During this week when we celebrate the launch of the American Cancer Society’s 2006 Great American Eat Right Challenge, it’s a good time to revisit the fact that all of us could do a better job of taking care of our diet, our weight, and our health.
And, I believe that many of us understand the sense of accomplishment that comes from setting right something that has gone wrong with ourselves.
In that context, there are some messages I feel strongly about, and I would like to share them with you today:
· Just because you are a doctor and believe in prevention doesn’t mean you necessarily follow your own good advice.
· Even people like me, who are supposed to know better, can lose their way on the path to staying healthy.
· Ultimately, it’s not that you have fallen off the wagon that counts. What counts is that you get back on.
Maybe what has happened to me recently will strike a chord with you or someone you know, and move them along to commit to improving their own health.
There is a euphemism about tall people who are overweight: “they carry it well.” So when you are tall and overweight like me, you frequently may not look like it.
Despite my height, I have always had a problem with my weight, starting from when I was a young child. I knew that being overweight had its set of risks, and despite a regular exercise program and trying to “eat right,” my weight generally was higher than it should have been.
Theoretically, I should have known better. I have a family history of obesity and hypertension. I lost my father to hypertension and kidney failure when I was very young.
When you are younger and you concentrate on weight loss, it tends to be an easier proposition to lose a few pounds, especially (or so it seems) if you are a man
As you grow older, at least in my experience, forget about it!!!! Diet, exercise, more diet, more exercise—it never seems to work as easily as it used to.
So you start to remove some of the offenders from your diet: chips and dip, burgers and fries, peanuts and popcorn, ice cream—you know the litany of things you try to cut out of your daily eating regimen when you want to lose those “unsightly pounds.”
You try a variety of diet regimens. Scarsdale, Atkins, grapefruit, magic over-the-counter pills that get rid of ugly belly fat.
Short term successes, but no long term results.
And, still the pounds pile on and on.
Somehow the diet plans don’t work as easily as they used to. Exercise becomes more miss than hit (as in “hit or miss”). Your job and your life become more sedentary. Even parking further away from the grocery store so you walk more doesn’t do the trick.
In my situation, there was another major variable, and that was travel and meetings. Lots of travel, lots of meetings, lots of missed or irregular meals and virtually no control of your diet while on the road. Too many social hours, too many snacks
There are those chocolate chip cookies or some such delight which seem to be everywhere. After hours in a meeting room, what harm is a cookie going to do?
The answer: plenty of harm.
I truly believe it is not massive overeating that gets us. It’s a little bit extra every day, day after day. And then the you-know-what accumulates around your waist or your thighs, depending on your genetics and your sex.
Personally, I did pretty well until my fifties. My blood pressure was normal, as was my cholesterol. I remained in good health, my weight notwithstanding.
But then my life changed a bit, with an increasing amount of travel and various forms of stress. And the pounds slowly but surely piled on.
Instead of exercising every day, it became a couple of times a week. I tried to maintain an exercise schedule on the road, but that didn’t work out (pardon the pun). And then exercise became a luxury (or so I thought) because I simply didn’t have time.
About a year ago my body started heading south—literally and figuratively. Pain in my foot limited my ability to walk or exercise. Fluid in my arm required drainage.
And then one day last December I ended up in the doctor’s office with severe pain and swelling in my knee and we discovered my blood pressure was somewhere between high and higher.
That was a horrible day for me.
Let’s face the facts. I am a physician who believes in prevention. I have made prevention my mantra my entire professional life. I have preached prevention to my patients, and I have preached prevention in my lectures. I have preached prevention every chance I get.
There is at least one person I preached to who did not get the message: me.
Here I am, sitting in the doctor’s office, and I am making a rapid transition from being a doctor to being a patient. And it was not a happy or comfortable transition to make. I also discovered that my cholesterol was up to unacceptable levels, and I likely had gout.
Medically, I had become my dad. And that was not a pleasant thought.
There are two ways to face a challenge in life: ignore it or take it on. Being the optimist that I am, despite my age, I chose the latter over the former.
In fact, that day in the doctor’s office was in a real sense a rebirth for me. It was a day that I made a commitment never to be in that situation again. If I was going to get sick, it was going to be on terms over which I had some control. I never wanted to be in a place where I knew I had not done my best to take care of myself.
All of us are going to become ill, and, yes, all of us are mortal. There is much about our health over which we have no control. We are born with genetic pre-dispositions and family histories that in part direct our fate.
But we are also born with the ability to direct many of the factors that influence our health and our lives.
So although we may be prone to various diseases, in many circumstances we can influence what happens to us medically.
For example, we know that being overweight and obese increases our risk of heart disease, diabetes, elevated cholesterol and stroke.
But did you know that being overweight and obese also influences our risk of cancer? The reality is that it does, and not many of us know it.
The American Cancer Society estimates that almost 2 out of 3 cancer deaths could be prevented if we just did took some simple steps: don’t smoke (1/3 of cancer deaths), eat a healthy diet, be physically active, and maintain a healthy body weight (the other 1/3).
This begins the good part of my story.
After sitting out a good portion of my Christmas vacation while the dose and number of my blood pressure medications increased, my wife (who is also a physician and shares the same problems I do when it comes to weight and exercise) and I made a joint commitment to do something about our state of affairs (actually, she had previously made her commitment a couple of months before my event, but we both pledged to support each other in our efforts).
We knew the holidays would be a difficult time under the best of circumstances, but we managed to change our dietary habits and patterns, and begin a regular physical exercise program.
We made what changes we could to our schedules to be certain we exercised virtually every day. We worked hard to limit our portions, and eat better foods (we have done better with the foods than with the portions). We increased the fruits and vegetables we eat every day (five a day is no longer a challenge for me). We reduced the salt in our diet (although when we travel, we inevitably “get salted”, which is somewhat like “getting slimed” on those kids shows—you never know when some chef somewhere is going to “salt up” the food without you knowing it). We have substituted sliced tomatoes and a single slice of whole wheat toast for bacon and grits with butter on our Saturday morning breakfast at Waffle House. We have become occasionally obnoxious when we give our orders to a server at a restaurant as we change the ingredients and the side dishes (as in, “Please put the sauce or the salad dressing or the whatever on the side, thank you.” Once I almost leapt at the chef making my omelet when he started to put some cheese on top of my Egg Beaters.). I record my daily diet and exercise programs in my Weight Watchers online program.
You get the idea.
I believe most of us know what we should be doing to eat a healthy diet. Most of us know where our problems lie. Most of us know we should be getting more exercise.
But it is difficult to do. It is a commitment. It is one step at a time. And it is slow.
As someone once told me, life is a journey, not a sprint.
There is an editorial that hangs over my desk, which discusses the value of weight loss. It basically says that for those who make the commitment, who can take the time it takes, who can overcome the many barriers that inevitably fall in one’s path--for those people the benefits are immeasurable.
So here are the results: My cholesterol is now down to very satisfactory levels. I have reduced my blood pressure medicines from three to one. I can walk without pain. I have been able to exercise at least 5 days a week, frequently for at least one hour. I have lost about 20 pounds.
My wife and I still have a long way to go, but we are both personally proud of our accomplishments over these past six months.
We aren’t perfect, and we still have lapses. But those lapses are fewer than they were, and they don’t prevent us from facing ourselves every day, and trying to be better today than we were yesterday, and better tomorrow than we were today.
So this week, make the commitment to do something for yourself, and for your family. You may have tried before, just like me, and not been successful. Don’t be discouraged, because bad habits are hard to break. It may take many efforts to achieve success.
Set some simple goals. You can’t remake yourself in a day or a week or a month. Your health and your body are long term investments, with short term gains along the way.
This is an investment, after all, where the returns are found when the numbers go down, not up. And, they will go down!!!
We wish you every success as you begin to create your own culture of health.
For more information on the American Cancer Society’s 2006 Great American Eat Right Challenge, go to our website at www.cancer.org/eatright