It seems intuitive that living well should mean we reap benefits in terms of our health, but what exactly should we do, and how much of a difference does it really make?
”Genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger”
It may seem like common sense to say that we should eat well and exercise regularly. But actually, how important is it? Does it matter what type of exercise? How much will keep me healthy? What is a good diet? What else should I do to improve my health and how much of a difference can these changes make?
Most importantly, how do I overcome the inertia and make these changes a part of my life?
Phew! Seems overwhelming!
Firstly, although there are a number of areas that all have shown significant scientific evidence of benefit to health, happiness and longevity, it is important to not feel overwhelmed by this fact.
One important part of the picture is that if you don’t do ANY of these things right now, you have the most to gain by doing even just a little.
For example, simply fidgeting more can improve your life expectancy! In fact, what studies show is that the majority of the benefit we get from exercise is going from doing nothing to doing something. The same goes with eating fruit and veg -you will start to gain the benefits with even just a little.
Another really important thing to remember is that once people start to become aware of something, they make a whole host of subconscious and unconscious decisions and all of these add up to making changes.
This is essentially how advertising works, so it can work for making positive health choices too.
So before you read on, start with
"I will not let the perfect be the enemy of the good."
Keep this mindset in all that you do - you really are far more likely to succeed.
You may be surprised to learn that whilst we tend to tackle one disease at a time in conventional Western Medicine, the most effective way to 'treat' disease is not to get it at all.
We know from a large number of scientific studies what will stack those odds firmly in our favour.
For example, a recent large study following over 116,000 people over 12 years found that those who followed four specific lifestyle behaviours gained an extra decade of healthy life without chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke or lung disease.
Interestingly, we are finding that the same risks underlie most of the diseases that we are likely to become afflicted with in the Western world such as diabetes, heart disease, dementia and cancer. What is more, even if we do reach the tipping point of becoming unwell, tackling the underlying lifestyle cause can reverse disease and make anything else you choose to do far more likely to succeed.
We are increasingly recognising that a chronic inflammatory state caused by how we live inflicts damage to our bodies over time. This process has been termed 'inflammaging'.
Our brilliant bodies can compensate for a while, but eventually one (or more) of our systems start to fail, and we end up with illness.
As to which system will fail in any one of us is down to both our genes (they confer our individual, inherent risk), as well as the time and intensity with which we have practiced unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, eating ultra-processed foods, starving ourselves of sleep or not giving our bodies the level of activity it needs to flourish.
Importantly, the same things you do to ward off disease are the very same things that improve your mood, your skin and your weight. It helps to improve your quality of life now and for the long-term!
There really isn't a downside.
These factors that create a happy and healthy life are summarised on My Wellness Doctor by the acronym 'THRIVE-X'.
The ingredients for a Healthy and Happy Life are summarised in our 'THRIVE-X' acronym.
Our bodies and minds work as a symphony to keep us healthy. When we are happy we chose healthier foods, when we are eating well we have the energy to exercise, when we exercise we feel less stressed. These behaviours also affect how our genes are switched off and on (epigenetics) and they help the healthy bacteria and other organisms in our gut (our microbiome) to help us to stay healthy.
The 'Articles' sections are divided into each of these headings, so that you can learn the impact of each factor, as well as practical tips on how to incorporate them into your life. And don't worry- we explain what Xenobiotics are!
We don't develop chronic diseases overnight, they are the culmination of decades of choices that we make. Having a healthy body and mind is something that is not only desirable for us now, but it also guards against us reaching the tipping point of disease.
We don't have to
Lifestyle change may seem like a big undertaking, but we understand the science of behaviour change - and it is not all about willpower, so we include the science behind how to make changes that will last a lifetime.
Every journey begins with a single step, so don't worry about the end point, just start with something tiny.
We know that those who currently have no healthy behaviours have the most to gain by even making small improvements.
You decide the pace, and we are happy to offer information and support.
The fact you're reading this is an excellent start!
Although researchers often quantify how many additional healthy years of life you will gain by having specific lifestyle habits, it is useful to know that the total benefit is greater than the sum of it's parts. In other words, as you improve each component of 'THRIVE-X' it will act in symphony with the other factors to create even greater benefit.
Take for example the 'Blue Zones'. These are pockets of communities that live in geographically diverse locations that have the highest prevalence of healthy adults living to age 100 and beyond. Whilst they are genetically different communities, their behaviours are strikingly similar. This includes how they eat (plant-based diets), how they move, how they rest and their sense of community.
We don't find that elite athletes are the longest living people, although no doubt they are very fit. That is because physical fitness is just one part of the puzzle. And I don't think many people from the Blue Zones have competed in the Olympics (if any).
In other words you can become amazingly good at one of the components, but ignoring the others will only take you so far.
That said, the factors that have been the most studied are diet and exercise. This may be because we know that the way we eat in the Western world causes a significant amount of the disease we are encountering. So we need to both remove the foods that undermine our health as well as add in those components that really help us to live well. The gap between what we consider normal and what is good for us is often quite large compared to the other factors in 'THRIVE-X'.
The impressive results with changes in diet and exercise are in keeping with what we have seen in our own experience working with people-whether they have diabetes, heart disease, inflammatory joint diseases, asthma or even cancer. We are often still amazed by how much of a difference it can make - and how quickly.
Togetherness (or having a sense of social connectedness) has an impressive range of health effects apart from the obvious mental health benefits; It has been shown to help diabetics with blood sugar control, improve cancer outcomes, and be cardioprotective.A meta-analysis of studies looking at how our social relationships - or sense of togetherness- protects us against death from any cause found that those with the greatest social connectedness were 50% less likely to die over the course of the studies than those with the least social ties. They concluded that we should consider it to be as great a risk factor as smoking and unhealthy diets.
'Vision' (or having a sense of purpose) not only buffers against illness in it's own right, but influences the positive choices we make every day. A study of nearly 3000 Japanese adults followed over 13 years found that those with the strongest sense of purpose (in Japan this is known as Ikigai), were 72% less likely to die over that time period than those with the least Ikigai. Similar striking results have been found in studies in other groups.
'Rest' which includes both relaxation and sleep - and the impact of these on our health is significant - from influencing our risk of dementia and obesity to death from any cause. Studies have shown that chronic stress can double or even triple our risk of dying prematurely compared with people who have low levels of stress. Inadequate and excess sleep is similarly associated with markedly increasing our risk of dying early. For example, a study of 43 863 people over a period of 13 years found that sleeping less than 5 hours, or more than 8 hours, per night was associated with a 37% and 27% increased risk (respectively) of dying prematurely compared with those who slept 7 hours per night. We now know that whilst we sleep our bodies go through a very active process of repair and regeneration, and that investing in our sleep pays dividends for our future health.
'Inner Peace' is a state of internal serenity, which can be cultivated by activities such as meditation, forgiveness and gratitude. Whilst these practices increase well-being and reduce stress, we are also finding that they can slow or reverse cellular ageing! It is interesting to note that the American Heart Association has made a statement regarding mediation and it's cardioprotective effects-including a significant association with lower cholesterol levels, blood pressure, stroke and heart disease.
'Xenobiotics' are substances that are foreign to the body, and include things like cigarette smoke, chemicals in toiletries and cosmetics, pesticides in foods, as well as supplements. We don't need to be anxious about creating a perfect environment, but by focussing on a handful of areas that have been found to be significant contributors to our health, we can be empowered to make positive choices.