By Andrea Atkins
What is healthy enough? My attempts to get “super healthy” usually end in disappointment. I spoke to two of the biggest names in the wellness field to shed light on this issue.
This article is reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org.
As a health writer, I keep up to date with the latest health and medical research by reading books and scientific studies, attending webinars, and following top wellness influencers on my podcast and social media circle. The plus side is that I’m well versed in how to live a long, healthy life.
Unfortunately, knowing and doing are two different things, so there’s a downside as well: I often feel that my health habits are inadequate, and my attempts to get “super healthy” usually end in disappointment. No doubt this cycle of trying, failing, and trying again has made me healthier than I would have otherwise, but it can make me miserable at times.
I compare myself to the titans of wellness
Health podcasts are a big part of my problem. These shows feature famous doctors and scientists with hundreds of thousands of followers, bestsellers, and famous TED talks – and none of them have achieved this level of success by leading “ultra healthy” lifestyles.
These people drown in ice water every morning. Eat all of their calories within a few hours a day (except when they eat nothing at all for a week at a time); sleeping in what is essentially a darkened, climate-controlled Faraday cage, tucked under a 20-pound gravity blanket; taking a wide range of medications or nutritional supplements; And he attached continuous glucose monitors to their slender, non-diabetic arms to see what effect a handful of grapes might have on insulin response. But the most extreme habits, in my opinion, are that they don’t eat candy, like ever!
Meanwhile, I count wood chopping and dog walking as exercise, I wake up five times each night with hot flashes, and although my meals tend to be fairly healthy, dessert is a staple in my life, not to mention my “second breakfast” .
I was tired of feeling guilty about my health habits (or lack thereof) and wondered if I needed to go to extremes to avoid ill health in the future. I was hoping there were only two or three things I could focus on to live a long, healthy life, but I didn’t know if that was realistic.
To find out, I spoke with two of the biggest names in the wellness field, and these conversations shed new light on the problem and helped answer my questions. If striving to be healthy makes you miserable at times, I hope their insights can help you too.
See also: Men over 50: here are some things you can do to take better care of your health
who live like centenarians
My first interview was with Dan Buettner, National Geographic Fellow and author of “The Blue Zones Kitchen.” If you are not familiar with the term, blue zones are those geographic areas where people have lived for 100 years at a rate that is many times higher than in the rest of the world. Buettner and his team have been studying people in those areas for more than a decade, discovering that they share a set of common lifestyle factors that are likely responsible for their excellent health and longevity.
I like the Blue Zones model because I already follow many of their prescribing habits. Do you eat most plants? examines. move normally? examines. Hang out with fun people? examines. I drink wine every evening? Checks out!
There are nine factors in total – The Power 9 – which sounds like a lot to me. So I asked Buettner if there were two or three I could focus on for maximum effect. If so, I was hoping they were the ones I was already doing, but no luck.
He explained, “Longevity is the sum of a bunch of little things, and the key is not knowing what those little things are because we’ve all heard them a million times; it’s the interconnected and mutually supportive web that encourages those little things.”
I asked what that might look like in practice. “First, I was thinking about moving to a clean, walkable, happy neighborhood,” he said.
This seemed kind of drastic to me, but I was OK with it because I live in the middle of the Chippewa National Forest, where the air is fresh, I can walk for miles and miles, and the six people I know here are pretty darn happy.
See: I no longer drive and want to retire in a high-walk urban area with many cultural activities – where should I go?
But what about other people – should they consider moving if they don’t live somewhere that fits the bill? “Everyone should consider doing this if they are serious about being healthy,” he said emphatically.
“The number two is the coordination of your immediate social circle,” he added. “Don’t abandon your obese friends, but make proactive friendships with people who are active or engaged in new hobbies. Unhappiness and loneliness are contagious. So surround yourself with people who are healthy, energetic, and happy and full of purpose in their lives.”
surrounded myself? I jotted down the phrase “getting friends” on a draft paper and stressed it out.
“Finally,” he said, “I’m going to get your hands on a few whole vegan recipe books. Find a half dozen recipes that you and your family want, and make them.”
That sounded fine, but I had to ask, “What about candy? Are these people in the blue zones treating themselves?”
“Yes, sure,” he said (smiles), “at a party, but the dessert is usually a piece of fruit.” (abs).
I muttered agreeing with him as I was thinking, “Mmmm, Ben and Jerry!”
The takeaway was that I do many things right, but there is room for improvement. The candy and sweets in the coffee break seem to be in great danger.
Read: US plant-based foods market is worth $7.4 billion, but industry faces tough road to further growth
The Fountain of Youth: A Lifestyle Model
My second phone call was with David Sinclair, Professor of Genetics and Co-Director of the Paul F. Glenn Research Biology of Aging at Harvard Medical School. He is also the bestselling author of Lifespan: Why We Age – and Why We Don’t Have It and host of the podcast, Lifespan with Dr. David Sinclair.
Sinclair is looking for more than just how to live a long, healthy life. Instead, his research aims to find switches to slowing, stopping, or even reversing the aging process at the molecular level.
While I can’t afford the gene therapies, drugs, or supplements that Sinclair writes about in “Lifespan,” he also adopts a lot of other free lifestyle habits, so I asked him to give me a better two or three.
He said, “If there is one thing I can recommend, it would be for people over 30 to break the habit of eating three meals. Our bodies are not designed to be constantly fed. So if your body is always nourished it is not concerned with anti-aging or defense.” for itself against diseases.
Well, three meals a day is the bare minimum for me. However, I don’t remember a day in the last month when I also didn’t eat a lot of snacks (“healthy” of course) and dessert. How am I supposed to do this?
“The trick is not to try to change your lifestyle too quickly, to try to substitute activities and food instead of adding and subtracting,” he said. He explained, “I decided to eat within a certain amount of time – four hours a day. To do this, I had to do it gradually and have tea and coffee all the time until it was a habit of putting something in my mouth and the feeling of fullness was still there.”
This seemed miserable to me, but so did the aches and pains that started in my fifties, so I asked him to continue.
“The second thing is to move. Get a standing desk, walk 7,000 steps a day, and take your breath away from vigorous exercise for at least 10 minutes three times a week.”
I wrote, “Move more and faster” on the scratch paper.
And third, he said, “consumes molecules produced by stressed plants, and plants grown under less than ideal conditions.”
This is not a week-old wilted lettuce in the grocery store but a food grown without pesticides, fertilizer, or sufficient water. In other words, almost everything comes out of my garden. excellent!
He added, “It takes a few weeks for your body to get used to new things – exercise, new food, new window for eating – so take it slow and give it a few weeks.”
Related: Want to live to 100? Here’s what the latest research says about longevity
Not eating your cake and not eating it too
I got a message from Sinclair loud and clear, but I couldn’t imagine fasting 20 hours a day, especially if dessert wasn’t included in that four-hour window. Was this important for health and longevity? So I sent a follow-up email to Dan Buettner, asking about meal frequency and timing among centenarians in the Blue Zones.
He wrote: “Across the Blue Zones, they tend to consume the most calories before the midday meal and eat little or no dinner. Many seniors have told me they only eat one or two meals a day.”
Good crap. I knew what I needed to focus on now, and if I was going to do that, I would have to add “Avoid Sugar” and “Short Eating Window” to my paper-based wellness plan.
Read: How do the world’s elderly make their money?
Deciding at the time to take a new path forward, I gritted my teeth while taking notes on scratch paper. I will continue to research the latest information on health and longevity, I will continue to strive for optimal health, but I will stop feeling bad about it when things are not going well.
I put my pen down with relief to make an important decision. It was almost five o’clock, so I celebrated with a glass of wine.
Rachel Brown is a longtime fitness professional and freelance writer with hundreds of lines in print and online. She is a regular contributor to NextAvenue and the Active Network, and author of “Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss” (Turner Publishing). Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @RasheleBrownMN.
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