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21 Jan Profile: Don’t Take a Wrong Turn on the Road to Health

By Mike Stapenhurst

As we reach middle age and beyond, we have two main choices: either we carry on as before and hope we don’t get sick, or we can start making changes to our current lifestyles.

By the time I reached 70, I considered myself lucky. I was—and still am—very active and take no medications. But it was only since my 40s that I started paying more attention to my lifestyle. Before that, I was just like many other people: eating poorly, not taking the time to exercise, and constantly worrying about one thing or another. If I’d known 30-plus years ago what I know today, I wouldn’t have taken so long to start making healthier choices.

Reflecting on my own situation, I thought that there may be several reasons why I was healthier than the average 75-year-old. I wondered if it could be because of:

• My genetic makeup. • Better diet. • Regular exercise. • Being just plain lucky!

But then another thought struck me: Maybe I’m just normal for my age, and it’s actually the modern style of living that’s causing people to age faster and get sicker much sooner than they normally would.

I’m convinced now that this is true. Much of what we hear and experience leads us to believe that even though we may live longer, thanks to modern medicine, we’ll still become weak, frail, and probably end our years in an assisted living community. But this might not necessarily be a foregone conclusion…

Will Exercise Keep Me Younger?

If we want to keep active and healthy past middle age, our first thought is usually to start doing regular workouts or take up a recreational sport. Many people believe that exercise is the key to staying healthy as we age. As a runner, I firmly believed this until I noticed that several of my peers who, even though they were quite active, were still starting to have some medical issues. Being fit does not necessarily mean that you’re in good health. In fact, over doing your workouts can end up having negative effects on your overall wellness.

To counteract this, you need to understand your body and how to interpret every discomfort, ache, or moment of fatigue as you’re working out and act accordingly. By easing off when necessary and pushing harder when you know you’re in good form, you’ll end up being much fitter and stronger than you would be if you just try to work through the pain. This doesn’t mean that you should never push yourself. It means recognizing when it’s okay to do this and when it’s not.

Although exercise is a key component of a healthy lifestyle, it’s not the main one. So, what is? Nutrition is actually a more important aspect of your health. I know now that what you eat every day has far more impact on your well-being than how much exercise you do.

What Is Healthy Eating, Exactly?

We’re inundated with information on diets and nutritional advice to the point that we have seriously over complicated some simple concepts. It’s time to get back to basics! Here are a few things that I’ve done over the years…

I’ve reduced my intake of:

• Sugar. • Red meat. • Processed food. • Alcohol. • Fast food.

And I’ve increased my intake of:

• Vegetables and vegetarian meals. • Cold-water fish. • Oatmeal. • Fermented food like yogurt and sauerkraut.

This simple change has helped to keep me healthy. Michael Pollan, in his book How to Eat, came up with the following simple but effective advice: “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants.”

For me, a key change in my diet was to reduce the amount of processed food I’d been eating.

Buyer Beware!

You wouldn’t buy a car without doing some research and talking to friends. Use the same approach when it comes to food shopping: take your time, and know what you’re buying. The food industry doesn’t always have your best interests at heart. At the supermarket, I always read the label on whatever I’m buying and look for the simplest list of ingredients. For example, if you like peanut butter, look for the kind that has one ingredient: peanuts!

Own Your Health!

This brings up one of my favorite topics: taking responsibility for our own health. A lot of the chronic illnesses we suffer from today are self-inflicted by our bad habits. If a long-time smoker develops lung cancer, the usual comment is something like, “He should have quit long ago.” But does anyone get taken to task for eating too many burgers and fries and ending up with blocked arteries?

I realize that everything I do on a daily basis is affecting my wellness, one way or another. So, I urge you to look at your own daily routine and start weeding out the things you know are bad. Don’t wait until you’re sick to start getting healthy!

Stress Is Killing You

So, if you think diet and exercise are the answers to keeping healthy, you’d be correct—but only partially. Stress has a bigger impact than both of these. Many of us today lead stressful lives. We juggle work, family obligations, finances, and more. Now, stress in itself is a normal response. When confronted by a dangerous situation, you breathe faster and your pulse rate goes up, which sends more oxygen to your brain and other beneficial functions.

But when stress becomes prolonged or happens too frequently, it has many serious negative effects on your health. Stress can be the cause of heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, many digestive disorders, asthma, obesity, and premature aging.

So, even if you’re exercising and eating well, you need to pay attention to your daily stress levels if you want to stay healthy. It can help to systematically identify the things that cause you the most anxiety and stress and try to remove or change them. For example, if you have a stressful drive to work every morning, can you leave earlier, travel with a friend, use public transport, or work from home? Even if you only do this once or twice a week, you will have broken up the daily routine that causes you to be stressed out on your way to work.

Your Genetic Makeup

Many people dismiss our efforts to stay healthy with the statement that our genes are the main influencer when it comes to longevity and avoiding certain diseases. But this is not as straightforward as it seems and is a dangerous line of thought. In fact, certain genes can be turned on or off, depending on many factors that include environment, diet, and even other genes.

Your genetic makeup could be considered like a symphony. Each orchestra may interpret the original score in different ways by making subtle but noticeable changes. So, although your genes may be the symphony you’re born with, the performance is up to you.

The key to prolonged health is to be aware of all the factors involved and try to adjust your lifestyle accordingly. This may be a long process, but it will certainly pay off down the road.

Mike Stapenhurst is the author of the book Forty plus Thirty Road – A Road To A Healthier Lifestyle, which is available as an e-book or in paperback from Amazon. In his book, he takes an in-depth look at the general state of our health in North America and what we can do about it. He describes his efforts to adopt a healthy lifestyle and all the things he’s learned along the way.

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