Most people think that we don’t have much control over our health. When we look at the major diseases in our country like heart disease, cancers, chronic lower respiratory diseases, stroke, diabetes – there is a common thread. All of these diseases are strongly influenced by our behaviors. According to one study, over 70% of all premature deaths were attributable to only three behaviors – what we do with our feet, forks, and fingers.
According to one study, over 70% of all premature deaths were attributable to only three behaviors – what we do with our feet, forks, and fingers.
Lack of physical activity may be THE biggest health problem in our country today. We know that not moving enough can lead to all kinds of diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancers, stroke, diabetes, and osteoporosis.
But physical activity isn’t just good for health. It contributes to leadership skills, increases productivity, and innovation. It can lower depression and crime, increase educational attainment and income levels. The benefits are truly astonishing.
I have seen firsthand the compounding effects of this activity. For one patient who had just retired, my main treatment was developing a sensible physical activity plan. He decided to begin walking around his neighborhood when the weather was good and go to the neighborhood recreation center when it was poor. As he started walking, his neighbors were curious. When he told them his plan, they began to join him and now he has a walking club with half of his block. At the rec center, he began coaching and mentoring at risk youth basketball teams. His one decision to begin a walking program snowballed into a new area of purpose and growth for him and his community.
So how much activity do we need? Well, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, some is better than none. Even as little as 15 minutes per day of moderate intensity exercise can be enough to add three years to your life expectancy. For more substantial health benefits, 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity is the minimum recommended amount. However, there are additional benefits to be gained for every extra hour of activity per week.
For over 50 years, a small group of physicians and researchers have been sounding the alarm that the food we eat is a major cause of diseases. Not only do Americans eat too much food, but we also tend to eat the wrong kinds of foods.
In 2008, a group of researchers examined the general dietary patterns of over 25,000 individuals from 52 countries to see if there was an association between diet and the risk of a heart attack. They found that the more a diet pattern included added fats, fried food, heavily processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages, the more likely a person was to have a heart attack.
If most of what we eat is wrong, what can we do to eat right?
Here are three simple strategies:
1. Eat Food
By this, I mean to eat food that actually looks like food. If you can’t identify the constituent parts that make up a food item, maybe you shouldn’t eat it.
2. Mostly Plants
This tends to be the kind of food that we in Western countries (and especially America) tend to under consume. Eating more fruits, and especially vegetables can be a key strategy. This helps in several ways. Not only will eating more plants will give us the positive benefits of these plants (fiber, vitamins and minerals, etc) but it will also avoid the negatives of eating unhealthy food.
3. Not Too Much
Overeating is a significant challenge for many Americans and one which my patients frequently report struggling with. I often recommend that patients begin by focusing on the quality of their food. A large randomized clinical trial published this year in JAMA found that around 600 people were able to lose about a pound per month of weight simply by changing to a diet which was based more on the whole food, mostly plant philosophy I outlined above. The cool thing is that these folks were able to lose weight without worrying about portions or calories. They were simply asked to eat until they felt full, then stop.
The last behavior which can be modified to decrease the risk of diseases is to stop putting cigarettes in our fingers. According to the Surgeon General, smoking affects not just the lungs but nearly every organ in the body. Smoking is deadly.
The easiest way to stop smoking is to never start, because quitting smoking can be hard. Among the patients I have worked with, most have needed several attempts to quit and not everyone who did try to quit was successful. But I have seen enough lives transformed after quitting smoking to still believe that it is worth it – no matter how long, or how much you have smoked. One memorable patient of mine commented that after he quit smoking, he was able to get breathless doing things he wants to do instead of things he had to do. If that’s not an endorsement for quitting smoking, I don’t know what is.
Three simple behaviors – how we use our feet, forks, and fingers – can determine a large part of the trajectory that our lives take. How will this information impact your decisions tomorrow?