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Ten Commandments of Good Health


Many years ago a desert dweller climbed a mountain and talked to a bush on fire.  What resulted was a set of laws that was to revolutionize mankind’s behavior.  These were not ten suggestions formulated by a long range planning committee nor were they ten proposals put forth by a strategic consultant, they were commandments from a Holy God.  These laws have become almost universally accepted, even by divergent religions, as wise and worthy of adopting. 

     With all humility and a sincere desire to be unpretentious (I am not even worthy enough to scrape the grasshoppers from Moses’ designer goat skin sandals), I propose the Ten Commandments of good health to serve as a lamppost for your journey down fitness lane.  It seems unfair to hurry through these guidelines, so I will opine in both this month’s and next month’s column to cover them all.

                                                      Commandment One

You Shall Exercise:

Live Longer, Reduce Stress, and Grow Your Brain

     Exercise is the elusive fountain of youth.  If you are heavy, harried or hormonal, moving with purpose is a critical part of the solution. Everyone knows exercise is good for you, but few of us follow through. Exercise begins above the neck with a commitment to self and family.  Part of this motivation lies in the hidden benefits of exercise that are not common knowledge such as the prevention of breast and prostate cancer,  reduction in the onset and progression of Alzheimer’s disease, and as a cure for clinical depression.  Start with a simple walking program and free yourself from the “couch of doom”.

Commandment Two      

You Shall Rest:

A Nap a Day May Keep the Doctor Away

     We live in a hurry-up culture where “Just Do It” supplants “Let It Be”. Busyness has be­come a virtue that is without merit.  Idle hands are the devil’s playthings only in those who haven’t learned the discipline of relaxation.  Certainly there is a place for goal setting and industrious behavior, but there is also a purpose in rest and play. Relaxing on purpose is healthier than just doing something aimlessly. A major area of our lives that is most affected by this culture of chaos is sleep. The average adult requires eight hours of restful sleep a night to function best the next day.  The average adult actually gets around six hours of sleep a night.  This obvious disconnect leads to chronic fatigue and foggy thinking.  40% of Americans (100 million people) are moderately to severely sleep-deprived!

Commandment Three     

You Shall Not Worry:

Make Stress Work For You

     Stress is the little yapping dog biting at the heels of our health.  It is generally an annoyance, but, if it goes on long enough, can become a festering wound.  There are a number of books and counselors that provide a wealth of guidance on effective stress management in a world that oozes anxiety.   Studies indicate that up to 75% of visits to doctors are related to anxiety.  Stress is simply a perception of an internal or external event and thereby can be influenced by our thoughts.  One person’s stress is another person’s opportunity.  You will never be without stress, but you can control and minimize the adverse effects. 

Commandment Four 

You Shall Get Checkups:

                                          Prevention Pays Lifelong Dividends

     A healthy mind and body is dependent on action and education, not passivity and ignorance.  You must be an advocate for you and your family’s well-being by embracing prevention.  Men are especially negligent in this arena, and often decisions regarding family health are delegated (by default) to women in the household.  Seventy percent of health decisions involving the family are made by mom, which includes checkups, vaccines, nutrition, and screening tests.  Most importantly, the woman, by her actions and decisions, sets the tone for current and future health decisions.  A major health care crisis today is not cancer, AIDs, or heart disease, but people not making healthy, proactive lifestyle decisions.  We have to transform a system based on sick care to one that truly embraces well care, and that can only be achieved by practicing individual, responsible prevention.

Commandment Five

You Shall Not Be Gluttonous:

Eat Your Way to Good Health

     

     We are often called a society of consumption.  The talking heads are referring to consumerism; however, the real consumption issue is what we eat.  Our diet has more of an impact on our health and longevity than almost any other activity.  Content and quantity are the evil twins of gluttony.  There are four simple guidelines that, if followed consistently, will provide a foundation of healthy nutrition that will build a legacy of wellness.  Simply stated, eat balanced, low fat, low sugar, and high fiber meals. It is possible to alter the health inheritance of our kids and grandkids by changing how we think about food.  You can spring the family from the prison of poor nutrition and not be held captive by your genetics through a simple and doable eating plan.  We truly are what we eat. 

Next month…what else but six through ten!

Brain Food

     “I’m not kidding; it’s Miracle-Gro for the brain!”  The statement reminded me of some ridiculous infomercial infecting late night TV.  In this case however, it was generated from the mouth of a world class neurobiologist, so I took notice.  He was speaking of a substance called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).  What immediately intrigued me was he claimed that BDNF was the link between exercise and improved brain function.  For years I had read articles in both the medical and running journals touting the psychological benefits of fitness, yet here was proof that fit folks were happier folks.  Dr.John Ratey, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard, outlined in his amazing book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” how exercise increased the production of BDNF which in turn stimulated nerve cells to grow and connect in the Hippocampus, a tiny area in the brain responsible for a number of high level functions. This growth of new cells actually translated into better memory and quicker learning.  He went on to claim that certain other chemicals were released by exercising muscles that improved functioning in the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain.  The implications of this and other research are monumental. 

     Twenty-five years ago when I was in medical school we were taught that we were born with a set number of neurons (brain cells) and there were no more to be made…period.  I remember joking in college about taking another late night excursion to the disco (yes, I am that old!) to “kill some brain cells” with Singapore Slings and Jack and Coke.  We didn’t fret about the wholesale slaughter of brain cells as we all knew from biology class that we only used 20% of our brain anyway.  In our way of thinking, that gave us a pretty good cushion!  It was the unlucky folks born with fewer brain cells, and we all knew a few of those, who had the most to fear.  We were wrong on all accounts.  Now research is proving that new brain cells can be created, and formed in areas that have a major effect on cognition and emotions.  Don’t take this as permission to guiltlessly get plastered; I don’t need to tell you of the disastrous effects of that, but it does open the door for medical miracles.  The study of such alphabet soup as BDNF, IGF-1, and VGEF and other neuropeptides has given hope to developing successful treatments for senile dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinsonism.  Medicine is not there yet, but we can conclude that getting fit by exercising regularly can reduce the incidence of these diseases as well as certain cancers and diabetes. 

     The great news is that you don’t have to train for a marathon to reap the benefits of fitness. The studies indicate that a brisk walk for 45 minutes three to four times a week can elicit these life enhancing outcomes.

    

One of the most exciting applications of this knowledge is illustrated by the Naperville school district.  A middle class suburb south of Chicago, Naperville has been the focus of a real-life experiment documenting the benefits of fitness in kids.  It is no surprise that kids who are active are more physically fit than their sedentary counterparts, but what has been found in Naperville is that these fit kids are also smarter!  Over the past seventeen years the school district, consisting of 11 elementary schools, five junior high schools and two high schools, has made physical education an integral part of the school day (unlike the national average where only 6% of high schools have a daily PE program).  Their gym class is not your typical dodge ball, basketball, softball curriculum (the average student in the typical hour long PE class spends 16 minutes actively moving).  It is a program that promotes and measures fitness, not competition, and grades based on effort, not ability.  They regularly run or ride bikes using donated treadmills and stationary bikes measuring effort by heart rate monitors. And they do it at a lower cost per student than comparable school systems!  The results have been amazing.  In 2002, 97% of entering freshmen were at a healthy body mass index (BMI) as compared to the national average of 65% and most striking was the impact that fitness had in the classroom.  In that same year 96% of the eighth graders took the Trends in International Math and Science Test, an instrument designed to compare student’s knowledge level in different countries around the world.  On the science part of the test the Naperville students scored the highest…in the world!  Through a strict and comprehensive analysis it was shown that regular physical activity and fitness level correlated with the academic success of the Naperville students!

     The message is clear.  For adults and kids alike, regular aerobic exercise is not only good for the body, but it is great for the mind.