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September 1999 Issue
Eating Elephants for Better Health
by Michael Fick
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Wow! It's overwhelming, isn't it? If we want to live, let alone LIVE, past middle age, we must eat the right kinds and amounts of the right foods and minimize our consumption of the wrong ones, we must exercise and stretch the right muscles in the right way to correct and prevent problems and make our bodies look and feel better longer, we must take certain supplements and avoid others, and we must use the right brands of bottled water and sunscreen.

Or so we're told by the PR people hired by the food, exercise, and supplement industries and the self-appointed gurus trying to sell their books. How do people who care about their health and fitness and longevity, whether for their own benefit or that of the families who depend on them, separate the facts from the hype to help decide which changes are worth the effort? Then, how do we condense the thousands of pages of valid data into a manageable, concise course of action? Finally, how do we implement the changes we've chosen to improve our lives?

It's as simple as eating an elephant, and we all know how to do that.

Sautéed.

With ketchup.

That can't be done in one sitting, so let's eat the elephant's rump first.

The rump -- a metaphor for changing one aspect of our lifestyle, such as improving our cardiovascular health -- is eaten like the whole elephant: one bite at a time. The first bite, or whole plateful of bites, is research, best confined to major university and hospital resources online and in bookstores. It has been peer-reviewed, condensed, indexed, and referenced to improve its accuracy and accessibility. This data alone would swamp a speed reader for two lifetimes, and much of the other stuff online and in books is self-serving crapola anyway. There's enough valid data gushing out of the mainstream fire hose that only the most obsessive-compulsive paranoid hypochondriac out there -- plus those who simply enjoy that sort of thing -- have the time or interest to read the fringe theories and follow the guru parade. The guru parade includes lots of horses, and we know what horses leave in their wake.

Examples of reliable, exhaustive mainstream sources include "The Merck Manual of Medical Information, Home Edition" and internet medical information gateways such as Healthfinder at www.healthfinder.gov and Medhunt at www.hon.ch. Look up your problem, such as "chronic knee pain", and start reading.

The second plate of our rump roast is deciding for ourselves what changes we're willing to make to improve our cardiovascular health. Some people will never give up their daily slab of red (mammal) meat even though it's often deadly. Some consider cigarettes more important than surviving to take care of their loved ones. Others would watch the Monster Truck Channel for an entire PBS sweeps week if the dog ate their remote while the TV was on channel 183.

Incidentally, sloth -- being out of shape -- kills even more of us than cigarettes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or obesity. If I could divide among 10 couch potatoes my self-developed enthusiasm for and participation in adrenaline sports, they'd all be in pretty darned good shape and enjoy every day of their extra few years.

The last plateful of any elephant meal is actually accomplishing the lifestyle changes we've chosen. This is possibly the toughest part of our pachyderm repast. Remembering what to change in our lifestyle, and remembering to change it until it becomes habit, are themselves huge chunks of the elephant. 

Make notes as you do your research. Decide what changes you are willing to make to achieve your objectives. Condense them into a concise list of specific, short tasks. Post them in appropriate places -- post the diet changes in the kitchen, the exercise changes in your gym bag or near your treadmill, maybe the fiber guidelines in the bathroom if you have time to read in there. (Just remember ... magazines in the bathroom are a pretty good sign that someone in the family consumes too little fiber and fluids and too much processed -- manufactured -- foods.) Perform your list of tasks diligently. Soon they'll become habit so you can throw your list away or give it to a friend who has the same problem you've solved. You've eaten the whole rump roast, and can start on some tasty ribs next (e.g., reducing that chronic lower back pain).

Lower back pain is a source of intense and/or nagging pain for hundreds of millions of people. Three different common cures and preventions are (a) medication, (b) rest, and (c) physical therapy including exercise, stretching, and maybe spinal manipulation. Research has shown that about a third of patients respond best to method (a), a third to (b), and a third to (c).  Thus devising a preventative and curative regimen for your aching back (after a physician rules out treatable medical problems) includes researching the various causes, preventions, and cures; experimenting to determine which method or combination works best for you; generating a concise list of the steps you've chosen to treat or prevent your lower back pain (hint: it's usually a muscular spasm -- a cramp -- and they can often be switched off in the short term by stretching the screaming muscle); and following your list until it becomes habit. Viola! Your frequent, severe and debilitating back pain fades into an occasional nuisance.

The same process -- literature research, consultation, experimentation if necessary, condensation into a short list of actions, adherence to the list, habit, and a new you -- works on many physical or emotional problems, even some attributed to medical conditions. A big bonus is that some improvement is usually noticed just a week or two into a new program. Smokers often breathe and smell better days after quitting, couch potatoes usually gain energy just days into a new exercise program, high cholesterol or blood pressures can respond to diet and exercise within a month, constipation from poor diets can respond within days to increased fiber and fluid intake, and intense back pain can be switched off for a while with a simple stretch for many of us. These intrinsic rewards early in a new routine provide strong motivation to follow through until the new regimens become part of your life forever.

To reinforce and accelerate your program's intrinsic rewards, reward yourself conservatively at predetermined milestones, such as when you finish the research, identify your options, select an approach, create the short concise list of steps to success, follow the list for one month, etc. For examples, hold off on that new movie until you complete your action list, and buy that new coat only after following your action list for a month.

That detailed action list of the steps to your goal -- your elephant bites during the active course of the meal -- is the major single key to success for many people. Without it, the research was in vain, the actions we chose get muddled and forgotten, and the habit will never evolve.

My list of escalating back pain prevention and cure steps includes daily stretching of specific tight lower body muscles that trigger millions of victims' back spasms, strengthening those and other muscles affecting the lower back, maintaining correct posture, taking muscle relaxant and anti-inflammatory drugs for a couple of days when the therapy falls short and my back "goes out", and getting chiropractic adjustment when all else fails. Any and all of those beat crawling on my hands and knees in agony for a few days each year and living in milder pain for weeks at a time.

Proper stretching and moderate exercise feel good and invigorate us, healthy foods can taste great, smoking is an acquired addiction that can be broken, and we can eat all we want and still lose weight if we cut way back on certain foods. Each of those changes may seem like eating at least an alligator, and multiple changes can loom like a roasted elephant, but both can be done.

One bite at a time.



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