The great comedian Lenny Bruce used to have a bit in which he said, “I was going on vacation, so my doctor gave me an important list of things to do for swimmers in shark infested waters”. He’d slyly ask the audience, “Are you ready for the first ‘do’?”
“Get out of the water as soon as possible!”
“Gee doc”, he’d say sarcastically, “I’m really glad you thought of that one!”
I was thinking about that routine this week while listening to Thursday’s televised discussion of the healthcare debate. Because whatever side you happen to be on, and whomever you may have been rooting for (or against) last Thursday, I’ll bet you can agree with me on one basic principle when it comes to the medical “system” in this country: “Try to stay out of it in the first place!”
Look, it goes without saying that sometimes really bad things happen to people that are completely beyond anyone’s control. And that even when we do absolutely everything right, sometimes we still fall victim to terrible diseases or accidents. Tragedies happen, often without rhyme or reason. Believe me, I get it.
But that said, there are an awful lot of basic steps we can take to reduce the risks of becoming a medical statistic.
The Nurses Health Study, for example, showed that adopting five basic strategies produced an incredible 80% reduction in the risk of heart disease. Want to know the magic five?
- Don’t smoke
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Eat a Mediterranean-type diet (fish twice a week)
- Drink alcohol in moderation only
There isn’t a pill on the market that can produce the kind of results those five behaviors will produce.
I’ve put together my own personal list of behaviors and strategies that I think, taken together, could significantly lower the risk of you spending a lot of time in the medical system, or even in the doctor’s office. For what it’s worth, here’s my personal list:
- Never eat trans-fats. A comprehensive review of studies of trans fats published in 2006 in the New England Journal of Medicine reported a strong and reliable connection between trans fat consumption and coronary heart disease. The study estimates that between 30,000 and 100,000 cardiac deaths per year in the United States are attributable to the consumption of trans fats. (By the way, don’t believe the “zero trans fats” on the label- read the ingredients: if it’s got hydrogenated oil, or partially hydrogenated oil in it, it’s got trans-fats, no matter what the label says)
- Don’t smoke. Do I even need to explain why? I thought not.
- Walk ½ hour or more every day, at moderate intensity, at least five days a week. It won’t make you thin, but it will protect your heart, brain, lungs and bones.
- Lift weights. It preserves muscle, keeps your bones strong, reduces the risk of osteoporosis, keeps you body lean, and boosts your metabolism.
- Get some sun. We are vitamin D deficient, and the list of things that vitamin D prevents, helps, or improves is simply staggering.
- Reduce sugar in your diet. Mounting evidence suggests high-sugar (high processed carb) diets are a risk factor for cancer and heart disease, let alone diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome.
- Eat as many servings of vegetables and fruits as you possibly can- 9 servings a day is a good goal! And concentrate on the vegetables!
- Find a purpose. The Okinawans call it “ikagi” meaning “ a reason for being”. Contribute, participate, take the attention off yourself, and do something for other people.
- Connect- with family, friends, animals, community. And maintain and nurture those connections. Stay engaged and positive.
- Take basic supplements: At the very least, omega-3 fats (fish oil), vitamin D, and a high quality multiple. And that’s the absolute minimum!
- Eat more fiber. Every major health organization recommends 25-38 grams daily. Americans get a paltry 4-11 grams of the stuff. A ton of studies link high fiber diets with better health outcomes- less diabetes, less weight gain, better blood sugar control and less cancer and heart disease. Get it from beans, vegetables, fruits and fiber supplements.
Are these strategies infallible? Of course not. But think about it- wearing your seat belt and driving sober can’t guarantee you that some drunk won’t come out of nowhere and plow into your car. But we do those things anyway because it’s absolutely true that doing so significantly reduces the risk of something bad happening while driving. It doesn’t eliminate the risk- but it sure does lower it.
The best part about these strategies is that they are all in our control. They allow us to be empowered to actually make a difference in our health. We may not be able, individually, to transform the broken health care system in America, much as we might like to. But we can sure do our part to see that we “visit” it as little as possible.