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What is healthy living anyway?

Most people think of food and their waist size when they hear the word healthy. But the truth is that healthy living is a lot more than your waist size. Being slightly overweight does not mean you are not healthy, and being normal or underweight also does not mean you are healthy. I have many patients who are overweight, and yet they have perfectly normal blood pressure, heart rate, and blood chemistry. And they tell me Uncle Joe, who was a smoker and overweight, lived to be 90 years old. And then I have the vegetarian ultra-distance runner who has elevated blood pressure. So, although very important, being healthy is much more than your waist size.

Healthy living includes your whole life experience. It can have different meanings for different people, but in general, the main pillars of a healthy life are:

1) Quality of food you eat.

2) How much you move, exercise, and core body strength.

3) Sleep.

4) Psyche (Mindfulness) and your personal and professional wellbeing.

5) Social connections.

6) Preventive health.

In my clinical experience, most people focus only on one or two categories (usually nutrition and exercise) while ignoring others. As you go through stages of life, your priorities may change. In my young, carefree  20-30s version, I was a champion of exercising, sleeping, and socializing, and a complete failure of nutrition and preventive health. But as I transitioned from the carefree days of single student life to a more, and at times mature, life of a married man with kids and an actual job, I started excelling in my nutrition, preventive health, and exercise. In contrast, my social life and mindfulness took a back seat. To practice what I preach, I have been taking more active steps to balance all five pillars of a healthy living. I have lost 30 pounds since my unhealthy 30 year old and feel better, run faster and longer at age 45 than I ever did before.

So, as you read through these steps, you will find out that you are doing quite well in some areas but not others. Use this as a general guide to better balance your life for a more wholesome, healthy lifestyle. I will send more detailed blogs on each category in the coming months.

1) What you eat?

Most of us associate our wellness with our weight. But what we eat is far more critical than our weight. Starving people are thin, but they are not healthy. Instead, the QUALITY of the food you eat plays a significant role in how your cells, organs, and body as a whole function. Just like a car that needs high-quality gas and oil, our body needs high-quality food to function efficiently. Yes, a Porsche runs faster and smoother than a Honda, and some of us are born to better genes of Porsche while some of us, like yours truly, are born to less fortunate genes of diabetes and heart disease. But even a Honda can run fast and last a lifetime if you take good care of it and a Porsche will break down if you give it low quality gas and oil. So, how do you feed your engine high-quality food?

You simply make most of your food at HOME and from unprocessed ingredients. As simple as that.

Your food intake should include healthy carbohydrates, protein, and fats. You need all three major food categories, so don't skimp on them; just try to eat the unprocessed, healthy forms (more on this in future blogs). Many diet programs or gurus promote diets rich in one food category and low in others (Atkins, Keto, Paleo just to name a few). Although some diets lead to short-term weight loss, most are not sustainable simply because your body can not function properly without all three primary macronutrients. Instead, it is much more essential to include carbs, proteins, and fats in all your meals, but in their healthy natural form.

And unless prescribed by your doctor for a specific reason, throw away all those expensive over-the-counter vitamins and supplements. It’s a multi-billion dollar business built on false advertising and our desire to buy our way to wellness.  Instead, eat a healthy diet with at least 3-4 servings of fruits and vegetables daily and you will get all the vitamins and minerals you need for a healthy metabolism. Taking extra vitamins does not make you healthier; just like putting extra gas in your car does not make your car last longer or go faster. Your body only requires a small amount of vitamins and minerals per day, any extra is simply stored or peed out the toilet (the only exception may be Vitamin D for us Clevelanders and B12 if you are 100% vegetarian). So, spend your money on buying high quality fresh food and not chemicals in a bottle.

However, I also know that eating healthy may be more complicated these days, thanks to the deceptive food industry. I am a physician and a health enthusiast, yet it took me a long time and research to truly overhaul my nutrition. In future blogs I will try to go into more specific examples on how to eat healthy, meanwhile reach out to me with any specific questions.

2) How much you move and exercise:

I can not count number of times I hear patients tell me they go to the gym but they are not losing weight. Unfortunately they are correct. Unless you are a professional athlete or training for a long distance race, exercise will not make you lose weight. Exercise has many benefits and you all should be exercising, but weight loss is not one of them. More importantly, research has shown that the most benefit to your health is when you exercise AND stay active throughout the day. Going to the gym or a jog does not mean you can sit behind a desk the rest of the day.

You should exercise at least five days a week and try to remain active the rest of the day.

Exercising should be at least 30 minutes  and can be as long as you want to be. The important thing is to raise your heart rate and stimulate your muscles. A brisk walk or jog followed by some push-ups and core exercises is all you need. But be sure to maintain your activity for the rest of the day.

Take simple measures such as taking the stairs, getting yourself a standing desk, going to a different floor when the bladder calls your name, and parking your car in that far, lonely, empty slot instead of circling round and round for the closest parking spot (unless of course a body ailment is limiting you). These all add up by the end of the day.

In addition to exercising, you also need to work on your core body. Core refers to your back, flank, and abdominal  muscles that support your posture. Of course, having a good upright posture with solid core muscles makes you look like a Hollywood star, but much more importantly, it also allows your lungs to expand more efficiently. Core strength also reduces the risk of chronic neck, back, and other joint pains. Unfortunately, due to our lifestyle of staring down various screens, we are seeing more and more people in their 30s and 40s who come to our clinics with body aches and pains, primarily due to a bad posture. Just have someone take a picture of you when you are standing and not paying attention.  Ouch.  I will send more blogs on how to get your core back in shape and ready for action.

3) Mindfulness:

So, you eat well, exercise, stay active, and go to your doctor every year, but you still feel stressed and tired. Why? Because your mind may be exhausted and overwhelmed.

Mindfulness is taking time during the day and resting your brain and mind. Mindfulness can be as short as 10 minutes or as long as you want it to be. We all used to practice mindfulness in the old days when we were bored, but now boredom is obsolete with all the electronic gadgets. So, you need to make an active effort to be mindful. Examples include yoga, meditation, or  just sitting somewhere and staring away. The important thing is to free yourself of all electronics and other people who may interact with you. Let your mind drift away. Hobbies like reading, knitting, or gardening are other examples of mindfulness, as long as you remain focused on your task and are not distracted by a constantly ringing cell phone.

Another critical and emerging fact in mental health is brain overstimulation. Remember what you did 15 years ago when you were waiting in the grocery store line, having a bathroom break, waiting at the doctor’s office, or waiting for your car to be serviced? You did NOTHING. You stared at the wall. If you were lucky, you would stare at some junk magazine on the waiting room table for a few seconds before you lost interest and went back to staring away.

Those were the good days when your brain had a chance to be bored, wonder, rest, and develop great new ideas. But now, the instant you have to wait for even a fraction of a second, your phone is out, fingers busy scrolling down pictures on social media, checking the news for the 10th time just in case the Russians attacked, or refreshing your email wondering why you still have not gotten a response from an email you sent just 5 minutes ago (not that I have done any of things. While you keep refreshing your screen, your brain is overheating with information. Studies show that our brain has significantly less time to wonder, so our creativity has declined. It is now well-established that excessive cell phone use can also lead to anxiety and depression. So, when you are in line or waiting for something, chill, look up, and smile. You will be  shocked at how much entertainment you get by being present in the moment. And your neck and brain will thank you for giving them a break.

4) Social interactions:

Humans are social creatures. As a species, we care for our young and old relatives, make friends, and form social groups. Of course, there is a wide range from introverts to extroverts. But short of a mental illness, even the most introverted people still have a social circle, albeit a smaller one than the extroverted people. There is scientific evidence that social connectivity and a sense of belonging have significant ramifications for mental health. The degree of this social connectivity may be different for various people. As an extrovert myself, it means being around people and having some sort of social outing with my friends or family at least 1-2 times a week. It also means talking to my close family and friends in person or on the phone regularly. My introverted wife gets her social kick from being around her immediate family and having brief social interactions with a very close group of friends. 

You have to decide what satisfies your social wellness. But even in a busy life, you can take simple measures to improve your social connectivity. Use your drive to and from work to call some friends or family. Stop texting and start calling, even use Facetime. If you last saw your school friends who live close by a long time ago, call them up and make plans to get together. Try to set up social interaction at least once a week. 

5) Sleep:

I will make this short. Many studies show sleep is when our brain, muscles, and bones rest, repair, and grow. Most grown-ups need 7-8 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night. Some may need less or more. If you wake up refreshed and are not sleepy or irritated during the day, you are getting enough sleep. If nothing else, know that if you are not getting enough sleep, you may be at risk of gaining weight and prone to infection. Lack of sleep causes stress, which releases the hormone cortisol, a potent steroid. You all know what steroids do to waist size. In addition, steroids suppress your immune system. So, don’t spend your night watching too much TV or scrolling down social media. Make sure you get your beauty sleep.

6) Preventive Health

Just like a car that needs regular checkups to ensure all parts are working correctly, our body needs regular checkups, especially the older we get. Preventive health is meant to either prevent a specific disease or to catch it in its early stages, where it can be successfully treated. Here are some examples of preventive health depending on your age and gender:

  • Colon cancer screening (prevents or detects colon cancer early).

  • Mammogram (detects breast cancer early)

  • Prostate screen (detects prostate cancer early)

  • Cervical exam (prevents or detects cervical cancer early)

  • Various immunizations like pneumonia, shingles, and flu (lower your risk of getting a major illness).

Many of my patients are very surprised to find out they have elevated blood pressure, telling me they feel fine. Unfortunately, some diseases and abnormalities do not show symptoms until too late. A yearly check-up is a great way to prevent this from happening.

In summary, living a healthy life is a wholesome experience that is much more than your food or gym time. Going forward, I will send a new (and shorter) blog once a month exploring one specific topic  in more detail. Meanwhile, if you want to learn more or have any questions, please contact me at I also welcome any topics you would like me to cover. 

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