Andrew Siegel, M.D. Blog # 60
“Hey, how are you doing?”
“Anything good going on?”
“Nah, not really…same old.”
In many circumstances—as above—the absence of bad is as favorable as the presence of good, and that, dear reader, is the premise for the ensuing discussion.
As ridiculous, simplistic and absurd as it may sound, you do not need to eat a super-healthy diet and exercise regularly to have a vital existence. Rather, what you do need to do is to avoid eating harmful foods and abstain from a sedentary existence.
The Hippocratic oath teaches us Primum non nocere, a Latin phrase meaning “First, do no harm.” It is a useful doctrine that physicians practice on a daily basis. In many situations, avoiding mistakes and errors is the key to success. This is also applicable to sports—for example, tennis—where a match can be won without hitting many clean winners by simply not making many errors.
The aforementioned is totally relevant to our eating and exercising habits. You don’t need to eat a vegan diet, a Paleolithic diet or a Weight Watcher’s diet to be healthy, nor do you need to be a gym rat to be fit. What you do need to do is to try to avoid processed and junk foods and stay active, energetic and kinetic. Don’t get me wrong—there is a difference between the intensity, duration and type of exercise necessary to improve sports performance versus that needed for health and vitality. Staying active is not the same as sport-specific training, in which we work on discrete exercise skills, accompanied by endurance and weight training that culminates in adeptness, conditioning, efficiency and adaptation.
Our bodies will always adapt to the stresses placed upon it, whether the stresses are strenuous exercise, staying active, or being sedentary. The changes in terms of insulin resistance, blood glucose, fat-fighting enzymes, metabolism and energy level resulting from strenuous exercise and staying active are quite positive, but those resulting from a sedentary existence are quite negative. If you want bulging biceps and pectorals or a ripped six-pack or to train for a triathlon, you’re going to have to earn that with healthy eating and lots of “formal” exercise; however, if your endpoint is optimal health and not glamour nor excelling in sports, you just need to do some moving. Many health benefits can be derived without doing “formal” exercise—the physical activity does not need to be particularly exertional, but does need to involve locomotion. The problem is that two-thirds of us get absolutely no exercise whatsoever; being a couch potato not only is unnatural, but also has grave health consequences in terms of the maladaptive response of our bodies to this sedentary existence.
Integrational exercise is a means of incorporating exercise and movement into your daily activities. You don’t need special equipment, gym clothes, a fitness center, a heart rate monitor or a personal trainer. The key to integrating exercise into your daily routine is keep moving—it has even been shown that being fidgety is a form of exercise that burns calories in the form of nervous energy. Take the stairs instead of the elevator; when at an airport, climb the stairs instead of using the escalator and walk to the gates instead of using the conveyor; at the mall, instead of circling around looking for that close-to-the-entrance spot, park the car as far away from the shops as possible and walk the distance; “power” vacuum your rugs; mix batter for a cake by hand as opposed to using an electric mixer; use hand tools instead of power tools; garden; shovel snow; mow the lawn; saw tree branches; walk the dog; carry a heavy laundry basket; take out the recycling; carry your child on your back; dance; stand upright while talking on the telephone, etc. These integrational exercises may not result in weight loss, but they will keep you active and moving, making you healthier and enjoying a longer life.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) is the term applied to how we reap major benefits through thousands of minor movements each day. NEAT is the body’s means of fighting inertia. Interestingly, some of us do not gain weight despite increased caloric intake because of compensation via subconscious movements including taking the stairs; trotting down the hall to the water cooler; bustling about with chores; even fidgeting in one’s seat. Standing has been shown to cause us to reap substantial benefits as opposed to sitting.
A few days ago, I played doubles tennis for two hours and then played a round of golf in which I walked the course. This really was not much in the way of aerobic, resistance, or core exercise—my lungs weren’t heaving, my heart wasn’t racing, I wasn’t sweating much, my muscles were not sore—but nonetheless, it was six hours or so of energetic movement.
Another way in which one can reap the health benefits of the “good” by essentially avoiding the “bad” is in the food arena. In our modern society, if you want to stay on track regarding a healthy diet and weight, it is not so much what you choose to eat that counts, but what you elect not to eat. Making a concerted effort to avoid unhealthy, unwholesome and unnatural foods as much as possible will ensure the intake of an abundance of natural and wholesome foods. There are a great variety of quality foods that can nourish us, and it is not important what your specific choices are as long as there is balance, sufficient intake of macro-nutrients (protein, fats and carbohydrates) and micro-nutrients (vitamins and minerals), and avoidance of excessive calories. The key is to stay away from processed, reconstituted, unhealthy, mystery, faux foods.
Humans are remarkably omnivorous, meaning that there are a great variety of different foods—plant and animal in origin—that can both provide energy for our metabolic processes and sustain us in terms of tissue replenishment. I borrow Michael Pollan’s maxim and reverse it in an effort to summarize what not to eat: Imitation food, a lot of it, mostly animal-based…and there we have the Western diet—processed foods, lots of meats, refined carbohydrates, fats and sugar—the eating style that has contributed to two-thirds of Americans being overweight or obese and responsible for the scourges of Western civilization, namely hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
Bottom line: The active pursuit of a healthy diet and regular exercise certainly go a long way in terms of shaping our health destiny, but are not essential for our vitality and longevity. What is essential is the avoidance of an unhealthy diet and refraining from a sedentary existence, simple actions that can be transformative. The science is crystal clear that powering ourselves with poor-quality fuels and sitting motionless on a chair or couch for prolonged periods of time are unhealthy and disease-promoting behaviors.
A few years ago, I wrote a book entitled Finding Your Own Fountain of Youth: The Essential Guide to Health, Wellness, Fitness & Longevity. Through the process of interviewing many youthful elderly persons (referred to as “YEPpies”) I concluded that the cornerstones of vitality were the following:
- Having a sense of purpose
- Staying physically active
- Passions and hobbies
- A healthy diet
- Avoiding self-abuse: junk food, obesity, tobacco, immoderate alcohol, excessive sun exposure, etc.
- Close relationships
- Optimism and the ability to adapt to life’s changes
- Preventative maintenance
- Respecting yourself and living well
Food and lifestyle have the power to prevent, reverse, and even cure
most chronic illness, the cause of endless personal suffering and an
unsustainable burden to our global economies and social fabric.
(Mark Hyman, M.D.)
Andrew Siegel, M.D.
Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food
Available on Amazon Kindle