Thursday, July 24, 2008

Benefits of a Healthy Lifestyle

During the last 20 years of practicing medicine, one of the most important lessons I have learned is that quality of life is directly related to good health. I focus much of my attention on teaching people the importance of healthy living and the rewards it offers.

A healthy lifestyle should include:

  • Eating a low fat-high fiber diet

  • Exercising regularly at least four times a week for at least 20-30 minutes

  • Stress reduction

  • Smoking avoidance

  • Moderate alcohol intake

The rewards of adhering to a healthy lifestyle are more than worth the effort, considering the alarming statistics on America's health. As many as 250,000 deaths each year can be linked to a sedentary lifestyle. Medical research has repeatedly shown a relationship between decreased aerobic fitness, poor dietary habits and smoking to heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, certain cancers, depression, obesity and more.

In the United States, the most common causes of death and disability are the result of lifestyle-related illnesses that are preventable. It is estimated that 25% of the US population is consider overweight. This does not include the obese population. More alarming is that up to 10% of children and 20% of adolescents are considered obese. The good news is, these conditions can be improved by our collective efforts to live better and to teach the next generation better habits.

Eating Low Fat-High Fiber Diets

America has a big fat problem. We consume too much fat, especially saturated fat. The saturated fats include animal-based food sources, like meat, eggs, cheese and other dairy products. The fast food industry has in particular expanded our intake of high-fat foods. The average percentage of fat intake in this country exceeds the recommended 30% maximum. More recent studies even suggest that a 20% daily fat intake would be more suitable. The tremendous increase in deaths due to heart disease since the early 1900's can be directly attributed to the excess fat on our plates and under our belts.

The direct effects of saturated fat in the diet include:

  • Increase in blood cholesterol

  • Increase in premature death rates

  • Increase in certain cancers

  • Increase in obesity

On the other side of the coin, Americans typically eat half the needed fiber of 20-30 grams per day. Fiber comes from fruits, vegetables and whole grains and is classified as soluble or insoluble. Soluble fiber is dissolved by water in the gut and helps to bind and clear out cholesterol. Insoluble fiber passes through the intestines mostly in its original form and is important for the bulk in our bowels that is essential for proper bowel elimination.

Soluble fiber is found in such foods as:

  • Legumes

  • Peanuts

  • Whole grains

  • Some fruits

  • Vegetables

Other Benefits of Soluble Fiber:

  • Stimulates and softens bowels

  • Moderates the blood sugar level

  • Helps prevent heart disease

Insoluble Fiber is found in:

  • Nuts and seeds

  • Unpeeled vegetables

  • Whole grain cereals (esp. wheat bran)

  • Legumes

  • Fruits

The main benefit of insoluble fiber is that it helps to prevention constipation, hemorrhoids, diverticular disease and lowers the risk of colorectal cancer.

Regular Exercise

Americans young and old are more sedentary and overweight than ever. It has been reported that more than 60% of the adult population in this country do not participate in any form of regular fitness activity. This is surprising, since overwhelming evidence shows how regular exercise has such an incredible affect on major systems in the body.

Exercise can be classified as aerobic, anaerobic and flexibility training.

Specifically, aerobic exercise helps to:

  • Reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke

  • Improves cholesterol level

  • Improves blood flow (esp. to the heart and brain)

  • Reduces blood pressure

  • Reduces risk of diabetes

  • Improves existing adult onset diabetes

  • Control weight and prevent obesity

  • Decrease stress and anxiety

  • Improve depression

Anaerobic exercise or resistance training helps to:

  • Build muscle and increase bone mass

  • Reduces risk of osteoporosis

  • Improves osteoarthritis

  • Prevent back pain by strengthening the back muscles

Flexibility training involves stretching of muscles, joints and supporting skeletal tissue.

It is an important adjunct to any exercise program and helps to:

  • Promotes proper joint movement

  • Decrease muscle stiffness that occurs with aging

To achieve the optimal effects of exercise, all three types of training should be incorporated into your fitness regime. They all promote increased energy, improve self-confidence and create a general feeling of well being.

Stress Reduction

Stress can be defined as the body's response to a physical or psychological threat. The body reacts by releasing powerful stimulation hormones that prepare you for "fight or flight."

Chronic stress can adversely affect the well-being by causing:

  • Fatigue

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Increased heart rate

  • Increased blood pressure

  • A host of other common complaints that send people to seek medical attention

Additionally, stress robs your body of important nutrients (particularly proteins), vitamins and minerals and disrupts immune system function. Stress also aggravates other destructive behaviors, like smoking, overeating and substance abuse. Fortunately, "stress busters" like regular exercise and meditation help relieve the effects of today's stressful world.

Tobacco Avoidance

The links between smoking and cancer are widely accepted, even now by the tobacco industry. Lung cancer is the most common smoking-related cancer, but throat, bladder and gastrointestinal cancers also are increased by tobacco. Each year appropriately 430,000 deaths in the US can be linked to tobacco use. Cigarette smoking is associated with a number of other deadly and disability conditions, most notably; coronary artery disease and chronic lung disease like bronchitis and emphysema.

Moderate Alcohol Intake

The recommended intake of alcohol is probably the best example of how balance works. A small daily intake of one ounce can be good for your health, while larger amounts can be harmful. It has been documented that one ounce of alcohol a day can lower the "bad" LDL-Cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease. However, excessive intake can lead to liver and gastrointestinal damage. Alcohol abuse causes severe physical degeneration and psychological destruction to the individual and their families.

Final Comment

We have discussed the basic components to achieving a healthy lifestyle. There is no doubt that changing your daily habits may be a formidable task. Yet, there is also no doubt that your quality of life may depend on it, especially as we age. People today are living longer but not necessarily healthier. Achieving small milestones each day of our lives helps us to make permanent changes and we can pass this wisdom to our children, building a healthier future for us all.

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