My grandmother used to tell me all the time that growing old was not for sissies! She wasn’t joking. I laugh at myself when I look back to when I thought it was tough. I’m sure I will continue to laugh at myself in years to come. Some things we can control and some we cannot. Genetics—we definitely can’t do anything about, and some situations we can’t fully control (divorce, job stress, etc), but we can control how we take care of ourselves.
Out of anything I ask of a patient, maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise is the hardest. It’s the hardest thing I ask of myself! We all know what we should do, but doing it is another story. But if we look at diet and exercise as medicine, maybe we can change how we think a bit and give ourselves the best chance at living healthy.
The current Physical Activity Guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity plus two days of weight training. You can do more! The good news is with more exercise comes more benefits. The risk of heart disease and diabetes drops. Heart disease continues to be the top killer of people in our nation. Exercise helps reduce stress, elevates mood, improves sleep, helps hormonal balance, decreases the risk of some cancers, helps prevent cognitive decline, and improves blood pressure and cholesterol levels. There is no downside to exercise (if done correctly) other than a little soreness. So, get up and start moving every single day to reap the benefits.
The other component is diet. I tell my kids to think of their body as a machine that needs the right building blocks to grow, heal, and strengthen. If they don’t put in the right building blocks, then their body won’t work to the best of its ability. Sugar is not a building block; it is extremely addictive and also promotes inflammation (which is associated with heart disease and diabetes). If we eliminate this one thing (including artificial sweeteners!) from our diet, then we would do ourselves a big favor. Ideally, eat a whole food, low glycemic-index diet, like a Mediterranean diet. The positive signals your body gets from nutrients in food can help all of the chemical reactions in your body go smoothly. The bottom line is this: eat food that is the least processed as possible and a wide variety of colors.
Aim for good, not perfect. We are human and life tends to get in the way, but if you can do these two very important things for yourself, then you’ve already won most of the war! One of my goals as a physician is to help the quality equal the quantity of someone’s life. Diet and exercise, probably the oldest advice in the world, really is the biggest key to healthy living and aging.