The importance of doing what you can to improve your health…

The wife’s uncle in America has died. Years ago he was like a lot of the population. He was gaining weight, not an unusual situation in this modern world of cheap junk food and sedentary lifestyle. The doctor diagnosed him with type 2 diabetes and prescribed him lots of pills and potions, so far a familiar tale. But what he did next shocked us all – he turned vegan.

He had conservative views on many social matters, so I didn’t consider him an obvious candidate for veganism. But he told us the story of his conversion experience. When he got the diagnosis he said he went down to the library and checked out a lot of books on diabetes and health. These books told him about the importance of diet and exercise and most importantly they told him he could reverse his diabetes. So he decided there and then to go completely vegan and start doing more exercise. Every day he would walk for miles. He had a simple mantra – walk or die.

With his new regime, the pounds started to drop off him and he did indeed reverse his diabetes. He saw the positive results and he kept up the healthy diet and exercise. ‘Walk or die’, he kept telling himself.

In the end, old age and cancer finished him off. The cynical might argue that you are going to die of something, so you might as well enjoy life. But he got an extra ten good years. He could have done nothing, but his last years would have been a constant round of doctor’s appointments, pain and depression. Instead, he decided to fight back and ensured that he was active and enjoying life until the end.

Health can be a lottery. We all have tales of healthy people cut down in their prime but a lot of health is within our control. With a good diet, some exercise, keeping the mind active, good connections with family and friends etc we can radically improve the quality of our lives. In the end, we will all die, but as the uncle showed we do have a certain amount of control over the quality of our lives.

This is not to gloss over the many health issues poor people have or to blame people for their circumstances. It is more to reinforce the view that we might not be in complete control of our lives, but we can look to improve the areas we do have control over.

Lifestyle illnesses are on course to cripple the NHS. In England alone treating illness due to bad diets, smoking, drinking too much, too little exercise etc is costing the NHS more than £11bn each year. And this is a figure that will just keep rising. The amount of people with diabetes has doubled in 20 years.

My message here is not that we all need to become teetotal vegans. It is rather that we should all accept some responsibility for our own health and more importantly be informed. If you get a medical diagnosis, do like Larry did and read up on it and be informed of your options.

For weight loss related issues Dr Michael Mosey is excellent; and for mental health issues Johann Hari’s Lost Connections book is an essential read. For general health and wellness, Dr Rangan Chaterjees’ books and podcasts are very accessible. No matter what the condition, there will be a whole slew of books, websites and support groups.

Changing your lifestyle is very hard so I would also advise trying to do exercise with a friend or personal trainer, join a weight loss group, try parkrun, or get involved with local groups to increase your friendship network. Have a read of The Power of Habit or Atomic Habits to understand the psychology of how to kick bad habits.

If you are not a reader or don’t have the time, listen to podcasts. If you have a podcast app on your smartphone, just do a search for a topic or author you are interested in. You should get lots of interviews that give you a very good summary of the key points. You can listen to these on your way to work, making dinner etc.

Changing your lifestyle is not easy. I struggle with bad habits just like many of you. But I think it is important to at least start small and change what you can.

The other week at the parkrun I was talking with a guy who told me that he used to be 25 stone. He has lost over 12 stone in weight. Five years ago he got stuck in his bath. That was his wake up call. He started to eat better and exercise more. Now he is doing half marathons and has never been fitter.

That is not to say we all need to start jumping out of aeroplanes or doing triathlons. To be able to walk around the shops without getting breathless might be a better goal for most people. It is about getting into a position where you are comfortable with your own level of fitness.

Only 2% of the health budget goes on prevention so I think the government needs to do more to help people improve their health. It is a lot more cost-effective to stop someone getting ill rather than paying when they get sick.

So the next time you have a choice between the stairs and the lift, just remember the uncle’s words – walk or die.

Photo by Emma Simpson is licensed under CC0

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