You Want to Be Healthy?
Well, hey, that’s wonderful!
This article is designed to help you succeed. It will equip you with a clarifying sense of what you are up against and prepare you for the journey ahead.
And if you’re feeling a little ambivalent about getting started, it will also give you a friendly kick in the pants. That’s important, because getting and staying healthy in the current culture isn’t easy. In fact, it’s a big challenge.
But who, you ask, has the time and energy for another big challenge?
Exactly. Most of us are running around on fumes.
We complain that we don’t have time to eat right or exercise or get enough sleep. We don’t have time to cook or relax or goof around. We don’t have time to get outdoors or connect with the people we love. Most of all, we don’t have time to learn how our bodies work and what it takes to keep them healthy.
And that’s a big part of why so many of us are getting sick. And fat. And depressed. And why we see so many friends and loved ones being diagnosed with diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Understandably, faced with the daunting prospect of changing our lives, most of us would just as soon put it off until tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next.
And that’s precisely what about 80 percent of the U.S. population is doing right now. You can join them, watching as the pounds pile on, worrying as the blood pressure climbs, struggling as the energy flags, and fretting as the prescriptions and side effects and medical bills add up. And when things get bad enough, then you can think about changing.
Or, you can spare yourself years of downward spiraling misery and do something about it now.
If you’ve already set out on the path to health, or if you’re already as vital and fit as you want to be, rock on! You deserve a lot of credit — probably far more than you’ve been giving yourself.
And if you’ve been struggling in your attempts to get healthier, don’t beat yourself up about it. Let go of the self-recrimination for a minute. Prepare, instead, to take a clear-eyed look at the uphill battle you’ve been waging, and at why your successes may seem so hard won.
Some of what you’re about to read may alarm you, but it will also embolden and empower you. It will help you think differently about your efforts to create healthy change, and why they matter even more than you realized. It will nudge you to take a more proactive role in reclaiming and defending your health. And it will leave you charged up to blast through any obstacles that might lie ahead.
And since we’re talking about a revolution here, there’s even a manifesto at the end.
A Crowded Crisis
If you’ve been frustrated by how challenging it is to get and stay healthy, know that you are by no means alone. The fact is, over the past few decades, good health and fitness have gradually become the exception, rather than the norm.
We live in a society that makes being unhealthy frighteningly easy. An overabundance of processed foods and chronic stress, a lack of opportunity to be active, and an overreliance on prescription drugs are primarily to blame. But so is our tendency to go with the flow, to willingly abdicate responsibility for our health, and to let it be taken from us without nearly enough fight.
Here’s a quick state of the union:
• More than two-thirds of the U.S. population is currently overweight or obese.
• Only 26 percent of us eat anything close to the five servings of vegetables and fruits considered essential for decent health — and a far tinier fraction get the six to nine servings recommended for optimal well-being.
• Only about 30 percent of Americans report getting any kind of regular exercise. Studies suggest that fewer than 10 percent get daily exercise.
• About one in two adult Americans suffers from at least one chronic illness.
• More than half of U.S. adults are on one or more prescription drugs at any given time.
• The percentage of U.S. children and adolescents with chronic health conditions has nearly quadrupled in the past 40 years, from 1.8 percent in 1960 to 7 percent in 2004.
• One out of two men, and one out of three women, will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes.
• In terms of overall well-being and life satisfaction, recent psychological research by Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, et al., shows only about 20 percent are thriving. The remaining 80 percent appear to be just getting by, or “living lives of quiet despair.”
The upshot here: If you are healthy, fit and thriving, you are squarely in the minority. But there’s some encouraging news here, too. Because if you are actively and successfully defending your health in the face of the aforementioned statistics, you represent a powerful, hopeful movement that’s just gathering steam. You’re beating the odds. You’re one of a growing number of health-motivated renegades proving that a healthier existence is worth working for, and not beyond reach.
You are the resistance. And your ranks are destined to grow.
Together We Stand
In many ways, health is our first freedom. It allows us to go where we want and do what we like. It allows us to enjoy the full benefits of our independence and to embrace our associated responsibilities.
So when our health is being undermined or put at mass risk like it is now, that’s a big deal — for all of us.
We’ve been encouraged to think about health almost exclusively as a personal, individual issue. And, of course, it is personal. But our health is also a collective issue.
The biggest health challenges we face now are in large part the product of societal norms and social dynamics. Think about it: You can easily find fries, chips, candy or fast food almost anywhere, but you have to make a concerted effort or special trip to find something healthy. It’s considered perfectly normal to be served doughnuts and pizza at work, to keep a soda on your desk, to spend most of the day seated, and then come home to spend a couple more hours on the couch watching TV or surfing the Web — and to eat and drink while you do that, too.
These behaviors weren’t always considered normal, nor are they considered normal in many parts of the world today. And we don’t have to accept them as normal, either. But we do have to take a stand.
Each of us either strengthens or upsets unhealthy social norms by virtue of our own daily behaviors. Diabolical marketing strategies and addictive ingredients notwithstanding, it was consumers’ willingness to embrace cigarettes, sodas and supersized portions that gave those unhealthy trends such lasting legs. Thankfully, popular demand has also driven the more recent and hopeful growth of organics, local foods and yoga — all against considerable odds.
The point is, our personal choices are influenced heavily by our environment, but when we’re insistent enough, in big enough numbers, we can also apply pressure to change the norms we don’t like. Which means, if we’re willing to wake up and see our collective crisis for what it is, we can work together to turn it around.
And if we don’t? Well, here’s a cautionary tale: During the age of the Roman Empire, the ruling class figured out that the easiest way to keep control of the masses was to provide them with cheap food (grain for bread) and wildly distracting entertainments (circus and gladiator acts). Thus appeased by bread and circuses, the people didn’t seem to notice that their individual rights and liberties were being usurped. They couldn’t summon the will or focus to rise up in protest and reclaim their power.
It seems that something similar has happened to us. Over the past few decades, we’ve been so appeased, entertained, indulged and anesthetized by health-diminishing products and distracting media that we’ve lost track of how much we’ve given up in the bargain. We’ve lost all sense of how much we’re paying for the privilege of remaining overfed and comfortably numb — and how much our ill health is causing us to sacrifice as individuals, families and communities. It’s time we shook ourselves out of this stupor.
One of the first things we need to do is become more responsible stewards of our own well-being. We can’t ignore our health problems for months and years on end; we can’t keep settling for prescriptions that suppress or mask our symptoms without addressing the root causes of those problems.
If you go to the doctor with a lifestyle-related complaint, he or she may tell you to lose weight, eat better, stress less or exercise more. But a lot of doctors won’t — or can’t — explain how, in part because most receive little to no training in nutrition, exercise, lifestyle interventions or behavior change. And in part because it’s not advice they themselves are willing to follow.
Plus, most docs have less than 20 minutes to spend per visit, and there’s usually not a whole lot they can do in that time. So they write prescriptions they hope will at least alleviate some of our symptoms, and they send us on our way.
It’s estimated that more than 90 percent of doctors’ office visits are lifestyle- and stress-related — yet more than 73 percent of those visits result in medication. And with that medication in hand, a lot of us figure we can put off making any actual life changes for that much longer, until we find we need another drug, or surgery, or worse.
The Cost of Barely Living
The two most common rebuttals to the suggestion that we begin taking better care of ourselves are: One, it’s too expensive, and two, we don’t have time. But the time and money we are spending on being in poor health right now is so extravagant, it’s unimaginable that reallocating a good chunk of it toward health-supporting activities could do us anything but good.
Take what we’re spending now for a lifetime of ineffective healthcare and inflated health-insurance costs, and a whole lot of us could easily buy organic groceries, gym memberships, yoga classes, cooking classes, health-coaching sessions and weekly massages and still have money left over for preventive care and catastrophic medical coverage. Take the hours we waste in a state of low energy, depleted vitality and illness, and we could easily recoup the time we need to exercise, cook, meditate and enjoy other health-supporting activities for hours each day.
Obviously, there’s no easy, practical way to make that happen en masse — and for many, real socioeconomic limitations put such choices well out of reach. But for those of us who do have the option of reallocating even a little time and money toward simple investments in our well-being, there’s no doubt that such a rejiggering of personal priorities makes very good sense. Even if it means living in a smaller house, driving a less expensive car, eating out less often or budgeting our disposable income more thoughtfully.
Hard pressed to believe that investing so much in self-care could possibly pay off? Consider for a moment what we are spending now and what we’re getting in return:
• The fiscal costs of coping with chronic lifestyle-related diseases currently absorb about 75 percent of our total healthcare spending and about 12 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.
• Experts predict that in less than two decades, more than 85 percent of our population will be considered overweight or obese, with one in every six healthcare dollars spent on costs directly related to that epidemic.
• Within the next 25 years, the incidence of diabetes is projected to double — and costs to triple. The CDC now estimates that by 2050 one in three U.S. adults (100 million of us) will suffer from this disease.
• In 2009, annual healthcare costs for a family of four were about $33,000, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and these costs are projected to double in the next several years.
• Chronic-disease-related losses in productivity from absenteeism and “presentee-ism” (people coming to work but not being capable, energized or focused enough to do good work) are even more staggering: Many experts estimate they are triple the direct medical costs.
All that’s scary, but what’s even more disturbing is that as long as we’re investing vast sums of money in ineffective healthcare and associated wastage, we can’t invest it more productively anywhere else — like in education, infrastructure, renewable energy, economic development or quality of life. Which is why billionaire investor Warren Buffett likens our country’s healthcare spending to “a tapeworm eating at our economic body.”
This is one hungry worm. A 2007 study by the Center for Health Care Economics at the Milken Institute found that treatment costs for seven chronic diseases — including cancers, mental illnesses, heart disease, lung conditions, hypertension, stroke and diabetes — ran to nearly $280 billion in 2003.
The same study estimated total annual costs at $1.3 trillion, and projected those costs to rise to more than $4 trillion by 2023. And keep in mind, none of the current expenditures assumes that any of those diseases are actually being cured or prevented in any way. Four trillion is just the projected cost of coping.
Just by way of comparison, this year’s projected federal budget deficit is just over $1 trillion. Given how much economic worry, debate and gnashing of teeth that number causes, what kind of impact do you think $4 trillion in mostly ineffective annual medical spending might have on us as a nation, and as a culture? More to the point, what kind of impact might it have on your own life choices and the lives of the people you love?
Unless we want to find out the hard way, it’s time to start turning those projections around.
Look, if getting healthy in our culture were easy, everyone would be doing it. And, clearly, everyone is not.
That’s why, in many ways, pursuing a healthy lifestyle amounts to a revolutionary act. It’s going to take learning new skills and confronting old habits. It’s going to take wading into unfamiliar territory and figuring out a whole new way of living — from the foods you eat and the places you go, to the way you manage your time and the way you relate to the healthcare system.
It can be done, though, and there’s nothing more worth doing. Because when you change your health, you change your life, and the lives of everyone around you, for the better. You free yourself up to be, do and share so much more than you otherwise could. You experience more energy, positivity and exhilaration. You naturally become more inspired and empowered to give your best gifts — the ones the world needs most right now.
It’s going to take a lot of healthy, hopeful, high-vitality people to create healthy families, workplaces and communities. It’s going to take healthy people to come up with new ideas, to explore new possibilities, and to speak out against what’s not working.
Ultimately, it’s going to take a whole lot of healthy people to shift our culture in ways that make it easier for everybody to get and stay healthy for the long haul.
Maybe you’re already one of those healthy people. Maybe you’re becoming one. Or maybe you’re just beginning to think about it. That’s all good. We need every warm-bodied, health-motivated individual we can get.
Sure, it would be nice if some giant “they” got together and fixed this mess for us. But that’s not going to happen. We are going to have to fix it ourselves, one person, one family, one community, one daily choice at a time.
Frank Talk About Real Change
“Just tell me how!” you say. “Show me the program!”
But here’s the thing: Most of us already know the essentials of what we need to be doing differently. More whole foods, fewer processed ones. More water, less soda. More activity, less sitting around. More rest and relaxation, less stress.
We’re just having trouble pulling it off. We’re missing the skills and support. We’re discouraged by previous attempts that got us nowhere. We’re afraid we’re going to miss out on fun, freedom, comfort and pleasure. We have to search too long and too hard for healthier alternatives. We’re overwhelmed by the challenge of changing our lives.
And then there’s the fact that a lot of the advice we’ve been given — about calories, carbs, fats, serving sizes and recommended daily allowances — has been incomplete, misguided and, in many cases, dead wrong.
A revolving door between industry and governmental organizations has undermined the credibility of official guidelines and recommendations. Then the media has reported this inaccurate information, repeating it until it sounds like scientific gospel, when it absolutely is not.
As the result of such misguided advice, a lot of well-intentioned people have exhausted themselves trying to solve their problems in ways (like dieting) that offer little hope of success. They’ve become demoralized, frustrated, confused.
No good has come from this. So let’s just put it behind us and start over fresh.
Take a deep breath. Know that there’s no one-size-fits-all program for life change. You don’t have to do everything all at once, and if something genuinely doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to do it at all.
Figuring out what helps your body operate at its very best generally requires some research and refinement, some trial and error. The sooner you start experimenting in earnest, though, the sooner you’ll discover your personal feel-good formula for success.
It starts with understanding some basic things about how your body works and why it needs what it needs. It starts with challenging the assumptions, beliefs and habits that have led you to shortchange your health and fitness up until now. It starts with trying on a few healthier choices, and then a few more. And frankly, it never, ever stops.
But it does get easier, more fun and more rewarding every step of the way. So much so that, at a certain point, you can’t imagine going back.
That’s a strangely well-kept secret. So much of what we see, hear and read about getting healthy would have you believe that exercise is odious, that healthy foods are bland and tasteless, that making healthy choices on a daily basis is a joyless, stoic slog. Nothing could be further from the truth. At least, it doesn’t have to be. But people can’t know that until they experience the delights of healthy living for themselves.
The great news is, once you ease off on the stuff that’s bad for you and start loading up on the stuff that’s good for you, you won’t have to wait that long for results: Receptors on your tongue register within seconds that you’ve eaten something nutritious. Almost immediately, your cellular machinery kicks into action to make the best of it. Your genes take direction from every meal you eat. Within minutes of beginning to move your body, your brain activity, metabolism and biochemistry show marked changes.
True, many changes may take a little while to become visible. But within a week or two of eating, moving and sleeping more sensibly, you could feel like an entirely different person and have an entirely different outlook on life.
Within a few months, you could look better than you have in decades and be well on your way to becoming your best, most vibrant self.
So what are you waiting for?
Your Revolution Awaits
The term “revolution” is sometimes used loosely. But given the state of our collective health and fitness, no less than a revolution is going to get the job done.
Dictionaries define “revolution” as “a sudden or momentous change” and “a seizure of power brought about from within a given system.” Other popular definitions include “a drastic and far-reaching change in ways of thinking and behaving.”
That describes the kind of shift we need to create, and the redirection of human intention, power and priorities that healthy people everywhere are now beginning to set in motion.
How? By getting over our love affair with fast foods and sedentary entertainments. By learning to cook. By taking up active pastimes. By getting more rest. By connecting with health professionals who know something about supporting health, not just treating disease. By teaching our children about the miraculous bodies they were born into. By appreciating and honoring the bodies we are in. By making more thoughtful choices, by putting our money where our mouth is, and by doing a thousand other sensible things we’ve been putting off for way too long now.
If we do these things, we will change not just our bodies, but also our communities, economy, food system, healthcare system, our entire culture — and, ultimately, the world.
Of course, reclaiming our health will require not just changing our own lives, but also compelling our policymakers, business leaders, the medical system and other stakeholders to embrace new priorities, even though they may be strongly inclined — by money, convention or fear of rocking the boat — to keep on doing business as usual.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for them to get with the program. We can kick off this healthy revolution ourselves, simply by deciding what kind of lives we want to lead, and what we’re willing to do to make them happen.
Perhaps, eventually, those other powers-that-be will take the hint. Meanwhile, if we’re going to do this without getting worn down and discouraged, we need to stay strong. We need to keep our eyes on the prize. We need to connect with others who care about it as much as we do.
There’s strength in numbers. So choose your course, invite your friends, and let’s set this revolution in motion.
Pilar Gerasimo is the editor in chief of Experience Life.