Have a Happy -- But Not Safe -- Holiday

Christmas finds me once again sitting before a warm hearth in the early morning, the silence disturbed only by the occasional crackle of a burning log. This is one of those days I relish most -- not for presents or festivities, that's not part of this family's traditions -- but for the peace and serenity brought by the rare near-standstill of our society, and a chance to reflect in the all-to-brief silence.

Instead of vehicles rushing about, each 112 square foot, 2,000 pound behemoth belting noise and exhaust on the busy road adjoining my house, there is nothing. No cars, no trucks, no roar of passage. It is a roar I've become more acutely aware of, as over the past several years, I've begun commuting to the Center either by bicycle or foot.

I'm not cycling or walking because I lack a car, though I have little doubt that most passersby assume that. My human-powered commute takes me past a lovely marsh and across a small river, and at the slower speeds at which I travel, it is an entirely pleasant journey except for the bellowing of each car passing by. I'm sure most drivers are utterly unaware of how obnoxiously loud their vehicle is -- I certainly am, when I am driving -- but the noise can easily turn an otherwise pleasant jaunt into a sonic endurance marathon.

"My goodness," people say when I mention that I usually cycle or walk to work. "Isn't it dangerous on that road?" Or, sometimes, I'll stop on my way to talk to someone, and they will nod at the bike and say, "I would do that, except it's much too dangerous. I'm scared of being hit by a car."

It is certainly easy to see how one would reach that conclusion. Mixing it up on the road with drivers of 2-ton vehicles, many of whom might be charitably described as inattentive, would seem, on the surface of it, to be a radically unsafe thing to do.

The fact is, however, that cycling and walking is not only safe, it is life-extending. Population studies have shown that the lifespan of  cyclist is several years longer than the non-cyclist, and that city-dwellers have lower rates of obesity because they tend to walk further and more often than their suburban counterparts.

This topsy-turvy notion of what is safe and healthy is not limited to the popular view of cycling. It has grown, like a cancer, to invade the common wisdom of our culture. And I would argue that the insidious inversion of what is safe and what is not safe is, in fact, one of the causes of cancer as well as the other leading causes of death in the U.S. I'm sure everyone has heard the tagline, "Please consult your doctor before engaging in any strenuous activity." The implication is clear: If you so much as increase your pulse to the level where you actually feel it, or begin to break a sweat, you are putting your life at risk (unless you have first had an EKG and echocardiogram, of course).

But once again, the exact converse is true. The surest most direct route to an abnormal EKG is by not stressing your heart, by not breathing hard and sweating.

No. Please don't consult your doctor, even if your doctor is me. You don't need an EKG and flight clearance to exercise. What you do need is a pair of athletic shoes, an hour, and the desire to be healthy.

Similarly, please stop wiping down every hard surface with germ-killing, antiseptic wipes. Studies are now uncovering that the increasing sterility of our environment, especially that of our children, is partially causing the dramatic increase of auto-immune diseases. All you have to do to achieve maximum infection protection you learned in grammar school. Wash your hands after going potty and before eating. Don't sneeze and cough on other people. It's that simple. Not only is anything more than that overkill, it's actually detrimental.

I'm reminded of a study we once conducted in microbiology class in chiropractic school. We swabbed our skin for a sample, and then grew and identified the bacteria that were found on that sample. Our collected samples included virulent Strep bacteria, multiple bacteria which cause gastrointestinal disease, and agents of pneumonia. Yup, those were samples from normally healthy people. The point being, of course, that we exist in a world brimming with life, some of it hostile, and we are highly efficient at preventing exposure from becoming infection. We don't need to live in a sterile world. In fact, we cannot. As counterintuitive as it may seem, we would die without our bacterial adversaries.

Finally, while other doctors will advise you to avoid cold exposure, please allow me to recommend it as an excellent source of good health. You won't hear this in any public service messages, but regular exposure to cold is beneficial. Studies have found that cold exposure reduces inflammation and increases levels of pain-suppressing neurotransmitters. So if you suffer from chronic pain, one of the best things you can do is go for an icy plunge throughout the winter months.

Being out in the cold weather will also stimulate the production of metabolically-active brown fat. This is the type of fat that babies use to regulate their body temperature, but which we lose with age. Brown fat is good, as it takes the calories stored in regular fat and uses it. So being out in the cold can actually stimulate weight loss, something which many in this country dearly need -- particularly after the holidays.

If you are interested in the health of your children, one of the best things you can do is to keep the car in the garage, instead of driving them down to the end of the driveway and keeping them sitting in a warm car while they wait for the morning school bus. Both the walk and the cold weather will stimulate important health properties in your children. Better yet, let your kids walk or cycle to school, if you live within a mile or two. Such practices will dramatically increase your child's odds of living a longer, healthier life

As I finish writing this, I can see the first faint glimmer of sunrise. Soon, children will be opening presents, parents will be basking in the glow of a job well done, and everybody will be gathering about the table for a festive meal. We will have the chance to count our blessings, whether they be friends, family, shelter or health, to reflect on the year passing and the year to come. To taste that moment of silence.

Me? I'm going to savor this quiet moment by pumping up my tires and rolling the bike out of the basement and onto the road. It won't be a long trip, nor a fast one, but I will be doing the best thing I can do to ensure that I get to enjoy next  year's holiday season. And the greatest Christmas gift I could receive would be seeing others do the same.

So, to everyone who reads this blog -- all 6 of you -- have a very merry, and very unsafe Christmas!

Dr. Avery Jenkins is a chiropractic physician specializing in the treatment of people with chronic disorders. He can be reached at alj@docaltmed.com or by calling 860-567-5727.