today’s sedentary life styles are no help at all.
We must plan for moving and exercising everyday. The good news is that it doesn’t have to mean going to the gym. If you look, you’ll find many ways to exercise in your daily activity. Tops on the list is walking and stair climbing. Walk at lunch, walk the dog, walk to the park, play with the kids or just walk around the neighborhood. Don’t avoid stairs, USE THEM! Skip the elevators and escalators. In fact, skip through your home, to and from the car, to the park. This exercise is fun and silly, and if you laugh while doing it, all the better for your health! When you get up from a chair, do it 5 times instead of once (mini-squats!) Newton’s 2nd law is oh so true: a body in motion tends to stay in motion, while a body at rest tends to stay at rest. If you look for more ways to move instead of more ways to avoid it, you will feel the difference.
So now you know the foundation of good health: 1- eat with mindfulness, 2- restorative sleep, and 3- move it or lose it everyday. These are three of the things in life that we have the most control over. If you do them wisely and daily, you will feel better and recover from injury and illness faster. Most importantly, you will keep your continuum moving in the healthier direction day after day and year after year.