Healthy living: the big picture
From the News and Public Affairs Unit, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, USA
In their quest for a healthy life, millions of Americans are focusing only on one or two aspects of their health and losing sight of the rest. The truth is, the road to healthy living isn’t straight and narrow but broad – broad in the sense that it touches every aspect of life, not just diet and exercise. “Having good health requires evaluating all aspects of your life and not just one or two,” says Dr. Robert Keith, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System nutritionist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and foods.
The problem is that too many people concentrate on only one or two aspects of their lives – usually diet – at the exclusion of everything else and lose sight of what he describes as the “big picture.” With this in mind, he offers a list of the major lifestyle factors that he believes comprise this big picture.
Most everyone is aware that diet and nutrition are indispensable to good health. “Studies have consistently shown that people who carefully follow a food guide pyramid-oriented diet by eating adequate amounts of complex carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, and protein and low-fat foods with heavy emphasis on antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables face significantly lower risks of heart disease and certain types of cancer,” Keith says.
Unfortunately, he says, diet may not get you very far if you fail to include an adequate amount of daily exercise, another indispensable component of healthy living. “Being sedentary, in and of itself, is as big a risk factor as hypertension and heart disease,” Keith says. “So to avoid these risks, everyone should find a way to incorporate some physical activity to his/her life.”
It could be as uncomplicated as making an effort to walk every day – between five and 10 minutes, several times a day as you walk up a stairwell or from the parking lot to the office -- or developing a formal, more challenging exercise plan, such as jogging several miles a day, Keith says. Whatever the case, everyone needs a certain level of physical activity every day,
Weight management is another key factor – a factor seemingly lost on the 50 percent of Americans who are either overweight or obese, Keith says. “We know that obesity is related to a variety of serious health conditions, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, strokes, kidney failure and cancers,” Keith says. “And this especially applies to people who are obese with a large amount of hidden or visceral fat located deep inside their bodies and surrounding vital organs, such as the liver and kidneys.”
Nothing has proven more effective in maintaining weight than diet and exercise. “It’s almost an oxymoron for someone to be physically fit and obese,” Keith says. “And this is why weight management goes hand in hand with diet and exercise.”
Preventive health care
Preventive health care – making sure you get regular checkups – also makes up part of the big picture. “It’s hard keeping up with regular medical and dental appointments, especially if you’re responsible for other people, such as children,” Keith says, “but it’s no less important, because these checkups help screen for major health risks such as diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and other potentially life-threatening diseases.”
Any good health plan is not complete unless it excludes smoking. “Cigarette smoking is the major factor involved in the development of lung cancer and is strongly linked to the development of hypertension and heart and blood-vessel diseases,” Keith says.
And then there is sleep, adequate sleep – something millions of Americans fail to get on a nightly basis. “Adults need between seven and eight hours a night,” Keith says. “Over time, anything less than these seven or eight hours increases stress on the body and ultimately leads to chronic health problems.”
Finally, a healthy lifestyle should include adequate amounts of recreation. A growing body of research, in fact, is confirming the value of vacation as a health safeguard. “People who frequently take vacations have a lower incidence of other diseases,” Keith says. “Vacations, long or short, can provide people with a way to remove themselves from the stresses of daily life, allowing them time to recover. Some research even has shown that vacations not only remove you from these stresses but enable you to produce body chemistry changes that safeguard against the effects of stress.”
Keith is the first to admit that his list is no ironclad guarantee of perfect health. Even so, he believes, following these steps likely will ensure a reasonably healthy life, possibly a “very healthy life and perhaps even a very long life.”
Dr Robert Keith, Alabama Cooperative Extension Nutritionist and Auburn University Professor of Nutrition, 334-844-3273)