We live in a society where health seems to be highly valued. We feel that we should all be entitled to some level of health. We often go to great lengths and spend a lot of money and resources treating and managing disease and chronic illness. There have been incredible advances in science and technology over the last century that make this more possible than ever before. Being healthy, however is often taken for granted and it is often when we lose health, that we appreciate what we had and wonder how we can get it back.
What we do to our bodies has an impact on our health. This is something that has been recognized for millennia. Hippocrates, (460-377BC) who is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Medicine” had a few thoughts on healthy life-styles. He compared people’s habits and noticed that “bodies grow relaxed and squat … through their sedentary lives,” which led to various illnesses. Those who walked more, stayed well longer. He often prescribed exercise. He observed that “those who are constitutionally very fat are more apt to die quickly than those who are thin” recognizing that people who ate mainly a fresh, plant-based diet, developed fewer diseases. His advice was that of improving a patient’s diet. He recognized that the same remedy could heal in one dose but harm in a greater one. For example, he prescribed wine as part of a healthy diet and to ease pain in childbirth. Hippocrates also noticed that his patients developed gout if they continually drank too much wine. When he convinced them to change their habits, the painful condition improved.
Fast forward to 1997, where a group of researchers from the Institute of Environmental Medicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden started a study. They selected a group of 20,721 men aged 45 to 79 with no history of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or high cholesterol and followed them over the next 11 years. They were categorized according to 5 healthy lifestyle habits:
- A healthy diet, including legumes, fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish
- Moderate alcohol intake (10-30gm of alcohol a day – equivalent of 1-2 glasses of wine)
- No smoking
- Being physically active (walking or bicycling more than 40 minutes a day and exercising more than 1 hour per week.
- Having no abdominal fat or a waistline of less than 95cm (38inches).
Over the 11 years they looked at the risk of heart attacks as a measure of health. They were able to identify a reduction in risk of developing heart disease in each of the 5 categories compared to the group that did not meet these criteria.
- Maintaining a healthy diet reduced the risk by 18%
- The moderate alcohol intake group had an 11% reduction in risk
- Not smoking showed a 36% reduction in risk
- Being physically active reduced the risk by 3%
- Having a smaller waistline reduced the risk by 12%
It is interesting to note that the combined effect of a healthy diet and moderate alcohol intake reduced the risk of having a heart attack by 36 %, which is the same risk reduction as not smoking. The group of men that were able to maintain all 5 healthy lifestyle habits amounted to only 1% of the study group, but showed an 86% reduced risk of having a heart attack. In other words 4 out 5 heart attacks may be preventable by following healthy life style habits. The sobering reality is that there is no amount of medication that I as a physician can prescribe, that can come close to achieving these risk reductions mentioned above.
Our health is a partnership. You and your health care provider have a valuable input into your eventual health outcome. As a physician I can measure and monitor some physical parameters and provide you with certain remedies in the form of medicine or prescriptions, as well as advice. Much of the advice I give, you have probably heard before. The physician’s part in this partnership is small and often easy, compared to what you, as the patient, have to do. Changing habits is difficult and takes consistent effort, determination and personal motivation. It may help to stop and ask, “Is this good for me?” before mindlessly continuing in a comfortable habit. You will then be well on your way to being kinder to your body.
The message here is not new, it is not complicated and is certainly not financially draining. The cost, however, is significant in personal discipline, time and planning your day ahead. Investing in your health today, will ensure a rewarding pay-out later. Our health is largely in our own hands.
What one, new healthy decision are you making today?