HOW TO TAKE CHARGE OF YOUR HEALTH

By Alex Van Tol

Cars come with an owner’s manual. So do phones, coffee makers and vacuum cleaners. And while parents joke that kids don’t arrive with a how-to guide, the reality is that adults don’t either. There is no single agreed-upon rulebook that’ll tell you how to keep your machine in optimal working condition. In this issue of YAM, we’ve got your go-to guide for keeping your ride in tiptop shape.

© Masterfile

© Masterfile



It all starts with being proactive. You alone hold the key to your optimal health — to gathering knowledge and making changes that will lead you in a better direction.

“I can’t tell you how many times I see people taking charge of their health, and it’s life changing,” says Dr. Sheree Chapell, founder and clinical director of Hawthorne Naturopathic Centre. “Our health system crisis would resolve itself if people understood the power they have in improving their own health.”

Look at the five people you spend the most time with. Are they aligned with you mentally? Emotionally? Spiritually? If not, find your tribe. Healthy people seek healthy people. “We fall down because we think we have to do this by ourselves,” says Dr. Lara Lauzon, assistant professor at the UVic School of Exercise Science, Physical and Health Education and widely popular health speaker. But we don’t. Everywhere you turn, you’ll find people who also want to improve their health. Join forces.

READY? SET?
Start by having a conversation about where you’re at with someone who means something to you. “I got this advice from a financial manager years ago,” says Lauzon:  If you don’t know how much you’re spending or what you’re spending it on, you can’t save for the future. And it applies just as much to health, too.” Document your food and health-related activities for a couple of weeks, she says. There are hundreds of apps and sites to help you with this. What are you actually doing every day? How many steps are you taking? How many classes are you going to? Start there.

MOVE IT
Get off your butt. No, seriously. GET OFF YOUR BUTT. “I wish people would not sit as much,” says general practitioner Dr. Oona Hayes when asked what she would like people to take more seriously. And being active doesn’t just mean meeting the guidelines for 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week, either. Recent research showed that an overweight yet constantly active individual is actually healthier than the gym rat who sits all day at her accounting job.

“What we do in our non-exercising time also matters,” says Hayes, who serves students through University of Victoria Health Services and also teaches at the UBC Island Medical Program. She cites a growing body of evidence that points to the cardiovascular risks of lower activity levels in non-exercising hours. So stand up. Move around. A standing desk, squat breaks, five pushups, toe raises, high knees.

“Those activity monitors that bug you to move every so often are a good idea,” says Hayes, “and the same with all those little wisdoms about parking a little further away and taking the stairs. It all adds up.”

You don’t need to join a gym or a running clinic in order to make an immediate improvement in your health. Just go for a walk on the beach. Choose something you enjoy that involves movement, says Christina Truscott, owner of Body Blueprint, which trains and certifies fitness professionals worldwide.

“Our bodies were meant to move, whether it’s dancing or rock climbing,” she says. Make small, consistent improvements: standing is better than sitting, walking is better than standing, running is better than walking and so on.

Keep in mind that you’re a whole system, and what happens in one part of the system will alter what’s happening in other areas.

“Health begins by returning to what feeds your spirit,” says Lauzon. Start anywhere: making better food choices gives you more energy, which will boost your positive feelings and help you sleep better. Reconnecting with your love of music will help you find and hold on to people who share that love, and your social wellness will grow as a result. Hiking up Mt. Finlayson will put you back in touch with the healing forces of nature and remind you to be grateful for the beauty that surrounds us on the Island.   

Baby steps are key. “We forget we can actually start small — that we can make just one change,” says Lauzon. In fact, that’s what she asks of her students: make just one change. Inevitably, that one change impacts another dimension of their lives that they didn’t put in their goal setting, and that they might not even see right away. “For example, if they walk around Ring Road, that might lead to them making healthier food choices, or sleeping better.”

And remember that physical health is just the tip of the iceberg. “In the 1940s, the World Health Organization defined health not as the absence of disease, but as a state of physical, mental and emotional wellness. That’s what’s taught in medical schools today,” says Hayes. “For a lot of people who come here, they might not even have that physical health, yet they are sustained by the richness of their relationships within their community.”

ARE YOU LOSING IT?
Cut down on your sugar and caffeine, and get more colourful produce into your diet. In her practice, Hayes paraphrases an oft-quoted adage from the medical community: “Food is the most abused antidepressant, and exercise is the least-used anti-anxiety treatment.”

Manage your blood sugar with three meals and two snacks [daily], says Chapell. Protein at every meal; veggies every time you turn around; six to eight glasses of non-caffeinated fluids each day. Chapell, Truscott and Lauzon all recommend that you track your diet and exercise to keep tabs on your habits and to celebrate your growth. There’s nothing like a graph to keep your motivation up.

Examine your usages and addictions, whether to drugs or alcohol. (Toxic relationships are a whole other dimension.) If you think you have a problem, you probably do, says Michael Walsh, addictions and substance use specialist and recovery coach.

“People will recognize if alcohol [or drugs] is standing in the way of their potential,” he says.

After you’re done with the denial — and that’s a normal part of getting to a better place — and have decided you need to make a change, talk about it with a friend or family member. Or ask your doc for support, but be aware that many physicians lack deep experience dealing with substance use and addictions. A coach can help you gain control by setting up systems to help you monitor and reduce or eliminate your usage. “There is no shame in reaching out for help when looking to make changes in your life,” says Walsh.

“I work with people wherever they’re at, even if they still want to use or drink. It’s a process getting them to the point where they’re comfortable saying, ‘Yeah, I’m done.’”

STAY THE COURSE
When you take stock, make a commitment to change and trust your ability to take charge of your health, you can really make some forward progress. Schedule your health-related commitments, don’t just try to fit them in, says Chapell.

“This is a paradigm shift I encourage people to make. If you just try to fit it in, there is hardly any time or energy left at the end of the day.” Nowadays, everybody wants a piece of your time, from your boss to Facebook to your sister who texts you every hour — so carve out those me-time boundaries and defend them against encroachment.

It takes energy to sustain the desire to change and to keep making the choices that will get you there. Honour your sleep so you don’t revert to old coping strategies when stress is high.

“Without sleep, you can’t make good decisions — you’re in constant fight or flight,” says Hayes. Keep recommitting to your best health. Be patient with yourself when you go astray, and keep adding little changes. Frame all your decisions by asking, What does health look like?

Pretty soon it’ll look like you.


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Apps + Website Resources for Better Health

• Assess your risk at heartandstroke.com in the Health eTools section.

• Twenty Canadians are diagnosed with diabetes every minute. Learn about it at diabetes.ca.

  Screening.bc.ca explains which cancer screenings you should be thinking about.

Are your immunizations up to date? Better check at immunizebc.ca/get-vaccinated/adult-immunization.

Know which medical tests you need, and which you don’t. Choosingwisely.ca helps you decide.

Sleep Cycle tracks your sleep quality with your phone and wakens you during light sleep, preventing those hard starts when you’re dragged out of deep slumber. (It didn’t work for me, but my electrical field is a little weird to begin with. Online reviews for the app are excellent.)

Think you’re drinking too much? Go to ncadd.org/get-help/take-the-test/am-i-alcoholic-self-test for a sobering checkup. Then, examine your relationship with alcohol more deeply with Hello Sunday Morning. The website and app will help you change your drinking habits.

Google “yoga nidra.” You’ll find zillions of apps and websites with guided meditations to help you fall asleep. Doyogawithme.com has a good one.

FitbitAre you getting your 10,000 steps? Fitbit is an activity tracker you wear on your wrist. People swear by it, along with its companion app that tracks activity by day and sleep by night.

Lose It is a weight-loss supertool. Set your calorie budget, track your exercise and tap peer support to help you meet your goals.