Whole Person Wellness
As a doctor, I am sometimes saddened and frustrated to see patients suffering with diseases and conditions that might have been prevented if they’d made different lifestyle choices in the past—if they’d had the information and the determination to make healthy choices for themselves, to put themselves first, and to take good care of themselves. It’s never too late to create good new habits. Here are the top ten things you can do to be the most healthy, vital person you can be.
Weigh in. By now, we all know that being overweight can contribute to a long list of health problems including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and others. Now, this doesn’t mean you should be at your college weight, or even that you should still be able to fit into that dress you wore to your daughter’s wedding. But it does mean that you should try to maintain a weight in proportion to your height. BMI, or body mass index, is a calculation of body fat based on height and weight. Your BMI number will give you a good idea whether you’re at a healthy weight, or whether you need to gain or lose. There’s a simple BMI calculator tool at www.AARP.org, or your physician can calculate it for you. And note that, in older adults, being underweight can often be just as much an issue as being overweight.
Eat your veggies. Your food choices have a direct and significant impact on your quality of life. Our bodies need the nutrition and energy that food provides to stay healthy, and eating well can even improve mood and brain function. Healthy food choices don’t have to be bland or boring. Your best menu choices will include plenty of high-quality protein like chicken, fish, and lean beef accompanied by fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and healthy fats from sources like avocados, olive oil, and nuts. Things to generally stay away from: too much sugar/sweets, fried foods, hydrogenated oils, and highly-processed, packaged foods with ingredients you can’t pronounce.
All that said, most things are okay in moderation. After all, part of the joy of being human is sharing food in community with others. Want to treat yourself to a hot dog at the ball game or an ice cream with the grandkids once in awhile? Enjoy! Fast fried foods every day? Not a good idea.
Move it! You’ve got to get up from the sofa and exercise, in whatever way is suitable for you. I tell my patients to try to do something active every day. That way, if you have to miss a day once in awhile, it’s no big deal--at least you’re exercising on most days. Of course you know your own body and your own limitations, but you may be surprised by what you can do once you get in motion. You should always talk to your doctor if you have any questions or concerns about exercising, or before you start something new. I encourage folks to do different things so they don’t get bored, and get a good combination of aerobic exercise, which is good for the heart and the bones (like walking and swimming) and balance-focused exercise (such as yoga or tai chi), which can help prevent falls. Even physical activity like working in your garden or pushing the shopping cart around Target for an hour count (however, walking around the mall for 10 minutes and stopping for a Cinnabon does not)! Exercise classes are a great way to get instruction so you don’t injure yourself, as well as a wonderful social opportunity to interact with others.
Be sociable. Especially as we age, staying in connection with others is vitally important. Don’t let yourself become isolated—even if you don’t like it or feel shy, make yourself go out in the world and interact with other people. Maybe you’ll even make new friends! Some fun ideas:
- Participate in an activity at the recreation center or church.
- Take a class and learn something new.
- Go to a lecture at the library or museum.
- Volunteer your time to help others—it feels good!
Use your noggin. Flex your brain to keep it spry and active. Studies show that games, puzzles, and exercises that require you to activate memory centers of the brain can actually help prevent Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. While reading is a somewhat helpful brain activity in and of itself, reading and then discussing what you’ve read (so you have to reach back into those memory centers) with your spouse or book club is much better! Processing it is the important part.
Learning something new is one of the best things you can to stimulate an aging brain. Just think about all those years when you were too busy to do the things you wanted to do:
- Learn to speak French.
- Hone your painting skills.
- Perfect your fly-tying technique.
- And how about learning to play a video game with your grandkids?
Now you have time to do it all!
Just a quick note about memory: folks of all ages sometimes struggle with recall. It’s okay to admit that you might need a little help remembering things. Don’t take it personally. Sticky notes can become your best friend.
Find your happy place. Let’s face it, folks: we’re all aging and certain things seem to happen. Skin wrinkles, vision diminishes, breasts sag, children create their own lives and move away, friends and loved ones die. We each have our own unique challenges to face as we age, and aging gracefully is a mindset. I’ve noticed that the happiest, most grounded people I know (regardless of age or stage in life), are the ones who are able to make peace with whatever is going on around them and within themselves. If you feel distraught or depressed, please reach out for help. Your spiritual support, whether it comes from a church or temple, meditation, or good friends, can be your lifeline in difficult times. Some people find that a psychologist can best help them sort through issues and heal hurts. Look for the little things that can bring you joy and make you smile every day—a bird outside your window, a child’s voice…You really can learn change your view of the world and make your journey, as well as others’ journeys, a little brighter.
Consult your physician. Now, I’m not just saying this because I’m a doctor. Truly, your healthcare provider can be your greatest ally in wellness. It’s so important to have a relationship with a clinician who you can trust with your most embarrassing questions and deepest secrets. Your physician will tell you, based on your level of wellness or health challenges, how often you need to visit and what kind of exams and tests are appropriate. For some folks, monthly visits are necessary and, for others, it might be every six months--just to check in--even if you’re feeling perfectly well.
Take only as directed. It is quite common for older adults to take numerous prescriptions, sometimes prescribed by multiple physicians and often accompanied by nutritional supplements and over-the-counter medications. Because of potential interactions between substances, your primary care provider really needs to know about every pill you’re taking. It’s a good idea to stuff all of your medications and supplements into a bag and take them along to your doctor’s appointment from time to time. And please, don’t just stop taking a medicine without talking to your physician about it first. With some meds, it might be okay; stopping others could cause serious problems for your body.
Sleep tight. Getting a good night’s sleep is important for people of all ages. Sleep cycles change with age, and sleep problems are common in older adults. You may find that you need to make modifications to your routines. Give yourself permission to nap during the day if it doesn’t interfere with your nighttime sleep. If you find you have insomnia, try some “good sleep hygiene” techniques:
- Avoid substances and behaviors that can affect sleep: caffeine, alcohol, smoking, and some medications (ask your doctor).
- Don’t watch TV or use the computer right before bed—it is very stimulating and can keep you awake.
- Use your bed only for sleeping--read, watch TV, talk on the phone, work puzzles somewhere else.
- Take a warm, relaxing bath before bedtime.
- Listen to gentle, calming music as you fall asleep.
- If you are in bed for 15-20 minutes and are unable to fall asleep, don’t just continue to lie there. Get up and do something for a little while, then try again.
- If you can’t sleep because you’re worrying or your mind won’t stop, try putting your concerns down in writing. Then put it away, and give yourself permission to let go and deal with the problems in the morning, when you’ll be well-rested and better able to cope.
Wash your hands. Practicing good hygiene really can contribute to keeping you healthy, especially during the cold & flu season or if you live with other people who may be sick. This is even more important if you have a condition that affects your immune system and it’s difficult for your body to fight off sickness. It’s also kind and respectful to protect others when you are ill.
- Wash your hands frequently, particularly before eating.
- Use tissues for sneezing, coughing, and runny noses, and dispose of them properly.
- Sneeze or cough into your elbow if necessary (NOT into your hand—germs will go from your hand to the next surfaces you touch!).
- Try to avoid people who are sick if possible, and try to stay away from others when you are sick.
Take good care of yourself—body, mind, and spirit—each and every day!