July 29 2012
The Real Secret to Staying Healthy for Life
If you want to stay healthy for life, you need to take care of yourself. That's the conventional wisdom. It's a frequent guilty reminder when we look in the mirror and realize that we aren't in the best shape. "I've got to start taking better care of myself." But the real secret to lifelong good health is actually the opposite: Let your body take care of you. I'm not being contrary. The human body consists of hundreds of billions of cells that function perfectly, and if we were single-celled creatures, immortality would be normal. An amoeba or blue-green algae keeps on living indefinitely by constantly dividing in two to produce the next generation of cells. Absent death from external circumstances such as being eaten or drying up in the sun, one-celled organisms exist in a state of perpetual well-being.
Instead of being disadvantaged by having many cells instead of one, the human body has made tremendous evolutionary leaps. Our cells have perfected special functions for each organ and tissue. They've learned to cooperate with one another by staying in constant communication. An immune system keeps watch on threats from the outside world, and if an injury or disease occurs, the healing system rushes in to repair it.
Modern medicine, for all its advances, knows less than 10% of what your body knows instinctively. Humbling as it is to realize, a doctor doesn't heal his patients. He facilitates the body's healing system, adding whatever is lacking when self-healing falters. By the same logic, everything you and I do to take care of our bodies is actually just an adjunct to letting our bodies take care of us. Our active role is quite secondary. Yet there is no doubt that it is vital.
What makes it vital is the brain and nervous system. They send a constant stream of messages to the rest of the body, creating a feedback loop of information. One side of the feedback loop runs automatically. The other side supports free will and choice, which means that what you decide to do with your life enters the body's feedback loop, gets communicated to every cell, and has repercussions. If you ran your body entirely on its automatic processes, you'd be in a coma. As long as you are awake and alive, making choices, you are adding to the feedback loop.
This picture is simple but not simplistic. Despite the incredible complexity of the brain and nervous system, it forms an information highway teeming with messages, and these are either positive (enhancing your health and well-being) or negative (injurious to health and well-being). Your body will take care of you for life if you maximize the one and minimize the other. I doubt that anyone would seriously disagree with that proposition, but then we reach a fork in the road. Modern medicine looks at the body's feedback loop almost entirely in physical terms. The subjective world of thoughts, feelings, hopes, wishes, and dreams is discounted. If that world intrudes, as it does in depression, for example, the conventional solution is still physical - take an antidepressant.
The other road is holistic, which doesn't deny the physical but refuses to discount the subjective world. The body doesn't recognize that there is a fork in the road. A chemical signal sent from the brain fits into a receptor site in the outer membrane of the cell wall. The entire feedback loop runs on that mechanism, and as far as the cell is concerned, there is no difference between a message that began as an emotion or mood and one that began as growth hormone or estrogen. Your body couldn't survive a single day without being holistic.
Fixating on the physicalist approach, modern medicine has constructed a map to health that puts almost the whole emphasis on physical measures. Exercise is physical, obviously, but so is proper nutrition. Although we take it for granted, sanitation is a physical measure that has probably done more to increase human life span than any kind of drug or surgery. Avoiding toxins is physical, and beyond not smoking and overusing alcohol, there is a growing awareness that environmental toxins we take for granted because our exposure is minuscule, may still have harmful effects. (These include pesticides, herbicides, and hormones that are routinely introduced into the food chain.)
But if you adhered rigorously to the entire physical side, as beneficial as the results might be, you are not really letting your body take care of you. You are basically minimizing risks. A risk-free life is far from being a healthy life. To begin with, the very word "risk" implies worry, and people who worry about every bite of food, sip of water, the air they breathe, the gym sessions they have missed, and the minutiae of vitamin doses, are not sending positive signals to their cells. A stressful day sends constant negative messaging to the feedback loop, and popping a vitamin pill or choosing whole wheat bread instead of white bread does close to zero to change that.
To let your body take care of you, two things are vital:
1. Create a matrix for a positive lifestyle. You can't make positive choices for the rest of your life without an environment that makes those choices easy, natural, and enjoyable.
2. Create the best inner environment for your brain. The brain processes every experience you have, and it must function well in order for the real controller of your life - the mind - to make its best intentions known.
In the next two posts we will cover these two vital areas in detail.
What is the best way to insure that you will remain healthy your whole life? America has led the world in medical research that gave rise to the best advice on how to prevent lifestyle disorders. This trend has only increased, and the evidence for it has kept mounting. Up to 90% of cancers may be preventable, for example, a complete turn around from a decade ago. Lifestyle changes would reduce the rates of overweight, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke as well. If more people actually complied with the recommended changes, general health would take a leap ahead.
But that isn't my focus. As important as it is to take care of yourself, letting your body take care of you is the real secret.
In the last post two things were crucial to giving your body the best chance to do what it was designed to do: survive and thrive at any age. Here I want to deal with the first critical ingredient: Create a matrix for a positive lifestyle. You can't make positive choices for the rest of your life without an environment that makes those choices easy, natural, and enjoyable.
The flaw in the whole prevention movement has been non-compliance. We are a nation suffering from an epidemic of obesity, turning more and more sedentary despite the good advice, which is constantly drummed into our heads. Unless they've been hibernating, everyone knows that long-term health depends upon a sensible diet and moderate physical exercise every day. As a first step, letís stop thinking in terms of discipline and self-control altogether. Some people are prevention saints. They consume only one tablespoon of total fat per day in their diet, because thatís the ideal amount for heart health. They ignore wind and rain to get in five hours of vigorous exercise a week. Saints are inspiring to the rest of us, but deep down they are also discouraging because they remind us that we are a hundred miles from being saintly ourselves.
Change without force is certainly possible. What you need is to create a matrix for making better choices. By matrix I simply mean your setup for daily living. Everyone has a matrix already. Some people live inside a setup that makes positive choices much easier than it is for others. A cupboard that doesnít contain any snack foods would be part of such a matrix. A house without a television or video games would be another, but you arenít being good to yourself by jogging every day because you have no entertainment at home. In the end the physical side is secondary. A matrix is more substantial and sustainable.
The real key is to live in an environment where the mind feels free to choose the right thing instead of being compelled by habit and inertia to choose the wrong thing.
Matrix for a Positive Lifestyle:
◦Have good friends.
◦Donít isolate yourself.
◦Sustain a lifelong companionship with a spouse or partner.
◦Engage socially in worthwhile projects.
◦Be close with people who have a good lifestyle Ė habits are contagious.
◦Follow a purpose in life.
◦Leave time for play and relaxation.
◦Keep up satisfying sexual activity.
◦Address issues around anger.
◦Practice stress management.
Deal with the reactive mindís harmful effects: When you have a negative reaction, stop, stand back, take a few deep breaths, and observe how youíre feeling.
These items have been well correlated with longevity. One thing that links them is very basic: success comes when people act together; failure tends to happen alone. A spouse or life partner who keeps an eye on your diet (ďHavenít you already eaten a cookie today? Have a carrotĒ) is better than wandering the supermarket aisles alone and impulsively grabbing a weekís worth of frozen dinners. A friend who goes to the gym three times a week gives you more incentive than all the promises you make to yourself as you watch Sunday Night Football. Itís important to establish your matrix early and keep it going. Studies have shown that losing a spouse suddenly leads to isolation, depression, higher risk for disease, and ultimately shortened life span. But if you have a wider social network beyond your spouse, you have a cushion against these baleful influences.
The other items on the list should be perused carefully, asking yourself honestly how you can improve your matrix. The goal is to practice what is good for you while making everything as effortless as possible. This only happens with positive reinforcement. The good news is that as you change your lifestyle, you are training your brain in a positive direction. In time, all the right choices become second nature. Research has shown that the best way to be happy is to make each day happy. The same holds true for the highest state of health, which is well-being. Build it day by day and the results will last a lifetime.
Your outer environment is only half the story. In the final post I'll discuss the second key to lifelong good health, which is to create the right inner environment, a journey that begins with making the mind-body connection as strong as possible.