The New Year brings possibility for a fresh start and inspires a range of resolutions.
The New Year brings possibility for a fresh start and inspires a range of resolutions. We need only survey a few friends to confirm that the majority of New Year’s resolutions focus on health-related changes such as losing weight, exercising more or quitting addictions such as smoking or reducing alcohol consumption. For most people a resolution or behavioural change may only last a day or a week, sometimes a month but rarely a lifetime. It is suggested that fewer than 50 percent of New Year resolutions are being maintained one month later. In order to be successful in lifestyle changes, people require support ideally from a professional individual or group. The desire to create healthy changes in life at this time of the year may be prompted, in part, by the overindulgences in food and alcohol that often occur in the holiday season, but also point to a basic human desire to live well. A New Year lifestyle resolution can be more than an attempt to change a habit, it can also provide us with an opportunity to recalibrate the way we relate to and engage with every facet of our health and wellbeing including work, relationships, activity and personal development. Modern lifestyles have us living at an increasingly faster pace, with continual pressure to achieve more, often with less. With lifestyle-related illnesses on the rise – diabetes incidence has doubled since the 1980s, obesity rates are close to 60 percent in the Australian population, and cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the leading cause of death with one person dying every 12 minutes – never has there been a more critical time to review and activate the changes necessary to live well. The New Year coincides with a time when many people are able to take annual leave and this presents a prime opportunity to make changes without the normal pressures of everyday life. Many of our poor lifestyle habits have their origins in feeling time poor. The summer holiday period is the perfect time to implement a model for healthy living that can be continued every day of the year. In holiday mode, we are more likely to spend time relaxing, catching up with friends, spending time outdoors in activities in the sunshine, and eating the abundant produce of the season – fruits and vegetables and lighter meals including salads and fish. Abundant sunlight leads to the production of serotonin in individuals, which can enhance mood. In fact, the way we treat ourselves and our health at this time of year is a terrific approach to health and wellbeing every day, and we need only look to the study The Blue Zone: lessons for living longer from the people who’ve lived longest, published by Dan Buettner in 2008, for the evidence. Beuttner studied a series of populations worldwide who were known for their longevity and concluded there were particular lifestyle patterns consistent in these populations that contributed to healthy ageing. Despite us being a long way from these long-living healthy populations in Okinawa, Sardinia, Ikaria, Linda Loma and Costa Rica, these patterns provide essential principles that we can adopt in our own daily living. Dr Dean Ornish, a leading US medical professor, has also spent more than 35 years studying the effects of lifestyle on disease and has established effective treatment and prevention programs based on behavioural, dietary and exercise changes with proven results for heart disease, ageing and cancer. His protocols mirror the findings of the Framingham Study into the effects of lifestyle on risk factors for cardiovascular disease and other chronic illness including cancer and type 2 diabetes, which is notable for its tri-generational investigations. Founded in Boston in post-war America in 1948, the Framingham Study focused on lifestyle and health and to this day offers us powerful insights into not only treating illness, but also more importantly, preventing ill health though healthy lifestyle habits. If we consider the key messages of these studies we see a model emerge that today offers us a framework for longevity, wellbeing and optimal health that has long been advanced by Integrative Medicine. A healthy New Year lifestyle resolution that embodies these guidelines offers us a whole person, whole-of-life approach that supports fundamental changes, and draws on the lessons of not only case studies such as those conducted in The Blue Zones, but is also backed by worldwide scientific research and the discipline of Integrative Medicine. The key is to start now, start with small steps with the goal of lasting change, and to adapt our thoughts and beliefs to a way of life that allows us to enjoy the benefits of ‘holiday mode’ every day of the year. To achieve lasting change professional support is essential. Embrace the best – the Mediterranean lifestyle and diet Just like the Blue Zone islander populations, such as Ikaria and Sardinia, we have plenty of access to healthy foods. The Mediterranean diet is noted for its fresh fruit and vegetables, often home grown; regular consumption of alcohol, particularly red wine, which is rich in polyphenols; quality protein sources such as legumes (lentils); and simple carbohydrates and especially large quantities of extra virgin olive oil. Dairy and meat consumption is not eliminated but modified – less is consumed but of a higher quality – a goats milk fetta, for example, rather than a processed cheddar. Excess sugars, trans fats and additives such as food colourings and preservatives are naturally reduced when the diet is sourced from fresh, and not processed foods. However, the most important aspect of the people of this region is their lifestyle, in particular the gatherings of family and friends. Lessen the pace, prioritise rest and relaxation Sleep disorders could contribute to up to 70 percent of diseases. Abnormal sleep patterns predict lower life expectancy and insomnia contributes to mood disorders, obesity and reduced quality of life. Too often sleep is sacrificed in the interests of work and social activities, and in times of stress and depression, our sleep quality can be further compromised. We need sleep and our present culture of sleep deprivation is pushing us past our biological limits. While holidays offer us the opportunity to ‘catch up’ on sleep and do some relaxing, the path to optimal health requires us to make a daily, if not hourly, commitment to quality rest and restorative time. Think of it as not so much ‘doing’ relaxation but ‘being’ in a relaxed state. Slowing the breath, napping, slowing the pace of life, saying ‘no’ more often and daring to switch off the thinking mind regularly by practising meditation, can provide a recharge to energy and vitality and improve creativity. It might also save your life. Be with people you love A sense of belonging and feeling part of a community is health promoting! The village life of Blue Zone populations created many opportunities for social engagements. Spending time with others in a community setting, and with family and friends, helps establish strong networks and social support that is essential for prosperity. The Framingham Study found that those who lived within 1.6 kilometres (1 mile) of their family enjoyed better health. Living in isolation is problematic, particularly for the elderly, and can be especially predominant in high-density population areas. The human need for companionship, interaction and support may have been a casualty of this era of self-reliance and a potential cost to our health. Cultivate a sense of community with your neighbours. You may not live close to your own family, but strong relationships with others in your community can still be developed and may well be good for your health. Move throughout the day For many diseases, one of the most effective prescriptions that can be written is one for exercise. Our increasingly sedentary lifestyles are now understood to be a major cause of ill health. Recent research reveals that those who do actively exercise every day can negate some of the benefit if the majority of their time is spent in the seated position. Seated is not a natural position of the body – the body is designed to move. This understanding enhances the idea of, for example, taking the stairs instead of the lift. Activity needs to be the predominant modus operandus of the body the majority of the time. In Blue Zone populations, continued activity is part of daily life. Walking, tending vegetable gardens and so on are necessary for survival – in fact it would seem that many of the daily chores we have been able to reduce in our lives in the name of convenience, may have been healthy for us because they provided us with opportunities to be active. Of course, the reality of office life means we may face limited opportunities for activity, but new ways of working are now being explored – from treadmills at desks to walking meetings and stand-up conferences. Our tendency to sit for long periods of time working might impress management, but does little for our health, wellbeing and almost certainly our productivity. There is considerable attention being paid to healthier work environments. Any activity outside also has the added bonus of the sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D and also serotonin. Vitamin D is essential to every system in the body and deficiencies in individuals are currently at epidemic proportions. Fresh air, sunshine and activity are not a ‘reward’; they are absolutely vital to health. Make life meaningful Participants in the Blue Zone study evidenced a sense of peace and harmony that may be derived from spirituality and cultivating a sense of meaning. They belonged to a culture of ‘giving’, and held the contribution of every member of the group, from the oldest to the youngest, as valued and meaningful. Older members of the population particularly were venerated as wise elders, and lived full active lives, well into their nineties. A sense of purpose and a reason for being was seen to be foundational to a happy life. A sense of meaning derived from simple sources is a necessary part of optimal health, though much misunderstood in modern culture. Stress release Stress and depression both influence the increase of hormonal levels, for example, cortisol and insulin, with effects on immunity, obesity and general wellbeing. Stress is the most commonly given reason for not only poor health but also poor habits. Just as we are made to need movement, we are also hardwired to seek pleasure. In Western living, pleasure is often conveniently packaged in the disguise of sugary and/or fatty foods, substances or other addictions including more money. In the Blue Zone populations there was a notable absence of the stress factors we typically associate with modern living. This may be in part due to a different relationship with time, and also a capacity to continually adapt to the changing seasons, which influence everything from how life is lived to how the garden grows. Stress is not so much about the event, but how we relate to the event. To live longer and healthier we need to find ways to manage our stress, and the good news is, the healthier we are – the more we adopt this blueprint for optimal health – the less stress we seem to suffer. Overall these guidelines may, for some, herald a return to a simpler life. Certainly the Blue Zone populations were great ambassadors for this type of living. They are also characteristic for their ‘non-Westernised’ lifestyle and while we may feel that our world is a long way from Ikaria, or Okinawa, there is still much we can enact in our own Western-style lives. We may not be able to change the world we live in, but we can change the way we live in the world. Starting with a new year, or better still, starting today.