How to Stay Healthy: Simple Changes, Big Results
It’s the dream for getting older: stay healthy, don’t get decrepit, keep all your marbles, and have a good life. The four horsemen of the anti-apocalypse. Nobody can guarantee this, and if anyone does, don’t trust that person any farther than you can chuck him or her! However: You can give it your best shot, and it’s not that hard! With some simple changes, you can achieve big results!
Here to help with some good advice is Elizabeth Platz, Sc.D., M.P.H., an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins, who does a lot of research on factors that raise and lower your risk of cancer and other health problems. I interviewed her recently for the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s website. These tips aren’t prostate cancer-specific, and they will help you to get and stay healthier – so you won’t just be another year older, but another year better!
Are you ready to start fresh? Now is the perfect time: it’s the Chinese year of the Rat – the first in the 12-year rotation of zodiac signs, which means that this is a year of renewal. Let’s see what we can do to feel better and look forward to a healthier, happier, more active life! First…
Don’t bother looking for a quick fix. There isn’t a magic pill or miracle supplement or treatment, no matter what they may say on TV and the internet. Getting healthier can’t be achieved by anything hawked in an infomercial. “For healthy living, for good well-being, for avoiding premature mortality,” says Platz, “the right things to do are the things you have to work at,” like eating right and getting exercise. But take heart: you can make big changes by doing lots of small things, if you do them steadily. You can also live it up sometimes – eat that slab of birthday cake, or have pizza night – if, in general, you practice moderation most of the time.
Be active. Good news! This doesn’t mean that you must haunt the gym! One of the best things you can do for your health, says Platz, is easy: avoid sitting all day. “In the modern world, people tend to sit.” We sit in the car. We sit when we’re on our phones. We sit at the computer. “We have protracted periods of time where we’re just stationery. Build intentional activity into your day.” Get off the old tuchus!
This doesn’t mean you have to spend hours on the treadmill or elliptical; remember, we’re talking about small changes here: Don’t park right next to the building; park farther out and walk a little longer. Take the stairs instead of an elevator to go up one floor. Set a timer and walk around your house. Take the dog for an extra walk. Just move around.
Focus on the “big three macros,” proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. “Macromolecules” is a trendy word, but it describes something very basic: “these major, fundamental components of our diets,” says Platz.
Protein: “As we get older, we need more protein to help keep from losing muscle mass.” How much? This varies a lot; one study recommends 1.2 to 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight; this could mean 123 grams for a 180-pound man; the minimum amount recommended by the U.S. government for the average 160-pound man is 56 grams. Bottom line: You need more protein than you think, and more than you’re probably getting. Make a point of eating protein with every meal. Instead of just having a piece of toast or some cereal for breakfast, for example, add some Greek yogurt (which is higher in protein) or an egg. Protein doesn’t just come from meat; it’s in fish, beans, dairy products, eggs, and soy products, too. It’s also in meal replacement drinks like Ensure and Boost, and in protein bars.
Carbs: Again, moderation: “Don’t overdo simple carbohydrates,” the kinds of sugars found in sweets, white bread, and even plain old potatoes: yes, the humble potato, minding its own business and serving as a dietary staple to millions, now finds itself on the nutritional naughty list of “simple carbohydrates,” because it takes less energy to digest a spud than, say, a sweet potato, which is a more complex carb. “Whole grains can be delicious,” notes Platz. “They’re more than just what’s in whole-wheat bread” (which, admittedly, can taste like cardboard). “Many grains can be mixed into your diet without a lot of effort.” On the pasta aisle in the grocery store, check out faro – a nutty-tasting grain. There’s also quinoa, barley, and bulgur, to name a few.
Fats: “Good fats are good for you. Try cooking with olive oil instead of butter,” suggests Platz – who is quick to add: “You don’t have to remove butter from your diet; olive oil just tastes good.” And watch out for calorie-rich dressings, sauces, and gravy. Again, this doesn’t mean don’t eat them; “just make sure it’s the right serving size – which is often more like a tablespoon, rather than a quarter-cup.”
Indeed, watch your portions. One basic strategy to make sure you’re not getting more than you need: use a measuring cup. “Even when you’re eating something that’s healthier, make sure you’re not overdoing it from a calorie perspective.” Those pesky calories add up, and this is how you gain weight: consuming more calories than you burn.
Weigh yourself. As we get older, sadly, the weight we gain “tends to be fat,” says Platz, “at the same time as we are losing muscle mass. Loss of muscle mass is particularly worrisome, and is linked to premature death. It’s not just how much you weigh, but the proportion of lean mass – muscle and bone.” What’s a good way to maintain and build muscle mass? “Weight-bearing or resistance exercise. Lifting weights.”
Weight-bearing exercise. Again, this isn’t as hard as you may think. Nobody’s suggesting that you need to bench press the weight of a Saint Bernard, or dead lift the equivalent of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. “I’m talking about hand weights. Light-weight weights. You can even use your body weight,” by doing planks, push-ups, or yoga-type exercises.
An engaged brain functions better. Thus, get a hearing aid if you need one. “There is solid, very sound research showing that people who have greater hearing loss tend to have greater cognitive decline,” says Platz. If you can’t hear, “your engagement with others tends to wane. When your brain is no longer stimulated to the same extent, it’s associated with cognitive decline.” This is the “use it or lose it” idea; if your brain isn’t actively engaged – if you’re not hearing conversation, or the TV, or the sounds of nature, or a sermon in church, or your friends and family members talking to you – those un-engaged brain cells can shut down. Isolation is bad for the brain, and bad for your health in general.
So: Stay active. Volunteer, play poker, meet friends for coffee, take a class. Keep your brain working. Talk to people. That kind of engagement is good for your brain, and it prolongs life. We are hard-wired to talk to other people, and to listen to them, and hey! If we can help others while we’re doing it, it’s a win-win. “You’ve accumulated wisdom, experience, and expertise, and if you can share that with others, including the next generation, so much the better.” For more things you can do to prevent dementia and keep your brain engaged, see this post, and this one.
Take care of your liver. If you drink too much alcohol, or if you are overweight to the point where you are at risk of becoming pre-diabetic or diabetic, your liver can pay the price. “Fatty liver disease is emerging as an epidemic in the U.S.,” says Platz. If the liver is overloaded, it accumulates fat, becomes inflamed, and several things can happen: the liver can develop fibrosis, or scar tissue, that may even lead to cirrhosis. “If you feel like you’re starting to go down that path, now is the time to reassess your diet and lifestyle. The best analogy is foie gras, where we force-feed ducks to create fatty liver and make good pâté. When you accumulate fat in your liver, it’s the same thing that happens with those ducks.”
Make it your life’s mission not to fall. The older you get, the harder it is to bounce back from a fall. A toddler can face-plant and spring back up. An older man can fall and break a bone, wind up in the hospital, and if he doesn’t push the physical therapy and exercise afterward, not ever fully recover all his flexibility and strength. So, let’s do our best to avoid this scenario! Here’s where yoga and some very simple exercises can help you maintain balance and flexibility. “This needs to be a huge focus for men as they age,” says Platz. It’s not so much about strength – again, nobody’s asking you to heft a giant barbell – as it is about stretching and working on your balance. And, keep your bones strong: make sure you get enough calcium. Calcium doesn’t have to come from milk and cheese. You can get it from leafy green vegetables, and some foods you might not expect – like sardines, and even tofu. However: “The recommended dietary allowances for men aged 51-70 are 1,000 mg a day of calcium; and for men age 71 and older, 1,200 mg. A half-cup of raw broccoli has 21 mg. But if you’re trying to get to 1,000 mg, you’d have to eat an awful lot of broccoli.” In a perfect world, you would achieve dietary perfection by eating an exceptionally well-rounded diet. Most of us don’t achieve that, and if you’re not getting enough calcium, you may need a supplement. Don’t go overboard! With dietary supplements, it’s not a case of, “if a little is good, more must be better.” Just getting enough is fine.
Fasting? Intermittent fasting, in various forms, has been in the news lately, and “some studies suggest there is a biological benefit.” However, there is an easy way for you to take a break from food every day: Cut out the late-night snacks. “If you get the munchies at 10 at night, you’re basically having the calories of another meal. Just not having food after dinner can make a big difference. Sometimes, half the battle is simply recognizing what we’re eating.” Are you eating more than you think? An easy way to find out is to write it down, or use an app on your phone to record everything you eat. Keeping a record – just for a few days, even – might make you think twice before saying yes to that late-night piece of pie.
Try to get more sleep. Most of us don’t get enough sleep, or don’t sleep well. There are some simple things you can do for better “sleep hygiene,” including not being on your phone or the computer right before going to bed; the blue light these devices produce messes up your body’s clock. Drinking caffeine or alcohol too late in the day can affect your sleep, as well. Herbal tea, with lavender or chamomile, or other natural remedies can help; so can taking melatonin, a hormone your body naturally produces. We make less melatonin as we get older; ask your doctor about taking an over-the counter melatonin supplement. Also: “Many men tend to snore as they get older. If your partner tells you that you’re snoring, maybe you should do something about it. Losing weight can help.” If it’s severe, talk to your doctor.
In addition to the book, I have written about this story and much more about prostate cancer on the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s website, pcf.org. The stories I’ve written are under the categories, “Understanding Prostate Cancer,” and “For Patients.” As Patrick Walsh and I have said for years in our books, Knowledge is power: Saving your life may start with you going to the doctor, and knowing the right questions to ask. I hope all men will put prostate cancer on their radar. Get a baseline PSA blood test in your early 40s, and if you are of African descent, or if cancer and/or prostate cancer runs in your family, you need to be screened regularly for the disease. Many doctors don’t do this, so it’s up to you to ask for it.
©Janet Farrar Worthington
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