What do I do to stay healthy? With my own personal interests in biking and nutrition, along with a medical degree, this is a question I am asked frequently.
A friend who was nearing retirement wanted suggestions that would let him get the most out of his post-work life. He was looking for general suggestions more than details.
From my personal experience, as well as numerous medical studies on aging well, I suggested four basic elements to health and happiness.
First - a healthy diet. Last month my column went into more detail, so this is a summary in a nutshell. Studies on longevity and health all demonstrate the benefit of a vegetarian diet. This doesn’t need to be an all or nothing endeavor. A reduction in weekly meat intake, moving towards a vegetarian diet is my number one to-do diet recommendation. Avoiding sugar is second.
Then we move from “whats” to the “whens.” Always eat breakfast and eat the bulk of your daily calories before 2 PM.
It’s important to note that I love to eat, so weighing myself every morning is the easiest way to keep an eye on my daily caloric in versus out. If my weight starts to move up, portions sizes get smaller. It is easier to make small changes before the belt tightens and I find the extra five pounds are already in place.
Second - regular (daily) exercise. I try to get an hour of some aerobic exercise every day (walking, swimming, biking - for example). If you have a day job, there have been a number of studies that demonstrate a benefit from as little as 15 minutes of intense exercise every other day. But you will get added benefit if you move to a daily program, and up the time to 30 to 60 minutes.
Timing and intensity of the exercise factor in as well. If you have the flexibility, a brisk walk after breakfast or lunch blunts the blood sugar rise that is harmful in pre-diabetics. Likewise, eating after your more intense gym routine provides a similar benefit. Intervals, short periods of exercise at your upper comfort level, provide more cardiovascular benefits than a longer slow paced walk. That’s why 15 minutes of concentrated exercise that includes 6-20 second intervals can be more beneficial for your cardiovascular health than a less intense 60-minute workout.
My third suggestion - purpose. At its simplest this is being involved with something (or someone) that makes you look forward to the day. Some might describe this as their “passion”. Others as what gives “meaning” to their lives. It can be as simple as a hobby, or writing a blog (or a newspaper column). Perhaps volunteering or spending time with family. Whatever it might be, it makes you look forward to getting out of bed each day.
Fourth and last - community. Man is at heart a social animal and we all need this connection - spouse, family and friends. Work can provide elements of that deep for fulfillment. For those who are volunteering, it is the contact with those you are helping. Lack of community is almost certainly one of the reasons single men die younger than married men, and single women with friends do better than single women who live alone. It is easy to find community if we look, and to integrate it into the rest of our day. We find community when we go to the gym for a regular spin class. We find it when we volunteer at the senior center or for meals-on-wheels. In many ways it is the easiest of the four parts of my prescription.
There you have it – my personalized four pillars of a healthy and happy life. Fine tune the body (exercise), provide the fuel (food), provide the “soul” (purpose), and find somebody (or something) you can share and enjoy with others.