How full is your cup? I prefer mine to be at least half empty. If I suspect that it is filling too quickly or that I don’t have enough wiggle room for almond milk at the top, I immediately hunker down to fix the problem. The last thing I want is for my cup to overflow.
When someone comes into my office detailing an ailment or condition, there is a natural inclination to describe the circumstances around which the symptom developed. With a gastrointestinal infection it is important to know whether you have recently been travelling or what you may have eaten over the last week. With other complaints, the connection is less obvious. People don’t often notice that the worsening of their headaches corresponds to the start of their new job, or that their joint pain came on after they recently renovated their home. The fact is, most people don’t notice their cup is filling at all.
A family friend called me recently following an insurance physical to say that he had been declined coverage due to his elevated blood pressure. He was dumbstruck that there was even a problem. After 65 years of avoiding vegetables, libating with frivolity and acquiring electrolytes through potato chips, he couldn’t comprehend the connection between the elevated blood pressure and his lifestyle. “It can’t be related to what I consume” he said, “I have always eaten this way without a problem. “It’s not a meteorite that breaks the camel’s back I replied, it’s a piece of straw.”
Our bodies – our cups, all start off as different shapes and sizes. Those with large cups can avoid vegetables and eat potato chips until they are 65 with relatively few health crises, while others have challenges from the beginning. I tend to find that most of us start out with a relatively empty cup, slowing filling it with poor food choices, a lack of sleep, environmental exposures and stress. Those with larger, more robust cups, take these challenges in stride. These are the people that despite their poor diet, coffee dependence and exercise avoidance, continue to maintain their weight, good temperament and radiant skin. Don’t be fooled however, a larger cup doesn’t mean you are healthier, it means you get sick less often. In contrast, healthy choices such as exercise and whole foods, keep the fluid level in your cup at a steady level, allowing the body to manage and maintain in the face of physiological stressors.
I use the analogy of a cup in my practice because I have found an inherent disconnect between the choices people make and the consequences on their health. When I ask about an auto-immune condition, diabetes or hypertension, people tell me the day or month they were diagnosed as if that was the moment the disease began. In each of these cases however, the groundwork for the condition or the disease itself started long before, one physiologically stressful encounter after another. We tend to judge our lifestyle choices based on whether or not they have enabled us to be ‘fine until now.’ The reality is, we are all fine until we aren’t. In a study published online on February 26th 2013 in the journal Cancer Research, the authors noted that increased body weight and decreased levels of physical activity were associated with an incremental risk for colorectal cancer in 54% of the cases studied. Colorectal cancer is a devastating disease, often detectable through routine colonoscopies and seemingly preventable in a significant number of cases. The researchers went on the point out that those who would benefit from the lifestyle and exercise investment had a genetic marker that would identify them to doctors early in life – before their cup became too full. Would the genetic knowledge change the behavior of most of these people? We have yet to find out.
Many appear to live oblivious to the size of our cup until we start to experience symptoms related to the overflow. Whether it is the state of the planet, our health or the national economy, we make our collective choices on credit until the bank calls or the camel breaks his back.
I don’t know conclusively whether you will live longer because you chose to exercise, eat well or manage your stress in an effective manner. I am certain of one thing however, healthy lifestyle choices are likely to leave your cup in a stronger position to handle the unexpected stressors and well-placed indulgences that we all tend to scoop up along the way.
10 Important Lifestyle Actions to Reduce the Burden of Daily Life on your Body
1. Exercise and move your body regularly and with intention
2. Avoid processed foods
3. Acknowledge your sources of stress and implement effective outlets
4. Make time to sleep
5. Don’t smoke
6. Limit your consumption of sugar
7. Eat a diversity of colourful vegetables
8. Wash your fruit and vegetables
9. Get outside for some fresh air
10. Take advantage of appropriate and preventative screening tests such as mammograms and colonoscopies