Do you think about your health on a daily basis? Probably not. Most of us don’t, until it starts to fail us. This doesn’t have to be a dramatic illness or injury. It might just mean you’re a little more fatigued than you used to be. Or you can’t quite get over that nagging muscle strain that happened while you were doing air squats in the gym last week.
If you’re used to being active, then it should be an even greater priority to think about your health and make decisions that promote recovery and healing. As we age, our body loses the resilience it once had, so that stresses you might have been able to tolerate in the past, like those all-nighters you pulled in college, take a much greater toll.
It’s never too late to start
Rather than treating the effects of poor health choices in the future, you have the opportunity to make better choices today. And if you’re already feeling the effects of overwhelm, fatigue, burn out and/or pain, you’re not alone. The good news is it’s never too late to start making different choices that will shift the balance in your favor.
Lifestyle medicine focuses on 5 core pillars that provide a comprehensive basis for the treatment and prevention of chronic disease. For my athletes out there, you may be thinking “hey, I’m not at risk, I already exercise plenty and watch what I eat”. Believe me, I was in the same boat. What I didn’t appreciate in my younger years was the effect the chronic physical, mental and emotional stress had on my body.
Core Pillars of Lifestyle Medicine
By reviewing the following categories, you can identify areas that could use improvement. The best areas to address first are the ones that you struggle with the most. There might be one or two areas that you excel at, but then there are usually other categories that tend to be neglected. What can you start improving on today?
What you eat is quite possibly the best (or it can be the worst) medicine for you. The recommendation is to focus on eating whole, plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. There are nuances to a healthy diet that are controversial like protein sources (red meat, lean meats, fish) and foods linked to inflammation (gluten, legumes, carbohydrates). Setting that aside for now, having a diet rich in whole, plant-based foods provides an excellent foundation for a healthy diet that promotes good gut flora for a healthy microbiome and maintenance of the gut-brain axis.
Physical activity is also a vital component to maintaining and promoting health. The recommendation is to get 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise plus 2 sessions of strength training per week. The benefits of cardiovascular training are well known and include improved blood flow, improved blood vessel compliance, improved cardiac output, lower blood pressure, better glucose control, reduced pain, reduced weight and enhanced immune system. Benefits of strength training include increased muscle mass, increased basal metabolic rate, reduced weight, stronger bones and improved joint flexibility which has been shown to reduce arthritis.
Meanwhile, extreme endurance and strength training can have negative effects if not managed properly. But, more on that in another post.
The sleep pillar emphasizes 7-8 hours of sleep per night for health benefits. It’s easy to minimize the value of sleep. Unfortunately, it’s often one of the first things we cut out when our lives become busy with other activities like work, family life and training. The quality of sleep also matters. Sleep can be affected by many factors including stress, anxiety, diet, caffeine, alcohol, exercise, environmental factors, and medications. These are all factors to consider if any of them apply to you.
Stress, in any form, whether mental, physical or emotional, can be either productive or harmful. When the body is exposed to physical stress like running or weightlifting, it will adapt to improve cardiac and muscular output, respectively. However, when stress levels are too high for too long, the body will eventually fail to improve and then begin to worsen. A full review of mental, physical and emotional stress is critical to assess the effects of stress accumulation on the body.
Developing and maintaining healthy relationships is an important component of general health and wellness. Social connectedness provides a framework for individuals to work through personal, professional and social issues that may impact other pillars of health.