By Andrea Atkins
what is healthy enough My attempts to become “super healthy” usually end in disappointment. I spoke to two of the biggest names in wellness to shed new light on the subject.
This article is reprinted with permission from NextAvenue.org.
As a wellness writer, I keep up to date with the latest health and medical research by reading books and scientific studies, attending webinars, and following top wellness influencers on podcasts and social media. The upside is that I am very knowledgeable about living a long, healthy life.
Unfortunately, knowing and doing are two different things, so there’s also a downside: I often feel like my healthy habits are inadequate, and my attempts to become “super healthy” usually end in disappointment. Undoubtedly, this cycle of try, fail, and try again has made me a lot healthier than I otherwise would be, but it also makes me feel unhappy at times.
Compare me to wellness titans
Wellness podcasts are a big part of my problem. These shows feature big-name doctors and scientists with hundreds of thousands of followers, best-selling books, and famous TED talks — and none of them achieved that success by living a “fairly healthy” lifestyle.
These people plunge into ice-cold water every morning; eat all of their calories within a few hours of the day (unless they eat nothing at all for a week); Sleep in a darkened, air-conditioned Faraday cage nestled under a 20-pound gravity blanket; take a closet with medicines or supplements; and strap continuous glucose meters to their slender, non-diabetic arms to see what impact a handful of grapes might have on their insulin response. But the most extreme habit of all, in my opinion, is that they never eat dessert!
I now count wood chopping and walking for exercise, wake up five times a night with hot flashes, and while my meals are pretty healthy, dessert is a part of my routine, not to mention my ‘elevense breakfast’.
I was tired of feeling guilty about my healthy habits (or lack thereof) and wondered if I needed to go to extremes to avoid future illnesses. I hoped there were only two or three things I could focus on in order to live a long, healthy life, but I didn’t know if that was realistic.
To find out, I spoke to two of the biggest names in wellness, and these conversations shed new light on the topic and helped answer my questions. If the pursuit of health sometimes makes you unhappy, I hope her insights will help you too.
See also: Men over 50: Here are a few things you can do to take better care of your health
Live like a centenarian
My first interview was with Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and bestselling author of The Blue Zones Kitchen. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, the Blue Zones are those geographic regions where people live for 100 years at a rate many times that of the rest of the world. Büttner and his team have been studying people in these areas for over a decade, and he has found that they share a number of common lifestyle factors that are likely responsible for their excellent health and longevity.
I like the Blue Zones model because I already follow many of its prescribing habits. Eat mostly plants? Check. Move naturally? Check. Hanging out with fun people? Check. Drink wine every night? Check!
However, there are nine factors in total – The Power 9 – which sounds like a lot to me. So I asked Büttner if there were just two or three I could focus on for maximum impact. If so, I hoped they were the ones I already made, but no such luck.
“Longevity is the sum of a bunch of little things,” he explained, “and the key is not knowing what those little things are because we’ve all heard them a million times; it’s the mutually supportive, interconnected web that encourages those little things.”
I asked what that might look like in practice. “First, I would think about moving to a clean, walkable, happy neighborhood,” he said.
It seemed kind of radical to me, but I was fine with it because I live in the middle of Chippewa National Forest, where the air is clean, I can walk for miles, and the six people I know here are pretty damn happy.
See: I no longer drive and I want to retire in an easily walkable urban area with lots of cultural activities – where should I go?
But what about other people – should they consider moving if they don’t live in a place that suits them? “Everyone should think about doing that if they’re serious about getting healthy,” he said emphatically.
“Number two is to curate your immediate social circle,” he continued. “Don’t dump your obese friends, but be proactive in befriending people who are active or looking into new hobbies. Unhappiness and loneliness are contagious. So surround yourself with healthy, active, happy people whose lives are full of meaning.”
Around me? I wrote “make friends” on scratch paper and underlined it.
“Finally,” he said, “I would get you some whole food, plant-based recipes. Find half a dozen recipes that you and your family would enjoy, then cook them.”
That sounded good, but I had to ask, “What about dessert?
“Yeah, sure,” he said (I smiled), “at a party, but usually the dessert is a piece of fruit.” (I frowned.) “They haven’t treated their taste buds with napalm, so the only satisfying one is Candy a pint of Ben & Jerry’s.”
I mumbled my approval to him as I thought, “Mmmm, Ben & Jerry’s!”
The bottom line was that I’m doing a lot of things right, but there is room for improvement. My coffee break treats and dessert seemed to be in grave danger.
Read: US plant-based food market value peaks at $7.4 billion, but industry faces a difficult path to continued growth
Fountain of youth: a lifestyle model
My second call was to David Sinclair, professor of genetics and co-director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging Research at Harvard Medical School. He is also the bestselling author of Lifespan: Why We Age – and Why We Don’t Have To and host of the podcast Lifespan with Dr. David Sinclair”.
Sinclair wants to do more than just live a long, healthy life. Instead, his research aims to find the keys to slowing, stopping, or even reversing the aging process at the molecular level.
While I can’t afford the gene therapies, drugs, or supplements Sinclair writes about in Lifespan, he also supports many other free living habits, so I asked him to name his top two or three.
“If there’s only one thing I could recommend,” he said, “it would be for people over 30 to get used to eating three meals a day. Our bodies are not designed to be constantly fed. So if your body is always being fed, it doesn’t bother fighting the aging process or fighting off disease.”
OK, three meals a day is the bare minimum for me. However, I can’t remember a day in the past month that I didn’t also eat a lot of snacks (healthy, of course) and desserts. So how am I supposed to do that?
“The trick is not to try to change your lifestyle too quickly,” he said, “and try to substitute activities and food rather than add and subtract.” He elaborated, “I’ve decided to stay within eating within a certain window of time – four hours a day. To do that I had to do it gradually and have tea and coffee available all the time so I made a habit of putting something in my mouth.” and the feeling of fullness was still there.”
That sounded miserable to me, but that’s also the pain that my 50s brought, so I asked him to move on.
“The second thing would be to move. Get a standing desk, walk 7,000 steps a day, and pause for at least 10 minutes three times a week if you’re exercising vigorously.”
I scribbled “Move more and faster” on the scrap paper.
“And third,” he said, “use up molecules made by stressed plants, plants that are growing under less than ideal conditions.”
This is not the week-old, wilted lettuce from the supermarket, but rather food grown without pesticides, fertilizers or sufficient water. In other words, pretty much everything comes from my garden. Excellent!
He added, “It takes a couple of weeks for your body to get used to new things — exercise, new food, a new eating window — so take it slow and give it a couple of weeks.”
Related: Do you want to live to 100? Here’s what the latest longevity research says
Neither have your cake nor eat it
I got Sinclair’s message loud and clear, but I couldn’t imagine fasting 20 hours a day, especially if dessert wasn’t included in that 4-hour window. Was that important for health and longevity? So I sent a follow-up email to Dan Buettner, inquiring about the frequency and timing of meals among Blue Zone centenarians.
He wrote: “In all Blue Zones, they tend to get most of their calories before lunch and eat little or no dinner.
Well crap. I knew what I needed to focus on now, and if I wanted to do that, I needed to add Avoid Sugar and Short Eating Window to my wellness plan.
Read: How do the world’s oldest people make money?
I immediately decided on a new path forward, gritting my teeth as I made the notes on my scrap paper. I would continue to seek the latest information on health and longevity, and I would continue to strive for optimal health, but I would stop feeling bad about it when things weren’t perfect.
I put down my pen with the satisfaction of having made a big decision. It was almost five o’clock, so I celebrated with a glass of wine.
Rashelle Brown is a veteran fitness professional and freelance writer with hundreds of copywrites in print and online. She is a regular contributor to NextAvenue and Active Network and is the author of Reboot Your Body: Unlocking the Genetic Secrets to Permanent Weight Loss (Turner Publishing). Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram @RashelleBrownMN.
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