Almost as much as education, experience counts in health care. The more patients that I have seen, the more conditions I have treated, the more times I have treated the same condition in different people, the more I have learned. And the better I am able to help my patients become healthy. This month begins my 20th year as a doctor. As I look back over the past two decades, I can see certain commonalities emerge from the background of doctor-patient interchanges. The things that I have taught my patients not once, not twice, but hundreds of times. The mistakes that I have observed my patients make. The simple short-cuts which I have learned that, once applied, can make immediate and dramatic positive changes in someone's health.
Unlike most other health advice you're going to get from the internet, the information I'm about to give you will not cost you anything. As a matter of fact, most of my recommendations will save you money. And, with a few exceptions, none of them will be difficult or time-consuming. None of them require special equipment, special diets, or hard-to-get foodstuffs. As a special bonus, all of these recommendations are not only backed by a doctor with two decades of experience, but also by research and the collected wisdom of the doctors and healers that have preceded me by hundreds, and in some cases, thousands, of years. As Isaac Newton said in his letter to rival Robert Hook, "If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants."
Though there are a few more, I am giving you one work week's worth of ideas that you can use to improve your health. Everybody should implement all five of these recommendations, although the gains you will receive from each will vary wildly from person to person.
1. Turn off the TV and cut the cable.
I can think of no other piece of advice that will fundamentally change your life more than this one. Despite the recent flattening in the growth of cable companies, Americans still watch a tremendous amount of television -- 34 hours a week, according to a 2012 Nielsen study. In younger people, the amount is 10 hours less, and dropping, which is a good sign. Nonetheless, 24 hours a week turns television watching into a part-time job for most people.
Interestingly, this recommendation, perhaps my most important one, is also the most ignored. Patients will nod their heads, dutifully agreeing with me, and proceed to completely forget every word that I said. The reason why is simple. Television is highly addictive. Like all addictions, it is difficult to break.
Also like all addictions, the best way to break this one is to go cold turkey. Call up the cable company, and terminate your cable channels. (Keep in mind that this step will save you anywhere from $75 to $200 per month.) The first thing that you will notice is that all of a sudden you have a bunch of spare time on your hands, time you once spent plugged into the television. Here's things that you can do with that time:
1. Learn another language.
2. Join a club or service organization.
3. Get a hobby! Knit, woodworking, model rocket building, fish, make pottery.
4. Spend time talking to your kids, spouse, husband. Walk the dog. Call your father.
You get the point. There's an infinite number of activities that you will not do today because you make the choice to sit in front of a 40-inch screen listening to retreaded jokes told over a laugh track. On your gravestone they can put the epitaph: "He Watched TV."
2. Hide the car keys.
There's a reason that studies have shown city dwellers are thinner and more fit than rural residents. It's because city folk walk or ride bicycles more than people in suburbs or rural areas.
That doesn't have to be the case, though. Despite living in a small rural town, I rarely need to use my car. Trips to the grocery store, bank, and other daily chores are all done on my bicycle, most of the year. I usually ride to work, though more recently these days, I've been walking to my office a lot.
A lack of exercise is the number one cause of virtually every major health problem in this country, from heart disease to diabetes. Exercise also reduces the risk of breast cancer and other cancers as well.
My recommendation is to walk to any destination that is 1 mile away or less, and ride a bike if it is 3 miles or less. Don't think you have the time? Just remember Health Tip #1. You're already doing that, right? So you've got plenty of time. Use it to become healthier.
Interestingly, riding or walking will change your entire perception of time. For a variety of reasons neurological, travelling at speed tends to compress time; when we are driving our automobiles, we feel the constant pressure of needing to arrive at our destination. Our minds are focused on what's ahead of us, not what is immediately around us. After several months of low-speed transportation, you will find that pressure easing. You just notice things more as you walk and ride, putting your mind on the present rather than the always-unattainable future. Also, you will find yourself winnowing out the necessary tasks from the unnecessary, or better coordinating your daily journey to get more done with less. And you will soon realize that it is such a relief to not be constantly rushing about to get things done.
3. Look at the sky. Twice each day.
How someone carries themselves tells us much about them. A slouched posture is often associated with negative traits, from illness to depression to low self-esteem. The fact of the matter is that posture does indicate psychological health, relational status and physical well-being.
Most people, when trying to improve their posture, use the large muscles of the back to straighten the spine, creating a stiff, unnatural form that cannot be maintained longer than a minute or so. That's because the large muscles of the spine are intended to control movement, not posture. They need way too much energy to maintain contraction for any length of time. The postural muscles are much smaller, and positioned to use leverage to make the most out of minimal effort. These muscles, for the most part, are out of our conscious control.
To improve your posture, you must retrain your unconsciously controlled postural muscles. And how do you do that? Simple. Just keep your body relaxed, stand up, and tilt your head back as far as it can go to look at the sky directly above you. Your spine will naturally straighten when you do that. Bring your head back down, while remaining in that relaxed, straightened posture, and voila! You have straightened your spine without engaging the large movement muscles.
Of course, you'll forget about that in two minutes. Which is why you'll do the exercise later the same day. If you repeat that daily for 3-6 months, you will find that you will begin to retain a straight posture naturally, without conscious intervention. Now you can brush your teeth, comb your hair, and go get that job of your dreams.
4. Read 1 book every month.
Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body. In ways large and small, reading is good for you. Reading improves mood and reduces stress. Reading reduces the impact of dementia. Reading reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.
I know I'm fighting an uphill battle on this one. Anti-intellectualism in America has deep roots. As a result, 25 percent of Americans haven't read a single book in the past year.
What you read tends to be less important than the act of reading itself. Whether you're reading Emerson or Evanovich, the result is the same; you're smarter, think better, and have more to talk about with others.
When there is nothing else I can do for a patient -- no way to relieve their pain or ameliorate their illness before they leave my office -- I do my best to make them laugh. And when I'm performing possibly painful procedures, I almost always crack wise. Patients will sometimes mistake my eager rush for laughter for sadism, but it's actually quite the opposite. Laughter is an effective painkiller; not only that, it improves immune function in cancer patients.
Laughter increases tissue oxygenation, exercises the trunk muscles, burns calories and provides cardiovascular benefits. As an all-around health stimulator, laughter ranks right up there with exercise. Heck, laughter reduces blood sugar in diabetics.
If I've done nothing else but make a patient laugh, I know I've improved their quality of life, perhaps for the rest of the day, as laughter's physiological benefits can linger.
Of course, laughter therapy can backfire as well. There was that time that I was explaining to a new patient how to get to my office. I said that my building was right across the street from the funeral home. "Yeah, it makes it really easy to take care of my mistakes," I said.
She never showed up.
I have more of these, perhaps a dozen. But these are the nuggets of gold that have consistently worked for my patients, and not infrequently helped them to navigate difficult waters to a healthier life.