Take charge of your well-being
You know it’s vital to stay on top of doctor visits. But optimum health also involves nurturing your mind, body and spirit.
When I moved to Caldwell several months ago, I got recommendations for doctors in the area so that I could line up all the standard checkups for myself and my family. Then, with that part of my family’s health taken care of, I began setting up our new home, becoming increasingly busy with that and my job. Soon, I found myself run down, stressed and headachy on an almost daily basis. After a couple of months of this hectic, unhealthy lifestyle, I realized that I had let a huge aspect of my health fall by the wayside: exercise. In the midst of my flurry to get our new life set up, I had de-prioritized my workouts and neglected to include any mind-body activity in my life. Finally, when I was nearing my breaking point, I joined a local gym and started a dance class that has become one of the happiest and most invigorating parts of my week. The result: My mood has improved, my headaches are dissipating, and I feel a lot more energetic.
The lesson I learned is an important one: Staying on top of your health doesn’t just mean getting regular checkups; it means taking charge of your whole well-being—body, mind and spirit. Countless studies confirm that there is an inseparable connection between mind and body, which means that taking care of your mind and spirit—and keeping stress to a minimum—is integral to physical health. “We know that negative thoughts, stress and anxiety can weaken immune function and increase inflammation, which ups your risk for diseases such as cancer and heart disease,” says Cynthia Paige, M.D., a family physician and acupuncturist who specializes in holistic medicine and is the medical director of Cypress Health Institute of New Jersey in West Orange. Further evidence: More than 60 percent of doctor visits are due to stress-related issues, according to a Harvard researcher. “Stress exacerbates every illness and creates many problems in your body,” adds Diane Lang, a therapist, adjunct professor of psychology at Montclair State University and author of Creating Balance & Finding Happiness. “It can lead to gastric reflux, colds, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, sleep disorders and teeth grinding, among other things.” The bottom line is that in order to stay healthy, it’s crucial that you not only look at your physical health and the numbers on your cholesterol test (although it is vital to stay on top of regular health screenings—see page 38), but also examine your whole lifestyle, including mind-body activities, spirituality, nutrition and sleep.
Importance of exercise
“Exercise is one of the best things you can do to relieve stress, improve mood and benefit overall health,” says Dr. Paige. It improves cardiovascular health, flexibility, coordination and strength, and it also releases endorphins, lowers stress hormones and increases your energy level. Lang notes that regular exercise can boost mood at a level on par with antidepressants. To get even more of a mental lift, you could try a mind-body activity such as yoga or tai chi, which helps you be mindful of your present thoughts and breathing patterns and promotes inner calm. After all, these practices have been shown to lower blood pressure and relieve stress. “Yoga, tai chi and other physical activities that incorporate meditation work extremely well for many people,” says Lang. But if that’s not your style, don’t worry. You don’t need to become a Zen master to include mind-body activity in your life. Almost any exercise can have a mind-body component if you simply shift your mental focus while doing it. “Go outside to exercise. Be in the stillness of nature and reflect on your thoughts—and you’ll get a total mind-body workout,” says Dr. Paige. Lang seconds that notion and adds that if you walk in nature, which is calming, and include a friend in the activity so that you can socialize and feel connected with another person, you reap even more mind-body benefits. Whatever it is you like to do, whether it’s walking, yoga or dancing, do it mindfully—take in the scenery, listen to your breathing or feel the beat of the music in your core as you dance or kickbox—and you’ll give your mind as big a boost as you give your body.
Come on, get happy
Another key way to make yourself healthier and more energetic is to make yourself happier. And as you can imagine, there are many ways to accomplish that if you give yourself the opportunity. For instance, take time—even if it’s just a few minutes a day—to do something that relaxes you, such as reading a soothing book or doing a crossword puzzle. (An added bonus, says Dr. Paige, is that these mental activities will also sharpen your mind and improve your memory.) Or simply take time to note what you’re grateful for at some point each day. Recognizing the good things you have in your life will dissuade you from focusing on the bad. “I like to think about what I’m grateful for either in bed at night—to help clear my mind and calm me down for sleep—or in the shower in the morning, when I can imagine all my negativity running down the drain,” says Lang. “These gratitude exercises help me focus on happiness and put me on a good, healthy path.” Some people get the same results with regular prayer, notes Lang.
Another way to get happy is to take the focus off yourself entirely by being altruistic. “The more you pay it forward, the happier you are, which in turn lowers your stress,” says Lang. Volunteer in your town, at your community center or at your local place of worship—it will help others, and as a result, it will help you feel good. It will also help you stay socially connected, which is vital to health, notes Dr. Paige. “We are wired as social beings, and when you don’t have that connection to others, it can lead to all kinds of health problems—in fact, studies show that people who are socially connected live longer lives,” she says. So even when you’re not giving to your community, allow yourself time to stay connected to others. Have lunch with a friend or snuggle with your spouse—it’s important for your well-being.
Anyone who has ever skipped a meal could tell you that when you don’t eat regularly (and healthfully), you end up feeling cranky, lethargic and depleted. That’s because taking in nutritious fuel on a regular basis is key to the proper functioning of your body and mind. “When people’s basic needs are met—like eating regular, healthy meals—they immediately start to feel better,” says Lang. So instead of grabbing a fat-filled muffin on your way to work or a processed bag of chips for lunch, put pure, nutrient-dense, fiber-rich foods into your body throughout the day—and don’t forget to stay hydrated by drinking water (aim for eight 8-ounce glasses each day). You’ll keep your blood sugar stable (which will reduce mood swings and cravings), your energy up, your waistline in check and your mind sharp.
Most Americans skimp on sleep because we feel our lives are too busy to fit enough in, but sleep is one of the most critical components of health. Sleep heals the body and refreshes the mind. “If you don’t sleep enough, you’ll be drained and irritable, your immune system will weaken, and you’ll end up with cognitive impairments,” says Lang. Fit in adequate sleep, and your whole well-being will benefit. To ease yourself into a calming bedtime routine, don’t exercise within two hours of going to bed, turn off the TV or computer in your room, don’t eat heavily before lying down (you don’t want your body working on digestion when it’s supposed to be resting), and don’t bring your problems to bed, says Dr. Paige. Instead, before bed, make a list of the things that are bothering you—or the things you need to do—and then put those thoughts out of your head and de-clutter your mind. It will send you on your way toward a good night’s sleep, which will replenish both your body and your mind for the next day.