A recent conversation with a friend about encouraging better health choices prompted me to reflect on the advice I’d give to people about the best way to live a long and healthy life. Although I’m not a licensed clinician, I’ve worked in various clinical quality improvement roles in the health care industry for more than a decade. You learn some stuff along the way by reading the literature, interviewing the docs and diving into public-health data.
Anyway, here’s my list of rules:
- Watch what you eat. Forget the special diets like South Beach, Paleo, etc. The one and only surefire way to manage your weight is to assess your current resting basal metabolic rate and adjust your daily net calorie intake accordingly. If you need 3,500 calories each day to maintain, and you want to lose one pound per week, then aim for net calorie intake of 3,000 per day. A deficit or surplus of 3,500 calories equals one pound of weight. You adjust your weight not by exercising, but by moderating calorie intake. So although you should aim for the obvious — don’t overdo sodium, avoid saturated fats, get fiber through veggies, etc. — the best bet is to eat a variety of foods from the various food groups and keep careful eye on your calories.
- Get at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise each day. Do your steps. Run or cycle a bit. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Just move.
- Eliminate your stressors. Stress raises your blood pressure and encourages you to splurge on comfort foods. Stress is a subtle fiend; it attacks your resolve and prompts you to act defensively without really thinking. Find out what’s gnawing at you from within, then squash it without mercy.
- Track your biometrics. Every week, record your blood pressure and weight. If you’re diabetic or closing in on pre-diabetes, track your fasting blood glucose. Get your labs done annually — cholesterol, etc. Look for things in your family history; if thyroid disorders run in the family, for example, get your TSH tested with every lab draw. Know what’s going on inside so you can make changes before things get out of hand.
- Beware the latest fad. Lots of people publish research or findings that simply cannot be validated by other researchers. A new drug trial, a special diet plan, a new surgical procedure — things get hyped and then cannot be demonstrated in peer-reviewed literature to actually have a statistically significant benefit. Diet and supplements are the worst of the lot; overwhelmingly, claims aren’t supported by valid, double-blind research trials. So if you see some new innovation that sounds great, hold your horses. Give the industry time to catch up. Even things like the barefoot running craze have seen some significant reversals and re-reversals in the clinical trials. The folks who produce documentaries about food are often the worst offenders at presenting misleading information about the benefit or organic or local or “sustainable” food choices, relying on emotional tugging instead of hard science, so think twice before you make changes based on the propaganda pieces of professional activists.
- See your providers regularly. Visit your doctor annually for a physical with labs. See your dentist twice per year. See your eye doctor annually. If you need a specialist, keep up with your recommended appointment schedule. Just do it.
- Develop a life goal and a support network. People who have a sense of purpose and a support network to help them during difficult times are more likely to self-manage chronic disease more effectively and recover from injury or illness faster. Plus, they’re significantly less likely to develop depression, a comorbid condition that’s truly a silent killer. So get a plan, get a group, and get going.
- Drink enough water. A majority of Americans are chronically dehydrated, leading to lower immune response, less restful sleep and more difficult kidney function. Just drinking adequate amounts of water — so you urinate roughly every three hours, at very pale color — helps with appetite control and feelings of energy.
- Get enough sleep. A majority of Americans also consistently fail to get adequate rest. Adults, usually, need 7 or 8 hours of restful sleep per night. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to lower immune response, reduced impulse control, slower mental reactions and irritability. Ensure you get a restful slumber, and remember — shut off the glowing screens an hour or more before hitting the sack. Exposure to bright lights can disrupt your sleep cycles.
- Moderate your vices. Don’t drink alcohol to excess. Don’t pig out on truffles every day. If you smoke, consider e-cigs or nicotine patches to step down the habit. Don’t spend all day watching porn or playing video games. In short: If you indulge, indulge responsibly.
It’s not hard to stay healthy, really. There are no secrets or tricks. Just exert the daily effort to maintain and grow. Anyone who tries to sell you on a magic formula or secret shortcut isn’t doing you any favors. Health is a choice, not a product. Choose wisely.