Every day we hear of some new drug, program, diet or discovery offering a magic wand for good health. But what exactly does healthy mean? How do we cut through all the chatter and live a consistently healthy life? Dr. Victoria Leigh, an internal medicine physician with St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group in Tustin explains that there are multiple facets affecting health, but there are also a few important questions that can assess a patient’s general health.
“The first questions I ask a patient are: ‘How is your diet? Are you exercising? Are you sleeping well? What are your stress levels? And do you have any known medical conditions?’” notes Dr. Leigh. “If one area is off, there is a domino effect that may impact health over time.”
Stress is one of the main culprits leading to poor eating choices, lack of exercise and a host of related diseases. “Even if a patient doesn’t say they are stressed, it usually becomes evident as you talk with them – they express a sense of being overwhelmed, unhappy with their work or family life. I try to determine if the individual has a good support network of family and friends.”
Aging does not have to be the long, slow descent into bad health. Dr. Leigh points out that a good diet and reasonable exercise are the keys to a long healthy life. “The goal is to retain muscle mass through a combination of stretches, cardio and weights. Pilates is a great cardio and muscle exercise that anyone can do.”
Diet is exercise’s partner in longevity. To evaluate your diet Dr. Leigh advises people to pay attention to when they eat. Do you snack when you are under stress or bored? “You should only eat when you’re truly hungry, and haven’t eaten for a while,” says Dr. Leigh. But if you are eating mostly healthy foods and still overweight or unable to lose weight then the culprit is most likely volume. Too much of even a good healthy food does not make a good diet. The best way to monitor your diet is to write everything down – there are many apps that will do this as well as calculate calories, nutrition and exercise. Dr. Leigh recommends the Mediterranean Diet, which places an emphasis on plant-based foods such as fruit, vegetables whole grains and legumes. Lean protein and healthy fats such as olive oil and avocados are included in moderate portions.
One common problem is that we often fail to adjust our diet and exercise as we age. “In our 20s we can sometimes get away with a poor diet because younger people tend to be more active and have good muscle mass. However, as we age, our lives become more complicated with careers, family and other obligations. Some people tend to slow down and sleep less, which leads to weight gain. “It’s critically important to make time for exercise especially cardio and to adhere to a reasonable diet which is low in carbohydrates, high in Omega 3s and fiber but low in processed foods.”
If you are in mid-life or beyond, and have not followed the healthiest habits, there is still hope. “Correcting bad habits has enormous health benefits, regardless of when you start. In your 30s and 40s pay attention to your and your family’s diet. Incorporate exercise in family friendly ways such as family hikes, bicycling and sports. This is a critically important time to model good healthy behavior to you children.”
Most people start noticing their body changing in a big way when they reach mid-life. “In their 40s and 50s women experience menopause and men also experience changes due to aging. This is a time to start cancer screening and more closely monitoring health issues to catch potential problems early,” says Dr. Leigh.
As we become empty-nesters, 60s and 70s, it’s very important to maintain muscle mass and bone density. “This is not a time to slack off on age appropriate exercise especially weight-bearing exercise to keep or build muscles.”
By our senior years, we should add memory screening, if the doctor hasn’t recommended it sooner. There are many new and promising therapies that can slow down the progress of various forms of dementia adding years of productive living. There is always hope that a cure is on the horizon.
For people confused about proper diet, or struggling to lose weight, Dr. Leigh strongly recommends consulting a professional nutritionist. As part of your medical team, a nutritionist can help you sort out all the conflicting health messages and choose the right plan for your body and overall medical health.
Achieving and maintain good health should be a source of pleasure – not pain. So strap on your tennis shoes, grab an apple and get going!