Fool.com: 5 Steps to a Healthy Life [Special] June 4, 2004

Good health and good sense are two of life's greatest blessings. -- Publius Syrus

Normally here at The Motley Fool, we're all about money. But what good is a fat nest egg if you don't have your health?

Unless you regularly visit our Health & Fitness discussion area, this article may be a departure for our regular readers. But so be it. This article is about your health. It's about feeling good in the morning, free of stomach pain, backache, depression, and toenail fungus (nasty stuff, that). We stake no claim to being health gurus. Then again, we don't claim to be financial gurus, either. We're just Fools who know there are as many ludicrous diet and workout plans as there are bizarre investment schemes. Thankfully, there are also some time-tested, simple approaches to health and money that reduce risk and extend reward.

In money, that's paying down credit card debt, saving 15% of your salary, and putting your long-term savings into a stock market index fund. In health, it's not much more complex. But just like Wall Street does with finance, commercial medicine has made daily health more complicated than it need be. After all, the primary aims of mainstream American medicine over the past quarter-century seem to have been: (1) improving emergency surgery and (2) developing new drugs. Both very profitable areas of medicine. But what have we invested in daily care and prevention? Strikingly little. What do we know about the building blocks of our daily life -- spiritual health, nutrition, personal relations, sexuality, exercise, and sleep? Strikingly little.

So we take on life in a flurry. We get up at 7:00 a.m., work 10 to 12 hours, eat on the run, set aside little or no time for quiet reflection, catch a midnight rerun of Seinfeld or an hour of Australian rules football, and grab five hours of sleep. And how do we treat our aches and chronic pains? We react only when we feel something's wrong. Why? Because collectively we have almost no idea how to pre-empt illness.

We let life take its toll on us. Then, once things get bad enough, we show up in the waiting room of a doctor on our HMO plan. Fill out the clipboard, read Boating magazine for half an hour, then sit on a cold steel table in an undersized nightgown, looking at diagrams of our internal organs. When our doctor shows up, he prescribes a band-aid drug that often wasn't designed to get at the root problem. A pill for our stomach. Cream for our face. Sometimes prescribed by a medic taking commissions for the sale.

Whether you believe that or not, Fool, you'll likely agree that our society gives absurdly little attention to the prevention of illness and pain. What sort of education did you get about personal health in school? Most of us graduated without a basic game plan for finance or health. That's led the average American to credit card debt, junk food, cigarettes, overlong workdays, haphazard exercise, and five hours of sleep per night.

A pessimistic vision, you say?

Well, in finance, the average American has about $8,000 of credit card debt at 15% interest rates. What about our health? McDonald's(NYSE: MCD) has more than 13,000 restaurants in America; Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO) is valued in excess of $100 billion; one in five American adults smokes cigarettes (with 80% of smokers calling it a daily habit); and a 2002 Harris Poll concludes that more than 65 million Americans qualify as obese, meaning they are more than 20 pounds over their recommended weight.

Of course, we are a free people who should be free to enjoy whatever products and services we choose. So long as we don't hurt others, as adults we should have access to hamburgers, soft drinks, credit cards, and the potent blend of nicotine and tobacco. We should be allowed to sleep as little as we please, reflect infrequently, gorge on sweets, and never exercise. The simplest civil right is our right to take as little or as much care of ourselves as we choose.

But isn't it surprising that in the most prosperous nation in the world, with all this freedom of information, so few adult Americans adequately take care of themselves? Eighty percent of adults meet the criteria for being mildly overweight. Twenty percent of adults still wheezily smoke tobacco. Diabetes is on the rise. Is it absurd?

Not really.

We're so busy that it's just not easy to educate ourselves about health. It's not easy to get the proper amount of sleep. We live on the fly, with an extraordinary load of commitments. Drive-throughs are convenient. A candy bar is energy. Butter, salt, and sugar make our taste buds stand at attention; they're a small reward for all the hard work we do. And then there's always one more thing to do or turn over in our minds before we sleep.

Digestive pain. Back pain. Midday fatigue. Migraines. It's no wonder.

Maintaining good health is tough, but we're not helpless. Perhaps our five simple health recommendations can help you refocus your energy. Let's get started.

1. Reflection

Assuming you've secured the basic necessities in life -- food, water, sleep, shelter, and human affection -- have you worked enough on the metaphysical? You've had several decades on the planet. You've read the books, magazines, and newspapers of this world over and again. Had too much to drink a few times, probably. Won and lost a few loves. Experienced the sublime mystery of being. Felt alone on occasion. Seen the next generations blooming. Maybe even come to understand the natural order of things.

If you're at the halfway point of your life, perhaps you're more curious than ever about some of the mysteries of life, death, how to install TiVo, taxes, and the afterlife. Taking time to reflect each day may not definitively answer any of these things. But reflection isn't an end in itself (a dead end). Reflection is the exercise and feeding of your spirit in this life. It is a natural part of the healthy life.

It can't be right to drive our minds so hard at work, exercise our bodies at the gym, yet leave our spirits be, let the muscle of our soul, untrained, feebly waste away into slightness. The act of giving your spirit a workout is not based in any particular faith. Atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and agnostics can find, in reflection, a simpler life, a strengthened mind, more laughter, and newfound reasons for being.

Our recommendation: 30 minutes of sitting -- quiet reflection each day. Does that sound too demanding? Try it each day for seven days. If your faculties aren't strengthened and your life enriched, abandon it.

2. Nutrition

Next up, eating well.

So is it the Atkins Diet, with bacon for breakfast? Or the Scarsdale Diet? The 3-Day Diet? Or the increasingly popular Dr. Hartelpatkin Diet?

We made that last one up.

There are as many diets as there are obscure medical school graduates to create and promote them. Most of them share the same mistaken instinct: They try to enrich or improve you in just a few days. Even hours. In effect, they want you to "day trade" your fitness! You're guaranteed to accelerate your way down 15 pounds in a week. The net result? Your figure spirals lower (proving out their guarantee) then races higher. Your mood fluctuates. Your spirit sinks. You lose energy, gain back the weight, and find yourself in the camp of the sad and self-damning.

We two brothers aren't health addicts. But we are active readers and thinkers about quality of life. After all, what precise benefit is there to scoring up a fortune in your brokerage account if you are gradually dissolving into a puddle of stomach pain, back trouble, poor digestion, and teardrops? Seems like a terrible imbalance.

Accordingly, we have studied up! And we offer some basic guidelines on nutrition, below. The Motley Fool seeks to demystify and simplify topics that many of us never did learn in school. Don't you think some of these basics would have been helpful?

a. Do not eat anything within two hours of sleep. Once asleep, your body shuts down the digestive process after 30 minutes. That which you've not digested by then interrupts your sleep and is simply stored as fat.

b. Eat downwards. Breakfast should be your largest meal, then lunch, and dinner should be your lightest meal each day. The primary reason you eat is to provide energy for the day. Why fuel up before zonking out for the night? (Unless most of your exercise comes after midnight.)

c. Feast on fruit sugar. Nature provides you all the sugar you'll need in the form of apples, oranges, bananas, mangos, raisins, blueberries, raspberries, and plums. We're not crossing sweets off your list, just suggesting you lean toward natural fruit sugars and away from corn syrup, sucrose, and... geez, aspartame.

d. Wheat over white. There are no redeeming nutritional qualities to white bread. None. (And even many wheat breads share the same negative properties of white bread -- high dosages of sugar and yeast.) You're basically eating two large cookies when you have a sandwich on white bread. Find a delectable multigrain bread.

e. Enjoy a handful of pasta. Pasta is a staple in most of our diets. Soak it in tomatoes and squash and garlic and onions and mushrooms. But keep the portions to a handful because after a few forkfuls of pasta, your body stores all excess carbohydrates as fat.

f. Water, water everywhere, forever drops to drink. The thought of hydrating yourself with plain-Jane bottled water might bore you to tears. Give it a whirl for a month. You'll find water more refreshing than soft drinks or juice. Remember that soft drinks and juice steal liquid from your body in digestion, as you work to process their artificial flavoring. Those drinks are dehydrants. Water hydrates.

g. Get a food allergy test. A few decades into your life, you may intuitively know what foods your body can and can't handle. We're all different out here. Some of us are allergic to glutin. Others are lactose intolerant. Some of us can't process alcohol. Others have to live yeast-free. All of us can benefit from a simple food allergy test. Though these tests aren't perfectly accurate, they can point you away from the intolerable foods that sit dark clouds on your brain, contribute to bloating, or drive fatigue. Break that cycle. Find out what foods your body can't tolerate.

Our aim with these seven suggestions is not to close down your house parties, throw your life into spiritlessness, and pitch you into a grueling match to outfrown the overzealous health freaks of the day. Hopefully, these seven are highly plausible and simple ways to juice up your days with energy.

3. Exercise

And what about feeling good and looking good?

Hey, it's great to look good, but your priority has to be feeling good. After all, working out two hours a day and pumping iron to look like Jane Fonda or The Incredible Hulk is unlikely to help you feel happier or healthier. In fact, for some, it's time to stop overexerting, gasping across the gym floor as you try to outrun the bloke on the treadmill to your left.

Your aim is to feel light on your feet, with sufficient energy for the day ahead. Accordingly, our suggestions are short and sweet. They are two:

a.If you work out for anything less than a half-hour a day, simply add 10 minutes to your daily regimen. That might mean a walk after lunch, a short run in the evening, stretching and handweights in the morning, or a quick cycle of sit-ups and pushups. Nothing onerous, just 10 more minutes. So if you're not doing any daily exercise, that's fine. Just start a light 10-minute workout. It needn't be in a gym either. Take the mattock out to the yard and dig a garden.

b.Pick a one-year athletic goal and shoot for it. Could be a three-kilometer road race. Could be a cycling trip through southern Italy. Could be 50 sit-ups a day by October. Could be three wintry weeks ice skating in Holland. Could be establishing the routine of one-mile morning walks. Set a goal that's achievable, that will be enjoyable to pursue, and that will help you build strength.

If you pursue just those two, you'll increase the sturdiness of your frame and win enthusiasm for athletics in pursuit of your goal.

4. Personal Habits

A brief time out for some general personal habits.

First, if you're a smoker, recognize that smokers as a percentage of all adults drop off dramatically after the age of 65. Why? Both because illness shakes many into quitting, and because smokers die off 10-15 years before their contemporaries. Quit smoking by visiting us online at quitsmoking.fool.com.

Second, if you are struggling with sleep, take the time now to investigate your problem. Apnea? Snoring? Insomnia? Your room may not be dark enough. The TV watching and reading you do in bed may be divorcing its necessary associations with sleep. Whatever your issue, it's time to investigate and solve this problem. Six to eight hours of sleep per day is necessary to restore the body.

Third, learn to research your minor and major ailments online. Rosacea? Diabetes? High cholesterol? Migraines? Kidney disease? Back pain? Google it. Cruise over to your favorite search engine, type in your ailment, and read. There is no great doctor in the world who would counsel you against doing your own due diligence.

Fourth, if you don't find yourself smiling regularly throughout your days, is it not time to reconsider how you are spending those days? There's no study in the world that suggests smiling is anything but therapeutic.

5. Social Bonds

Let's imagine now that you eat well, get regular exercise, set aside time for reflection, don't smoke, and enjoy seven hours of sleep a day. Further, let's assume you have no financial worries, have more than adequate insurance, and have a wonderful time relentlessly traveling the globe. If that's you, you're the envy of your generation.

Or so it might seem.

In fact, you are only the envy of your generation if you also have ties to people whom you love dearly. If you do take the time to reflect, as we suggested above, may we suggest considering carefully your closest family and friends in your meditation? Is your daughter enjoying life? Is your business partner alone and unhappy? Are your parents still quibbling over tired issues? Does your nephew need help at school? Is it time to stop battling with your sisters and brothers over family property?

The greatest gifts you can give to your friends and family are not eventual commitments in a will. Not a brooding silence over holiday dinners. Not a great legal brawl over your great aunt's estate. What your entire family needs is the gift of your experience, your insight, and your emotional support.

Not convinced? Consider this. Please forgive the morbid nature of the following statistic, but we do so to make a critical and truthful point: Today in America, there are two times more suicides each year than there are homicides.

What can we infer from that? That sadness, more than anger, threatens this world. A solitary quietude creates more lethal environments than mere aggression.

Perhaps it's time to ask if you've formed enough partnerships, secured enough friendships, forgiven enough old quarrels, and light-handedly assisted enough family members to squeeze all the satisfaction you deserve out of this life.

Conclusion

We started this article with a confession. We're people like you, without the certification necessary to prescribe medicine or create our own guru fad diet for you.

The five topics we covered above feature advice that is simple, commonsensical, and consistent with today's literature on health. But they're certainly not consistent with the conventional wisdom offered in mainstream marketing -- puffy white hamburger buns, the great taste of diet soda with aspartame, your favorite film star lighting up a cigarette on the big screen, and the slew of ridiculous diets.

An alloy of reflection, nutrition, exercise, good personal habits, and meaningful relationships forge the key to your healthy life.

Action Plan

  1. Take regular time to reflect on your life. You might meditate, for example, or perhaps you'd rather jot down some thoughts in a journal. Of course, if the only thing that really centers you is screaming at the trees in your backyard for 10 minutes a day, go for it.

  2. Mind your nutrition. Don't eat soon before going to sleep. Eat more early in the day and less later in the day. Opt for fruit, whole wheat bread, and brown rice over other sugars, white bread, and white rice. Drink lots of water, eat balanced meals, and don't supersize your portions.

  3. Exercise! It might seem like a gruesome proposition, but ease into it. Even walking for just 30 minutes a few times a week is a lot better than nothing. Walking briskly for an hour a day could even be enough for you. (That might be a good time to get some reflecting and life-planning done, too.)

  4. Get your personal habits and ailments in check. Try to stop smoking. (We can help, at quitsmoking.fool.com.) Research your ailments online and see if you can improve or eliminate them.

  5. Socialize. Get more connected with your family and friends. Make more friends. Join communities. Be involved.

Join us with your questions and comments on The Motley Fool's Health & Fitness discussion area.

David and Tom Gardner's new book, Money After 40: Building Wealth for a Better Life, is available on Amazon.com. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors -- and a whole lot more.


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