Top Ten for Wellness

My friend Paul Crick, a life-coach, once asked me for my all-around top ten tips for health and wellness:

  1. Don’t smoke tobacco, or use other addictive substances known to be life-threateningly dangerous. Especially if you identify as an artist, or otherwise consider yourself to be a rebel against conventional rules: look for ways to express creative courage that don’t sacrifice your internal organs, your mind, or your loved ones!

If you are currently struggling to manage a substance that’s messing with your mind, your health, or your ability to fully show-up for work and family, be smart and get help. The rest of your life is worth fighting for, and your future self will thank you for every choice you make towards well-being.

  1. Get a conventional medical checkup every year, with routine blood tests and a review of your medications. Follow-through with recommended screenings for cancers or other serious conditions that are specific to your personal or family (genetic) history. If all is well, these test results can provide helpful comparisons in the future.

Related common-sense basics: wash your hands frequently when you or others are ill, or when you spend time in crowded public places. Use seatbelts, bike-helmets, and good kitchen hygiene.

  1. Get regular physical exercise, including some kind of cardio exertion, muscle strengthening, and joint flexibility. Physical exercise is as important for your brain—think mental longevity—as for your muscles, bones, and heart. Try a mix of activities: some that you’re good at and others that are unfamiliar or less intuitive; they’ll challenge your body and brain differently.
  2. Find a way of eating that fits your individual body, as well as your budget, schedule, activity level, and so on. How can you know what’s best for you? Optimal nutrition will bring you physical stamina, comfortable digestion, and clarity of mind.

I don’t believe that any one eating plan suits everybody, or that one specific nutrient is always the answer (or always a problem). I know some healthy people who thrive as vegans; some who feel best on a paleo plan; and others who eat a little of everything, except for specific allergies. What they generally have in common is that they prefer foods that are fresh, nutritionally dense, and full of flavor. If you’re drawn to fads and fashions in food, consider them experiments that help you to better understand what truly suits your individual body. Include plenty of water and tea, and occasional treats that break the rules.

  1. Learn and practice some form of meditation or prayer. These activities recharge the restorative systems of the body; relieve stress and anxiety; counteract the inflammation processes that are linked to many chronic illnesses; and build the spiritual stamina that can protect us in times of challenge. Some meditation practices can help to reprogram our deep expectations and beliefs about health, and there’s some research suggesting that meditation may contribute to adjusting whether potentially harmful genes are expressed or not. You can find a method that is compatible with any religion or belief system, and there are a growing number of books, apps, and online tools to help.

Just remember that meditation is called “practice” because it is not something to conquer, attain, or succeed at. It is a process that constantly changes. Practice can be humbling to those with experience, refreshing to beginners, or simply bewildering to a brain-and-mind accustomed to nonstop external stimulation. Don’t waste time comparing your experience to what you imagine others feel, or wondering if you’re “getting good at it yet.” Just practice, do it, and watch the rest of your life and health improve.

  1. Prioritize sleep, so that your body and brain are able to refresh and recover from the demands of each day. If work and/or family demands limit your sleep, use meditation and short naps to help fill the gaps.
  2. Value and nurture your relationships with supportive friends, family, and/or community. Healthy social relationships and empathy are proven to help the immune system, strengthen body-mind resilience. and can even enhance survival rates from cancer. Include in your circle people both older and younger than your own generation. If you do become seriously ill, these people may become your lifeline.
  3. Laugh, play, sing, dance, express love. Curiosity and playfulness are part of our genetic design as human animals, and creativity of all kinds is beneficial for the body as well as for the mind and spirit. These activities can be solitary, or can reinforce social relationships and our connections to community.

Creative expression sometimes takes the form of activism: finding ways to help other people get adequate food, shelter, basic medical care, and fair treatment. Taking action in the world—or just in your neighborhood—is a great antidote to sluggishness and despair, especially if it’s a team effort.

9. Embrace the strengths of both conventional and unconventional approaches to health care, and let the balance between them change with your circumstances.

Formal, high-tech “Western” medicine is typically best for diagnosing and treating acute and life-threatening conditions. Less conventional, “holistic” or alternative/ complementary healing systems may be especially helpful in managing chronic conditions and actively preventing problems. At different times and in different conditions you may benefit from both.

Dr. Jerome Groopman’s book Your Medical Mind: How to Decide What is Right for You admits that people often have strong preferences for science-and-technology-based medical care, or for earthier, “natural” or traditional remedies. Dr. Groopman links these preferences to deep personal beliefs about the world, science, nature, civilization, and about the body itself. Receiving care that fits your beliefs is generally helpful.

But karma can run over dogma; what worked for you in past decades may simply not fit your priorities now. As your medical needs change through different stages of your life, a flexible philosophy may help you to consider the fullest range of healthcare options.

10. Cultivate compassion as the soul of wellness.

Quantum physics tells us that observing any phenomenon changes it. Behavioral science tells us the same about observing human action. Noticing and counting steps does nudge people to walk more of them. Compassionate self-observation, even in moments when we realize we’ve made a less-than-optimal-choice, creates the space for new possibilities and helps us to choose differently next time.

In contrast: fear, self-criticism, or a denigration of the body—including popular memes that we need ‘detoxifying’—these thought-patterns are themselves toxic. And very rarely do they inspire lasting change. I’ve been a “self-improvement-junkie” all my life, but whenever I tried to make changes from a place of unworthiness, shame, or self-blame, the improvements never stuck. Basic self-esteem had to come first.

I had to learn to feel worthy of better health. I also had to learn how to ask for help, and how to shape new habits gradually so that they would last. Those spiritual lessons helped move toward a calmer, more loving ability to observe myself without judgment—at least some of the time—and has helped my health choices improve, one day at a time.

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