I’VE ALWAYS HAD an interest in holistic health. In the early ’80s, I taught aerobics and acquired certifications from the American Council of Exercise and the American Coaching Effectiveness Program. Additionally, I studied massage therapy and nutrition.
Once my daughter and son started school, I was disheartened to see the number of children who were starting their lives overweight. Today, I still have a passion for helping others manage their lives through healthy behaviors — so much so that I enrolled and recently completed my bachelor’s in psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. That is where I took interest in a fairly new field: health psychology.
It was a challenge at first to be in a research-based environment after spending so much time involved with alternative practices. However, after completing my required coursework, something really wonderful happened. I found that many university labs are taking notice of the benefits of the integrative practices that I am so familiar with: meditation, exercise, social support, and food as medicine. Medical professionals, with the help of recent research, are beginning to see that their patients are not just a body or a brain, but that our body systems are intricately and sensitively intertwined and have a profound effect on each other. In the meantime, until this trend becomes a more common practice, it is up to us to keep a handle on our health.
Two integrative departments that I have had the opportunity to be involved with at UCLA are the Mindful Awareness Research Center and the Mind Well segment of the Healthy Campus Initiative. These associations have affirmed what I have experienced through my personal challenges: that our thoughts and behaviors not only have an effect on our life outcomes, but also change our body physiology, as well. Ultimately, our thoughts and behaviors can positively modify negative health predispositions.
Here are three main components of a holistic approach to health:
- The Brain — Stress has become the biggest killer of health and it begins in the mind. When we are regularly stressed, the body’s response systems don’t get a rest and the result is wear and tear on our body physiology, affecting our brains, hearts, vital organs, and even our immune systems. Most of us in the alternative community know the importance of our thoughts on our lives, and even more encouraging is that there is evidence to support the mind’s effect on our bodies. Meditation, social support and spiritual practices all have a positive effect on health outcomes and promote overall better health.
- Physical Activity — There are so many benefits to exercise when practiced regularly. Aerobic exercise has been the most researched, but 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week will still benefit your health. Exercise increases longevity, decreases the risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and colon and breast cancers. It is the best natural remedy for reducing mild to moderate depression, and on the financial end it decreases health care costs. And don’t forget, your brain needs effortful exercise, too.
- Nutrition — It’s hard to believe that in this country 33 percent of the population is overweight — with 34 percent considered obese — and these figures keep growing. Sadly, they include the young population. All of the advantages of a healthy lifestyle are denied to the younger, overweight children, whose situation — when ignored — can lead to a life of chronic disease. As a result of our busy lives, we may rely on quick meals and eating on the go. But here’s something hard to digest. A baked or boiled potato has .5 percent fat and 11 percent protein calories versus French fries, which are 42 percent fat and 6 percent protein, and even worse potato chips are 60 percent fat and 3.6 percent protein. This is just one example of how convenience is costly to our health. “Simple” really is better. For our minds and our bodies, our diets should include fish filled with Omega-3s, vegetables and salads, non-starchy fruits (like berries), and nuts. Just like our body, our brain is largely composed of water, so be sure to get plenty of it throughout the day.
In the end, your holistic health depends on your personal choices and behaviors.