Most of us want to live as long and as well as possible. We want strong, healthy bodies and agile minds that maintain their ability to remember, reason, and communicate. We want to share life’s joys and sorrows with loved ones, participate in our communities in a meaningful way, and come to the end of our lives satisfied and fulfilled.
Unfortunately, for many of us, this won’t be how it happens. In my experience as a practicing physician, it’s increasingly common for people to live too short and die too young. In fact, despite a doubling of the life expectancy over the last 150 years, the sobering reality is that that this trend will begin to reverse itself, and life expectancy for future generations will be lower than for their parents. From a community health perspective we confront an unprecedented “burden” of chronic complex disease.
What’s going wrong?
There are many factors contributing to the decline in American health, including the growing epidemic of obesity, poor nutritional choices, inactivity, unprecedented toxic exposure, and unrelenting stress. Lifestyle Syndrome, characterized by abdominal fat, elevation of blood pressure, pre-diabetes, high insulin levels, and abnormal blood fat, affects 30 to 40 percent of adults. Alarmingly, Lifestyle Syndrome signals a trajectory that leads to many of the age-related diseases, diminished quality of life, and shorter life expectancy.
Several years ago, I was on this trajectory. I had little physical activity, I ate plenty of sugars and processed foods, and I lived a fast-paced life in which I always felt that there wasn’t enough time. My blood pressure and weight were up, and my cholesterol panel was as high as it had ever been. When we began discussing medications to control some of my risk factors, I realized I needed to take stock.
A critical issue we are facing is that our systems of health care are designed to address diseases once they manifest more than they are to promote optimal health and prevent diseases from occurring in the first place. We spend our time dealing with the smoke and do little to address the fire. In truth, many devastating conditions, like heart attacks, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease, have multiple contributing risk factors that are treatable and reversible—but silent—by their very nature. And tragically, nearly all age-related diseases—high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol imbalance, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and cardiovascular diseases—have major lifestyle, behavioral, and stress components to them.
Unfortunately, in our current medical model there is insufficient time and resources to appropriately educate, inspire, and motivate the necessary lifestyle and behavioral changes people need. In my case, I realized that my underlying assumption was that a decline in some aspects of my health and quality of life as I aged was inevitable. I thought that high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a drop-off in my conditioning, a few inches more around my abdomen, fatigue, and an inability to stop and smell the roses were irreconcilable manifestations of my genetic legacy and aging. My passive approach to self-care was certainly contributing to making that happen. I decided to get active.
I took inventory of my life and targeted the “low-hanging fruit”—those things that would be easiest to change. I cut out sugar-sweetened drinks. I started walking and chose daily push-ups and abdominal exercises for light resistance work. And I learned some simple—and portable—breathing and relaxation techniques. I began to broaden my knowledge about integrated health, the science and philosophy of Eastern approaches to health, and how people create effective and sustainable change.
What’s the solution?
It’s clear that many of the health issues can be prevented or reversed with greater attention to self-care. Therefore, the single most effective medicine that health care has to offer today is education—about how the body works and how the beliefs we hold in our mind play out in our lives; about nutrition, how food affects the body, and how to cook for maximum nourishment and pleasure; about physical fitness, exercise strategies, and enjoyable ways to combine getting active and getting outdoors. We need to learn to take care of ourselves. Healthy living does not occur at the doctor’s office or at hospitals or clinics. The road to healthy living is paved by the choices we make in each and every moment.
This can be easier said than done. Even when health-care professionals provide the health-promoting messages of exercise and good nutrition, the advice is heeded less than five percent of the time. Most people don’t lack knowledge about what they need to do; what they lack is the bridge to effective execution. What people need is practice in living in healthy, life-promoting ways that lead to optimal vitality and fulfillment—which is exactly what Kripalu specializes in.
The care model of the future
Education at Kripalu is experiential, which means that people learn by doing, by experiencing what they are learning. The immersion offered in Healthy Living immersion programs enables people to fully live and realize the benefits of healthy living. This is the only way many of us can transform our underlying beliefs and overcome the challenge of creating critical lifestyle changes. The most effective models for inspiring behavioral change do so in a both a personal and a social context. The Kripalu experience fully leverages both.
We live on the cusp of a new frontier of understanding the natural processes that promote and maintain health, longevity, and quality of life. The science of the mind has opened a window into the biological underpinnings of thought, feeling, and behavior and their connection to health and the experience of life. And the implications are extremely compelling. As it turns out, we are not prisoners of our DNA.
When I began to reclaim my health—and my life—I was astonished by three things: The first was how quickly I began to feel better. The second was how effective small changes actually were. And the third was how addictive these changes became. I run 20 miles a week, I crave green, leafy vegetables, and I have cultivated a lifestyle that has less stress and includes more of the things that I value—family time, friendships, and community. Helping others to become better stewards of their precious gifts is my unrelenting calling, and I have also become a better doctor, one who is walking his talk.