Monday, June 30, 2014

What is Your Health Legacy?

I spent a weekend in June learning from Daniel Amen, MD, Daniel Siegel, MD, Mark Hyman, MD,  Tana Amen, RN and a variety of other mental health, physical health, wellness and fitness experts at "Brain and Body Turnaround". The conference got me thinking about how much we each need to take responsibility for our health, and the patterns we are modeling for our children and grandchildren.

Dr. Amen is a neurologist and psychiatrist who founded the Amen Clinics, where he is well-known for using brain scans to help identify certain kinds of physical and mental illness, and his studies show the impact of improved health habits on brain functioning. Dr. Siegel is a UCLA child psychiatrist and leading expert and researcher in mindfulness.

We each inherit certain genetic predispositions, but we can take control for doing our best to manage our moods and not trigger health problems. We all have choices about our thinking, the food we eat, having good sleep habits, and whether or not we exercise. I enjoyed the conference because it focused on getting past excuses and making some small changes. Even a few changes, like adding in a daily walk, can have a huge impact on your physical and mental wellness.

Each of us has to decide what health legacy we want to leave behind us. Our life is our message. It is more powerful than whatever you could say to your children.

Do you want younger family members to see you actively engaged in learning new things, practicing mindfulness, forgiving others and yourself, making repairs to tense relationships when you can? I always admire people who continuously seek personal growth and deeper relationships, as opposed to sliding by in quiet desperation or complaints. Taking action to make relationships stronger and more satisfying is a sign of mental wellness. I have had clients into their 80's and beyond who are working hard on making a relationship better, or making a life adjustment successful. I love to see that kind of open-minded aging.

Many mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression are helped greatly by daily moderate exercise. I routinely ask about how much my clients are exercising, which can help ease both anxiety and depression symptoms.

Working with your own automatic negative thoughts daily and learning to counter them is critically important. Each of us is vulnerable to sometimes using black and white thinking, emotional reasoning, mind-reading, personalization and other thought errors which can make us feel worse if we don't trash them daily. You may want to write them out, counter them and rip them up!

Taking responsibility for what we eat and the exercise we get daily is also an aspect of optimal wellness. Reducing or eliminating sugars, for example can help us avoid weight gain and stabilize mood.

We want to avoid a "victim" mentality about our health and genetic risk factors. We want to think of our doctors as consultants, not our fathers or mothers. It is healthy to ask questions and get second opinions. I noticed years ago when I helped lead an arthritis support group for a local hospital, how much better patients did when they were active in the treatment, educated about options, and physically active and cooperative with dietary changes.

As we age, we need to make a decision if we want to  take responsibility for staying as active, healthy and vital as we can as long as we can. What helps?

1. Exercise daily. Start slowly if you haven't been active, and get your doctor's approval.

2. Limit or eliminate sugars, energy drinks, and soda. Limit alcohol use, too.

3. Eat more fruits and vegetables.

4. Keep your weight in the right range, with a BMI under 25. Overweight is considered a BMI of 25-29.9, while obesity begins at a BMI of 30. Obesity increases risk for Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, sleep apnea, stroke, osteoarthritis and other diseases.

5. Drink more water.

6. Consider going organic with your produce to avoid pesticides.

6. Develop good sleep habits. Limit caffeine after noon, set a routine wind down time, sleep time and waking hour. Turn off technology (television, computer, ipad, cell, etc.) an hour before bed as the light is activating for your brain.

7. Keep learning new things.

8. Practice quieting your mind with gardening, needlework, reading, meditation, prayer, silence, listening to music, or guided imagery daily. This will help you manage your moods better.

9. Don't believe every stupid negative thought you have. Sweep them out daily.

10. Stay open to building and developing your friendships and your love relationship to be genuine, mutually supportive and honest. Spend time with people you care about.

11. Help others. Find a way to contribute to the planet at whatever stage of life you are in. Someone needs you, and love makes us real. Find a need and fill it, whether it's in your home, your neighborhood or the larger world.

12. Heal childhood wounds and work through losses. If you are still hurting about things from childhood or an unresolved loss, find a good therapist who can help you work through your feelings
and experiences and let it go. Don't keep carrying your pain around.

Don't carry forward unhealthy lifestyle habits or mental/emotional habits to share with younger people in your family. You can break any pattern or tradition you want, from negative fear-based thinking,  emotional overeating, poor parenting, addiction issues, rigidity, unhealthy relationships or depression/anxiety. It's what you do with what you have that helps you leave a positive legacy of mental and physical health.

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