A healthy lifestyle has several facets, from diet and exercise, to sound mental health and social interactions. In spite of the proliferation of fast food restaurants and a harried lifestyle for many of us, there are ways to mitigate some of life’s stresses and enjoy, indeed, sustain a healthy lifestyle.
So what are those elements, and how can one develop them in one’s life and maintain those elements?
In 1997, I embarked on a quest for balance in my life. By then, I had been working out of my home for 10 years, did not have a solid social life beside my husband, and was essentially focused almost exclusively on trading the stock market and editing. Something was missing. So, I set myself the task of identifying some areas of my life which were rusty and neglected, and needed change. There were some vague strains of areas that I had neglected in favor of my business, and realized almost immediately that much as I loved music and “colors,” there was precious little of those in my life. But how would I implement music and “colors” in my life? I didn’t know yet, but allowed the notion to percolate.
It didn’t take long for me to come up with some ideas: Since I love music and opera, I decided to take voice lessons at the local college. One of my great fears is speaking in public, and singing even more so; but I decided to forget ahead. As for colors, the most immediate source was a class in watercolor painting. There! In one fell swoop, I had taken care of creating some balance in my life.
But I was not done.
I had always felt a bit too chunky for my own tastes, and felt that my best weight was somewhere lower than I was. But starting yet another diet was not a viable solution: I knew the record from the past: I would be enthusiastic as I read How-To books; I would go shopping for all the “special” diet foods recommended; I would resolve to write down every morsel; and I committed to a daily 4-mile walk. Hmm. Been there, done that, with the same persistent result: Success for two days. Eventual abandonment and failure.
The (Mediterranean) Diet
I am fortunate indeed that I was born and raised in the Mediterranean region. Sunshine, cobalt sea, dry salty air, olive groves and vineyards. My childhood was memorable in that when I came home from school to my grandmother’s house, she would rinse a tomato or a cucumber and hand it to me as my snack. Breakfast consisted of salads, eggs and milk; and dinners were not much more complicated. Of course, in those days, there were no fast food restaurants, and food was natural and unprocessed. And delicious.
I have written several articles about how wonderfully delicious fruits and vegetables are, and how sad that Americans are not more properly introduced to them at an early age. When prepared properly, they are incomparable, fully satisfying to the palate and the body, and sustaining of legendary good health.
In January of 1997, I decided to stop eating sugar and refined flour, not because those items are “bad” for the health, but simply because I was overeating them to the exclusion of some of my favorite foods that I had grown up with. I had abdicated in favor of the fast and easy and convenient, even though fruits and vegetables are very convenient, and in my cases, much more so. I was determined, however, to not make an obsession of my regime, although I did read labels and did eschew any food product that had too many ingredients or chemicals. I do much less of that nowadays, simply because I am more attuned to what I consume. But in truth, I have not had a bagel or croissant or cookies in 14 years.
“I could never do that,” you exclaim. Well, if I had to look at it as a 14-year stint, I wouldn’t have done it either. I accomplished it one day at a time. And the days kept accumulating until they measured 14 years. Sure, there were birthdays and parties and anniversaries and vacations, and somehow, I passed through them all without indulging in cake or ice cream (they came up with some wonderful sugar-free ice cream that I enjoy now from time to time). My mother likes to say that vacations and anniversaries are parentheses around life, and that one should indulge, but I haven’t seen the need. Those parentheses come far too often and far too easily, and when one indulges for an anniversary, one indulges for the office party, or Valentine’s Day, or a colleague’s retirement. There is no end in these parentheses.
Instead, I have learned some coping mechanisms, such as focusing on the conversation, the music or the dancing – anything but the food.
Please don’t get me wrong: Do I sometimes miss chocolate? Of course. Do I sometimes wish I could set aside my resolve and dive onto the dessert table at the Sunday Brunch? You bet. But so far, I haven’t done it. The day may yet come…
We’ve heard it all. We know that exercise is good for us. But truth be told, I don’t feel like doing it. I don’t enjoy the process of exercise. I don’t enjoy changing into special clothing (seems silly to me), don’t enjoy going to the gym (seems idiotic to pay good money for something that’s free), don’t enjoy sweating and being out of breath. I tried a spinning class once, and was exhausted after 3 minutes, I kid you not. Since I have asthma, jumping up and down on that little step thingie was torture, and much as I love music, I could never get the steps right. The teacher always jumped around unpredictably, and yet, all the other people in the class got it! Humiliating. And I don’t like those wall-to-wall mirrors, and I certainly don’t enjoy feeling my less-than-firm thighs jiggle. There. I said it. But what I do like is the feeling I have after a workout, after the shower, after I have cooled down and put on some perfume and dressed in clean clothes. OMG, what a feeling. Just like a baby who has been fed and bathed and changed into clean diapers, and smells of powder and is ready for sleep. It is the effect of exercise that I now crave. And so, I walk. I become engrossed in my thoughts; I review the day; I plan the next step – in short, it is a meditative time. Time for me to regroup.
Moderate exercise, like walking at a brisk pace, has so many benefits, that it is amazing that more of us are not engaged in it. For one, human beings were meant for walking and running. Our large thigh muscles are evidence of that. Our anatomy was meant to carry us great distances in search of food (although some of our anatomies have been morphed into sitting!).
- Exercise brings oxygen to the brain, indeed, to all the muscles of the body. And oxygen improves memory, improves cognitive function, and improves functioning of the musculoskeletal system.
- Exercise loosens up the joints, and keeps them loose and flexible. Motion is lotion. It delays arthritis, and keeps the lymphatic system operating smoothly.
- Exercise curbs appetite. Don’t believe it when someone tells you that it increases appetite. It does not – the opposite is true.
- Exercise increases the production of endorphins, the “feel good” chemicals in the brain. So THAT’s why I feel so good after I’m done! They should put this stuff in the water!
- Exercise has been shown to improve depression and anxiety.
- Exercise has been shown to mitigate against certain cancers, such as breast, uterine and colon cancers.
- Exercise burns calories and stokes the metabolism to continue to burn calories even while at rest.
- Exercise improves sleep.
- Exercise improves sex.
As I said, they should bottle this stuff!
Mental health is a catch-all for so many aspects of life, that it is difficult to distinguish it as a separate entity. Indeed, lifestyle itself is a complete entity. Mental health implies emotional wisdom, maturity, courage, discipline and compassion. In fact, the Serenity Prayer might be said to encompass the whole:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.
Wow! Written by Reinhold Niebuhr, it has become the badge of many 12-step programs nowadays, but repeating the words as mantra robs us of their meaning. This prayer is the cornerstone of mental health. Accepting what cannot be changed: I will never be 25 again; no matter how much stretching I do, I will always be just 5 feet 2 inches; and my family have their quirks, as I do mine. Such things I cannot change. And yet, I often observe myself trying to change those around me, or feeling frustrated when I cannot. The only one I can change is myself and my reactions and interactions with my world. I have control over myself and some of my environment, and as stated earlier, I have the power to implement some changes in my life which are to my benefit. Wisdom is the toughest of all. When I am frustrated, obviously I have not allowed wisdom its rightful place, and so I must remain open.
Mental health also improves when one has good friends and outlets beside work and family life. We are social creatures. Our nature and history attest to that.
Mental health also is intimately tied in with hobbies and pastimes, avocations which we find engrossing and challenging, which take our minds off ourselves. For me, trading stock options takes my mind off my troubles. Stock options have many facets, many moving parts, the Greeks, puts, calls, collars and spreads. It is a fascinating chess game which requires concentration and alertness. It is a fascinating game of chess. Also, I paint, and periodically I become engrossed in a painting process that completely takes my mind off everything else around me. That is a wonderful release.
Finally, to round out a fulfilling life, one has to be spiritual. I don’t mean religious, necessarily. We each relate to the world in our own way, and those of us who subscribe to a Higher Power would claim that it is a great help and support in their lives. I strive to be grateful for all I have – the good and the bad; the good for its pleasures, the bad for its lessons. And as much as feasible, I aim to spend some time each day focusing on what is pleasing to my soul, such as sitting by the lake across the street, and listening to the whistling chirping of the loons; or taking a long, languorous bath; or even donning a favorite piece of jewelry. Poetry and music captivate my imagination; reading a good book enthralls me; and friends fulfill me. My husband and son enhance my life; my work sustains me; my pastimes enrich me, and all combine to create a balanced life.