When I read the statistic that upwards of 80% of all visits to a doctor are lifestyle related, and in up to 90% of these incidences stress plays a significant role, I was at first skeptical, then disheartened. Like most people, when I hear about an alarming new health trend, I check myself to see if I’m part of that unfortunate national shift.
I thought back to the last couple of years and reviewed why I had visited each of my doctors during that time period. I was relieved to see that almost every appointment was either a yearly well check-up or a post-surgery consultation to assess my healing progress. Then I asked myself I had truly beaten this trend, and more important, am I healthier for having done so?
The answer wasn’t so simple. Consider that “lifestyle-related” conditions are typically thought of those such as: high-blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and high cholesterol related. While I can happily say I don’t suffer from any of these illnesses, I am unhappily part of the majority of individuals who deal with chronic stress.
That dismal statistic alone got me thinking about stress in general and the different types of stress each of us is subject to on a daily basis. Our bodies are built to handle acute episodes of stress, those emergency occurrences when our adrenaline pumps fast and furious through our system to cope with whatever ER situation is facing us. But chronic stress is totally different. Chronic-anything even sounds bad, doesn’t it? Chronic stress that doesn’t let up and eats away at a person day in and day out takes a significant toll on the body, which then frequently tempts individuals to fall into unhealthy lifestyle habits. Too often we see people falling into the stress = poor lifestyle choices = more stress = unhealthy lifestyle habits = chronic health problems and compounded visits to the doctor syndrome.
As we know, these unhealthy lifestyle habits will eventually kill a person. We can see where this cycle of lifestyle stress and lifestyle habits can take us. Our daily habits, those moment-by-moment choices we make without even giving them a second thought, create a chain of health issues (good or bad) that either enhance or detract from our overall quality of life. Just as our bodies are built to handle acute episodes of stress and are no worse for the wear…our bodies can tolerate some “acute” choices of poor foods; lack of exercise; too little sleep…. on occasion. It’s the old 80/20 principle that makes setting healthy goals and living by them workable and sustainable for life.
If we aim for 100% perfection and miss our mark (and we will) it becomes physically, emotionally and mentally too burdensome to continue choosing good health options. However, if we adjust our thinking to the 80/20 plan, we tip the odds in favor of long-term success (and better long-term health.) Instead of making unrealistic demands on ourselves (and our lifestyle) it is far more effective to ease into (and stick with) reasonable dietary, exercise, and sleeping patterns. In case you need the math…it’s the 80/20 formula that works best on all fronts.
Physicians see this trend toward extremes (and extreme failure rates) in their patients every day. Either patients come in for every little ache and pain or they wait until it’s almost too late for a cure. Either/or is not a good statistical approach to live by from a medical standpoint. With any extreme thinking or lifestyle choice, it’s almost always failure waiting to happen. Where people fail most is when they adopt the all or nothing approach to health saying to themselves, “If I can’t do it right all of the time, I give up!” The fact is we can aim for the ideal, but we live in the real (world.) And in the real world, none of us can afford to give up when we fail, because fail we will. Wouldn’t it just be easier to shoot for the 80/20-success rate anyway? Statistically speaking…that’s where success lies every time.
De-stress your healthy lifestyle choices and beat the statistics:
- Make an 80/20 plan for eating/exercising/sleeping. Write down realistic goals for all three areas and be sure to include a 20% margin for relaxing these standards and to keep life interesting and engaging. Tailor-make your healthy lifestyle to fit your lifestyle!
- Find ways to make getting healthy more fun. For many people this approach can be as simple as taking a cooking class; joining a dance class with a friend, or treating yourself to a staying up late one night a week to watch a great movie and then sleeping in the next morning. Find your sweet spots and work them to your advantage.
- Make note of specific successes you’ve had in the past by writing them down in a journal, dating each one, and then referring to your triumphs when you hit a low moment and want to give up. Get real; everyone wants to give up at times, even the fittest, healthiest folks you know have days (or weeks) when they struggle to stay at it.
- Think as kindly of yourself and your achievements as you do of others and theirs. It’s often said that the words people say to us can bring either life or death…it’s the same principle with the words we say to ourselves. Give yourself due credit for taking responsibility for your health. That is the first and most important step that many people never even consider.
Michele Howe is a LaSalle resident and author of “Burdens Do a Body Good.”