Simple health and wellness: slowing down

“We fear the future because we are wasting the today… Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” – Mother Teresa

The last two posts in this series focused on simple ways to be more proactive about our health. The first post looked at diet and exercise, and the second addressed screening and self-education. This last post is about one central idea- slowing down and being present. 

I was reminded about the importance of slowing down last week. I had volunteered to help a group of young students learn about different local plants. We were walking on a nature trail when a little girl of about 7 years old took a photograph of flowers growing in a field. Looking down at the image on her camera, she smiled and remarked, “Everyone is always so busy; they never get to see all these amazing things.” Her comment caught me off guard. I looked around, taking in the bright colors of the plants and flowers, the sun streaming through the leaves, and the shimmering light from a lake in the distance. I was so focused on making my next point to the students that I had failed to notice how beautiful this trail was. 

There are days, many days, when I know I have been guilty of thinking too much, worrying too much, and letting amazing, beautiful things slip by unnoticed. Ironically, thinking and worrying rarely help any of us reach our goal, whereas being aware and clear-minded usually do. Anxiety and stress not only decrease our productivity and compromise our purpose, they also destroy our wellbeing. Slowing down, paying attention and appreciating what surrounds us is the quickest way to regain perspective and restore  our peace of mind.

Figuring out simple ways to re-center yourself when you are stressed will help create more balance in your life. (1) Breathe. When you become aware of physical signs of stress and anxiety, slow your breathing by inhaling and exhaling deeply. Mindful, slow breathing has an immediate calming effect and is one of the quickest, most reliable ways to reduce stress. (2) Forget busy, and figure out what truly matters to you. Limiting distractions and learning to say “no” will declutter your overly busy schedule. Creating space will allow you to slow down, be present, and spend time on the activities and people you hold dearest. (3) Become reacquainted with nature. Making time to be outdoors every day is fundamental to your health. Nature is one of the most effective healers. Being outside and noticing what surrounds you- trees, communities, schools, people, animals, parks, businesses- will automatically remind you of how much there is to appreciate. 

Life moves at a rapid pace. We miss much of what happens around us. Slowing down is a proactive choice to more fully embrace life and enjoy a greater sense of peace and wellbeing.

Simple health and wellness tips: screening and education

“No one is without knowledge except he who asks no questions.” ~ Ancient Proverb

You play an incredibly powerful role in dictating the course of your health. As discussed in the last post, 80% of chronic illnesses can be prevented through the lifestyle choices you make each day. But making informed decisions requires deliberate self-awareness and honesty. In addition to paying attention to diet and exercise, you can build self-awareness through active health screening and education. A major key to being proactive about your health is understanding your unique medical profile.

Know your body and your health risks. Routine medical, dental, and visual screenings help create a baseline profile of what’s normal for you. They may also help catch problems at early stages, when they are often easier to treat. Recommended evaluations may monitor blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, body mass index, colorectal, breast, cervical, and/or prostate health (1). These tests are not just for primary prevention; they can help you follow ongoing concerns, so you can control progression of existing conditions. Staying up to date on immunizations, and practicing protective skin care are also important strategies for preventing serious medical problems. How frequently you decide to visit your doctor depends on your underlying health status and personal needs.

Medical visits should not be restricted to physician visits. Dental appointments are also important for your overall health. Gum disease, or periodontal disease, is diagnosed in more than 3 million people each year in the US (2). This bacterial infection is associated with poor dental care, resulting in swollen, red gums, loose teeth, and increased oral sensitivity. There is an increased risk of gum disease if you smoke or have diabetes, so dental care is especially important in these cases. Perhaps surprisingly, periodontal disease is not just an issue for your mouth. It increases your risk of developing serious systemic problems, including rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease (3). This occurs because the bacteria that cause gum disease can move through your blood, affecting blood vessels in the heart and creating harmful blood clots.

Outside of scheduled appointments, self-examination and an ongoing awareness of your physical and emotional wellness are critical. Recommended monthly self-exams include breast, testicular, and skin checks. Any sudden or persistent changes, such as lumps, pain, color, swelling, or rashes, can help identify problems early, increasing the probability of treating and curing an illness. As an example, if a woman feels a lump in her breast, she should act immediately and see a doctor. If a cancer is diagnosed and restricted to the breast, her chance of surviving 5 years is almost 99% based on statistics for women in the US (4). However, the 5-year survival from cancer that has spread from the breast to distant organs falls to 27%. These statistics vary patient to patient but emphasize the importance of early detection. Detecting the cancer before it spreads makes a significant difference in survival.

Despite the tremendous benefits of healthy lifestyle choices, our genetics are intimately tied to our risk profile of developing medical conditions. Therefore, to truly know your health risks, you must know your family history. It’s particularly important to keep a record of medical problems among first-degree relatives, meaning your parents, siblings, and children, since you share substantial genetic overlap. The National Institutes of Health actually recommends keeping a medical record for three generations of your family (5). The idea is to be aware of medical patterns in your family, including diseases for which you may have increased risk. It does not mean that you are going to develop the disease, but it does suggest that you should be proactive about taking steps to reduce your risk.

Understand your personal health record. A personal health record is a comprehensive set of your health information that you maintain and control. Everything about your health should be kept in this record. It may be a paper data set, electronic, or a combination. The information should be as complete as possible, including past and current illnesses, allergies, medications, health evaluations, surgeries, and family medical history. Ask your healthcare providers for records, such as images and reports, so you have them accessible when you want them. Having this record readily available is important for your peace of mind and that of your family. Simply creating the record is not enough; take steps to clearly understand everything in your record, including the side effect profiles of your medications, and how your medications interact with one another. Another advantage of having a personal health record is that you do not have to be dependent on your healthcare team for information. If you need information for work, travel, or a new doctor, you will have it available. If there’s an emergency, a family member can consult your record when contacting the hospital. Here is additional information to help you develop your personal health record.

Ask lots of questions, and know where to look for information. Our knowledge is only as deep as the quality and honesty of our questions. Ask openly about risk factors, prevention strategies, health and fitness, medications, and lifestyle changes. Even if your healthcare practitioner does not know the answer, he or she should be able to guide you to an appropriate source. If you feel that your questions are not being answered, or that you are being rushed, find a provider who will support your health enough to address your questions. If you have concerns about identifying credible written sources, ask your physician for advice. Scholarly databases, such as the National Library of Medicine, Medline Plus, and PubMed, are good places to start. Check out this site for great tips about credible sources of health information. When you read health articles online, pay attention to the affiliations, credentials and conflicts of interests of the website and author, as these may bias their advice. Medical research evolves rapidly, so check the date on your article to make sure you are reading the most recent information. It’s also useful to read articles with referenced sources, so you can go back and check the original articles. Checking multiple sites or articles for consistency of information, and consulting with your physician for advice are important steps towards ensuring that you can trust the information you are reading.

In our next post, we’ll cover simple strategies for integrating greater levels of balance and wellness into our lives.

Simple health and wellness tips: diet and exercise

“If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.” – Hippocrates

Sometimes we become so busy that we forget to prioritize our health. Only when our bodies send us a physical reminder, do we remember to take care of ourselves. What if we were mindful about our health more often and practiced preventive, proactive healthcare? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 70% of deaths and 80% of hospital admissions in the US are due to chronic, long-term illnesses, such as diabetes and cancer (1). Much of this morbidity and mortality is preventable through improved diet, regular exercise, and eliminating tobacco use. In fact, as much as 40% of cancers and 80% of heart disease, strokes, and diabetes may be prevented by lifestyle changes. These statistics are relevant to everyone, with at least 80% of the world’s chronic illnesses occurring in middle- and low-income regions (2).

This is the first of three posts discussing easy steps you can fit into a regular routine to help regain control of your health and wellness. 

Drink water. Our bodies need water for most biological processes- digestion, maintaining body temperature, even brain function. Adult men should get about 16 cups of water a day from food and drinks, and women about 12 cups. About 80% of that (9-13 cups) should come from beverages, with fresh, filtered water the best choice. Actual needs vary based on the heat and humidity where you live, your age, activity level, overall health, and if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Why do we need so much water? Our bodies are actually 60% water, including 80% of our blood and 70% of our brain (3), (4), (5). If you want to perform at your best, drinking water is a quick way to get there.

Eat well. Despite an obesity epidemic in many industrialized nations, we have a serious problem with malnutrition due to high consumption of nutrient-deficient foods. One essential health tip is to eat natural foods and omit processed products. The National Health Service Eatwell and US Department of Agriculture MyPlate guides provide visual representations of how much of each food group you should consume per meal. The Harvard School of Public Health has also released excellent guidance in the HealthyEating Plate with comparison to MyPlate available. They emphasize including a variety of colorful vegetables and fruits on half the plate, and whole grains and protein sources on the other half. Limit red meat, and avoid processed foods (6), (7). The Healthy Eating Plate also includes advice about drinking plenty of water, limiting unhealthy fats, omitting sugary drinks, and emphasizes the importance of maintaining an active lifestyle.

Limit sugar. Regular intake of sugar can contribute to weight gain, type 2 diabetes, and heart problems. The CDC suggests limiting sugar to less than 10% of daily calories (8). The Healthy Eating Plate advises against sugary drinks and recommends limiting fruit juice to one small glass a day. They also recommend limiting starchy foods like potatoes, which increase blood sugar. Foods that are rapidly digested and cause a spike in blood sugar have a high glycemic index. Stick with foods that have a medium to low glycemic index, as listed here.

Be active. Exercise is beneficial all around, for our physical, mental and emotional wellness. There’s a vast amount of data supporting the protective effects of exercise against chronic illnesses, aging-related problems, weight gain, and depression. A standard recommendation is to engage in moderate-level activity for 30 minutes each day (9). This could include walking, gardening, dancing, or cleaning the house. There are different ways to quickly increase the amount of activity you get in a day, including taking the stairs, parking further and walking, standing while working, or having walking meetings with colleagues and friends.

Eliminate tobacco. Smoking rates in the US have gone down by half during the past four decades. However, about 34 million US adults still use tobacco, and 58 million nonsmokers are exposed to secondhand smoke (10). One of five deaths in the US is attributed to the effects of cigarette smoking, which also accounts for 87% of lung cancer deaths and 30% or more of all cancer deaths each year. Quitting smoking before you’re 50 years old can reduce the risk of smoking-related death by half over the next 15 years. That’s huge! Quitting smoking also improves the long-term outlook and quality of life for those who spend time with you. There are a number of evidence-backed approaches to stop smoking. Speak with your healthcare provider about the best options for you. Follow up with your healthcare team as often as needed to keep you on track, and build the support team you need to help you succeed.

Electronic apps take the hard work out of remembering what or how much you’re drinking or eating. Many of these apps also track steps and allow entry of other types of physical activity. Keeping food diaries and logging your activity levels can help you achieve your fitness goals. These strategies make a difference when applied consistently.

In our next post, we’ll cover simple strategies for being more proactive about our healthcare, focusing on screening and education.