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Great Health is Not a Mystery…It’s a Puzzle

puzzleMalcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author, has written about the differences between a mystery and a puzzle.  Solving a mystery requires gathering clues that often are hard to come by and sometimes impossible to find.  

Puzzles are totally different.  Think of a jigsaw puzzle.  Once you open the box and spill all the pieces on the table, you don’t need to find any clues…they are all right in front of you.  In order to solve the puzzle, you just need to figure out a way to put all of the pieces together.

Attaining great health is not a mystery, it’s really a pretty simple puzzle.  Despite that fact many individuals invest significant time and money trying to find a missing clue, or “the magic bullet.” The solutions are staring us right in the face…and, as you probably suspect, you already know what they are.

Genetics, (i.e. your mom and dad), are responsible for about 20-30% of your health.  The balance, which is obviously substantial, is completely up to you.  The majority of your overall health is about personal habits (what you do, or don’t do, on a regular, often daily, basis) and your environment.  These are both things you can control.

There are all sorts of habits that can significantly impact your health, either positively or negatively.  The Big Three are nutrition (what and how much you choose to put in your mouth), physical activity and sleep.  Of these, nutrition and sleep are essential for life while physical activity is optional.  Obviously, you can live without physical activity…however, you can’t live well.  

On a scale of 1 to 10, I encourage you to rate yourself on the categories of nutrition, physical activity, and sleep…1 being terrible and 10 being terrific.  Now add up the three numbers.  If your total is 27 or higher, congratulations!  If not, no worries. The good news is, it’s never too late to improve your health and the solutions are not complicated.  

Spoiler alert! I don’t consider what follows to be “breaking news!” It also does not qualify as “fake news.”

Nutrition

I like to separate the topic of nutrition into two buckets, weight and health.  While the two often overlap, I believe it’s helpful to differentiate in order to clarify your game plan.  If you are interested in losing weight, then you must develop new skills to help moderate your caloric intake.  Many Americans are awful at portion control.  Believe it or not, it’s not what you eat, but when and how you eat that will help you lose weight and, more importantly, keep the weight off.  Learning the difference between appetite and hunger and slowing down your eating experience are two of the most critical skills that lead to permanent weight loss.

From a health perspective, the quality of what you put in your mouth is important.  The research is clear that the Mediterranean Diet (which is not a diet, but a lifestyle) is a fantastic way to improve your health and lower your risk of disease.  Whole grains, along with plenty of green leafy vegetables, fruit, seeds, beans, nuts and berries, should be staples if you are interested in maximizing your health.

Physical Activity

To many, “exercise” is a four-letter word, but make no mistake, incorporating regular physical activity into your routine is one of the best ways to improve both the quality and quantity of your life.  Time is always the most popular excuse as to why individuals don’t exercise, but I don’t buy it.  We all have 168 hours in a week and we know, if you embrace HIIT (high-intensity interval training), you can get all you need with about 30 minutes a week…total.  Please understand, I am not promoting a “something for nothing” strategy as it relates to physical activity…the science here is solid.  I will admit you have to be in pretty good shape to reap the rewards of HIIT, but if you’re avoiding exercise because you are just “too busy,” then it’s time for you to come up with a better excuse.  

Note to overachievers… (guys, this means you).  If you are currently deconditioned from a lack of regular exercise, please don’t try to jump off the high dive, boil the ocean or go from zero-to-60 immediately.  You didn’t get out of shape overnight, so you are not going to recapture your fitness overnight either.  Start where you are and be sure to check with your primary care doc if you have any concerns about your capacity for exertion.  A great place to start is to walk the dog…even if you don’t have one!  

Sleep      

When it comes to optimal health, I call sleep the “third leg of the stool.”  We’ve heard the “diet and exercise” drumbeat for years, but statistically many Americans are trying to get by on too little shut-eye.  Don’t fool yourself.  Without adequate sleep, you will never hit on all cylinders.  

Adults need at least seven hours of sleep per night, but the research shows that 71% of us are either moderately or severely sleep deprived.  The benefits of a good night’s sleep are substantial…more energy, lower blood pressure, better glucose metabolism, improved memory, enhanced mood, a stronger desire to exercise, greater immunity, less stress, longer life and maybe most importantly, a better sense of humor.

Having a consistent sleep routine seems to be the key.  This is known as “sleep hygiene.”  Try to be consistent with when you go to bed and when you get up, even on weekends.  Keep your bedroom like a cave…dark, cool and quiet.  

Try winding down at least an hour before you want to get to sleep.  It’s helpful to avoid one last check of your email, texts, Twitter or Instagram before turning out the lights.   Preparing your brain for sleep is important, so avoid violent television shows or Stephen King novels right before bedtime.  If you have trouble falling asleep, try a hot shower or bath just before sliding under the cool, crisp sheets.  The quick reduction in your core temperature will facilitate relaxation and help set the table for an excellent night of rest which can be the difference between an “average” or “excellent” tomorrow.

There are plenty of other pieces to the “health puzzle,” but the three mentioned above are a great place to start.  One critical point to remember is you can’t outsource your health.  Improving your odds of living a long and healthy life is absolutely possible, you just need to put the puzzle together.

Stay well!


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