For years now, I’ve been doing assessments for people that are applying for Social Security Disability. Every week I see people who are hurting, injured, sick and beaten down by life. While not all of the people I see could have prevented their problems, most probably could have and many, many of them could greatly improve their heath and quality of life with a few simple changes. Most of us are a product of our environment, culture, and habits. We simply don’t take time to consider how what we are doing is impacting our health. We live for the short-term and are surprised when our health runs out at 45. Through the years, I’ve come up with a list of simple things people could do to make great improvements in how they feel and their quality of life. I’m not suggesting here, that these things will work universally. Simple is not always easy and sometimes simple ideas have complex consequences. But if we do the simple things, we will be better off. These are general principles for living well, and most of them are usually neglected. For the most part, these things are not new or novel ideas. Finally, these things are interconnected: each one effecting the others.
1. Take responsibility: Your life is yours. Your problems, weaknesses mistakes, situation, everything is yours. People who are healthy (physically, emotionally and spiritually) have all learned to take responsibility for their own lives. They have stopped making excuses, have stopped blaming, and have stopped projecting, and have stopped shirking responsibility. People who are successful take responsibility and ownership, even if they themselves are not the cause of their own problems.
To get you started on this path of responsibility say these things to yourself: It’s my anger. It’s my job. It’s my health or illness. It’s my marriage. It’s my sadness. It’s my habit. It’s my debt. It’s my child. No one is responsible for my life except me.
In the area of physical health, I see many, many people who view themselves as the passive victim of doctors and insurance companies. They disregard their own health habits and behaviors and want others to fix it and make it better. You will get much, much better health care if you collaborate with your doctor than if you simply wait for him or her to make you better. If you are motivated to improve your health, your doctor will be too. They can prescribe you medicine, but can’t make you take it. They can advise behavior changes, but can’t make you implement them. I have seen countless people with serious lung and breathing problems, that are on a dozen or so inhalers and medications, but still insist on smoking a pack of cigarettes or more each day. They have not mastered the art of taking responsibility.
God has given each one of us dominion and choice. People who flounder or are unsuccessful in life pass that dominion off on others, and refuse to recognize their own choices and how those choices have produced their current circumstances. Those who exercise dominion and responsibility work at making the things they don’t like better; even if it takes a long time. Taking responsibility is not the same thing as taking blame. You may be a victim of circumstance, abuse, a bad boss, a bad economy, a genetic illness etc. But healthy people still take responsibility for these things and work to change or improve them, and they don’t do it alone. The number one problem in most marriages is passivity: simply not working on things. Spontaneous change (“someday this will work out”) doesn’t happen; it’s a fantasy. We don’t have the luxury of waiting for someone else to change before we begin changing ourselves. So: Take responsibility; it’s the beginning of living well.
2. Get 8 good hours of sleep every night. Sleep plays a crucial role in your body and your mind’s regeneration. When we sleep well, our bodies become relaxed, our muscle heal, our brain produces serotonin (the thing the keeps us from being depressed), our mind solves problems, our memory is solidified, and occasionally, God communicates to us. When we don’t sleep: our short term memory suffers, our judgment is impaired, our reaction times slow, we become irritable and offensive, our concentration is impaired, it takes us five times longer to do things, we are clumsy, we have increased body pain and achiness (fibromyalgia is at least in part a sleep disorder), we gain weight, we are more vulnerable to colds and flu, we fight with our spouses, we are less creative at solving problems, and we are far less perceptive. We need sleep, and 8 hours seems to be the right amount.
Sleep deprivation is cumulative: the longer our lack of sleep goes on, the more impaired we become, and the longer it will take to correct the deprivation. Sleep deprivation causes depression, and in turn depression causes sleep disruption making for a vicious cycle. Most of us have adopted life-styles that make a good 8 hours of sleep impossible. We try to cram too much into each day. We are unsatisfied at the end of the day and stay up, flipping channels on TV looking for that satisfaction. Our sleep deprivation makes the pattern worse, eating away at the quality our our relationships and the quality of our perceptiveness so that each day brings less and less enjoyment and more and more frenzy.
There are many, many enemies to a good nights sleep. You will need to identify which enemies are working in your life, and work to eliminate or correct them. Here are a few: uncomfortable bedding (if you will spend 1/3 of your life asleep, then allocate some of your financial resources to making good sleep possible), noisy environments (try a white noise machine or ear plugs), difficulty breathing at night (lose weight, drink water, sleep in a semi-reclined poster), working too late, doing stimulating things too late in the day, having a bedroom that has too much light, worrying. Here is a website on good sleep hygiene (here’s another). Read up to get some help with your particular sleep problems. If you are chronically sleep deprived, make sleep improvement a high priority.
3. Drink Water. This is such a simple but extremely important principle, that I almost always get universal resistance to it when I mention it. The vast majority of people in our culture are chronically dehydrated. We simple do not take in the amounts of water that our bodies need to be healthy and do all the metabolic and mechanical functions our bodies do. This is one of those simple principles with extremely complex implications. Your body is made of 75 water. Your brain and nervous system is 85 percent water. Many of your bodies metabolic processes are created to regulate and maintain a healthy balance of water in all of your organs. When you don’t get enough water, your body chemistry changes in an attempt to compensate, and that causes illness of all kinds. Chronic dehydration is linked to: type II diabetes, obesity, arthritis, allergies, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, degenerative disc disease, asthma, depression, panic disorder, sinus pain and infection, urinary tract infection, chronic back and neck pain, headaches, migraines, digestion problems, acid reflux, and all other sorts of bad things. Drinking water may not cure all of these conditions, but it will help all of them, and many more. And many of them will be cured by simply drinking enough water to keep your body hydrated. I solved a chronic allergy problem and eliminated the use of daily (sedating) antihistamine simply by drinking enough water.
We have been conditioned to substitute drinking soda, coffee, sports drinks, tea, and other flavored drinks for simple water. We have been told that fluid is fluid, and as long as your fluid intake is adequate, your body will be well hydrated. This is simply not true. Most of the drinks we consume are high in sugar and caffeine, sodium or artificial sweeteners. These things require our bodies to do much more processing of the liquids we consume. Sugar in our beverages can lead to obesity and type II diabetes. Caffeine is a mild diuretic and appetite stimulant, and actually causes more water loss than gain. It is such a simple thing to switch to drinking water, and there is such a HUGE benefit in it. And people are SO resistant to making the switch. It is a life style change that we have to sustain, daily hydrating our bodies.
The general guideline, is to drink half your body weight in ounces of water. If you way 200 pounds, you need to be drinking 100 oz, or 12 to 13 glasses of water per day. Experts recommend taking a bit of sea salt occasionally to aid your body in absorbing the water (sea salt also has trace minerals your body needs). By comparison, if you weigh 135 pounds you need to drink 68 oz. of water or about 8 to 9 glasses per day. This does not count any soda, alcohol, or coffee you may drink. If you do this, you will have to urinate about once per hour, and that may deter you from drinking enough water. But urinating regularly rids your body of used up metabolites and waste, and cleanses the body from the build up of toxic urea and used proteins. Once you get hydrated, your urination stabilizes. You will find you have less craving for food and sweets when you are hydrated properly. If you work out or exercise, you need to drink even more water to compensate for perspiration. Before you go on to the next tip, read the following two websites about water. This one tip has the potential to greatly improve your quality of life.
4. Get Exercise. God made our bodies to move. But our modern lives have become dangerously close to the physical passivity depicted in Wall-E. This is one of those simple things I’ve struggled with most of my life and as a consequence I’ve struggled with weight problems all of my life. My job is very sedentary: I sit and listen all day long. A year ago, I stopped by a new gym that was opening near home, and the salesman sold me on a membership. He said if you go home to think it over we know statistically you aren’t likely to come back – and he was right so I signed up. Because this gym required no long-term commitment, I was more willing to sign up. After about a month of mild weight lifting and aerobic exercise I was stunned by how much better I felt. I would get a “runners high” after 30 minutes of elliptical trainer exercise that would last for about 48 hours. My mood improved, my motivation improved and I was enjoying that great principle in life that good health begets good health.
Exercise lowers physical and emotional stress. It works against depression. It improves our heart health. It increases our metabolism giving us more energy. It improves our libido and sex life. It improves our sleep and helps us to breath better. With aerobic exercise we oxygenate our bodies better which improves mental alertness, and increases metabolism helping us to lose weight. Exercise is a good thing. But it’s boring. So . . .
Feed your soul while you exercise your body. I like listening to podcasts, audio books, and sermons, and of course music. Often the music makes the time go faster than talking content does, certainly more than TV, and the music is very energizing. I DON’T like the stuff they play at the gym so I always take my Zune with me, loaded with energetic worship music (I love Chris Tomlin).
Here are some simple goals and tips. If you are sedentary with very little exercise, start slow and simple. Walking for 15 to 30 minutes a day, four days a week will start you out right. You don’t need a gym membership, an expensive workout DVD, stylish gym clothes, etc. you just need to move. A good pair of shoes is a good idea though. The best exercise is the one you enjoy because it’s the one you will most likely do. Aim for doing something that will raise your heart rate a bit. If you are overweight, be careful of jogging or running because this will make your joints sore. Swimming is excellent exercise when you’re overweight because the water supports your weight while you move. If you have a heart condition, you’d be wise to check with your doctor before starting strenuous exercise. Get up and move!
5. Lose Weight. Full disclosure; I’m speaking to myself here. I’ve struggled with my weight all my life. I am technically in the obese range (but really, I think those weight scales were normed in India where everyone is skinny as a rail). I have gone on major diets a half-dozen times in my life, generally with good results, but the weight almost always comes back on. I have learned that I’m fighting my genetics, my height (I’m on the short side at 5’ 6”), my habits and my personality (i like to eat). So what I’m writing here is based on personal experience. I’ve decided that I’ll be working at my weight the rest of my life, and oddly, this leaves me feeling less discouraged than thinking I’ve got to get to some magical number within some arbitrary time period.
There is no doubt that America is overweight. The reasons for this are complex including the cheap availability of high calorie, low nutrition foods, relative economic prosperity (when compared to the rest of the world), the industrialization of our food supply (including genetically manipulating our produce and animal sources of food – go rent Food Inc. and check their website), our social habits which always include food, and our stressed-out, fast-paced and sedentary life-style. Being overweight makes us at risk for: joint disease, heart disease, diabetes, sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and a host of other problems. Even modest reductions of weight (and related change in diet) can make us feel better. I can personally testify to this. When I drop even five pounds I feel better. Like other items on this list, when you lose weight, it tends to help other aspects of your life improve as well. When I’m eating correctly I’m more disciplined in almost every other aspect of my life.
I see many, many people every week who suffer from weight related health problems. The idea of weight loss is simple (burn more calories than you consume) but the execution can be complex because of how food, eating, and weight intertwine with almost every other area in our lives, including our self-perceptions and self-esteem and social interactions. Most of us eat mindlessly and aren’t really conscious of how much or what we put in our bodies. I tend to eat too fast and therefore too much because my brain hasn’t caught up with my stomach. When we choose to lose weight, there is this magic ingredient – motivation- that is the main determiner of success or failure. When i really want to lose weight I do. When I’m only playing at it or do not have that magic motivation ingredient I gain or stay the same. Finding that motivation is not easy and it’s different for everyone. I really hate, for example, going to motivational meetings at weight watchers. But I am motivated by achieving weight loss goals, and by the improvement in how I feel when I lose. I tend to gain weight when I work too much, when the weather gets cold, during holiday times (It seems every month from October to April is a candy month – Halloween, thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentines day, Easter), and when I’m bored.
So, if you’re overweight, working at losing weight is really good for you. Consider it a life-long goal rather than something you’ve got to accomplish over-night. Dropping even a modest amount of weight will improve your quality of life.