Why ‘pretty healthy’ is good enough

Our bodies didn’t come with an operating manual, yet it sometimes seems like we’re trying to write one. You know what we mean: Get eight hours sleep. Drink eight glasses of water. Get 60 minutes of physical activity. Eat so many servings of this or that food — preferably organic, local and unprocessed. Have a glass of wine each day — and a cup of blueberries and a piece of chocolate and some vitamin D and…

And we can go crazy trying to follow all the latest advice and sticking to well-ingrained maxims that are often more myth than fact. We can feel guilty about not doing enough, and blame ourselves (and others) for poor lifestyle choices when disease and disability appear.

Or we can just let go a little. The fact is we aren’t machines, and we’re not in complete control because our health is influenced by other factors, like our age, sex, genetics and sometimes plain old luck. Embracing deprivation in pursuit of perfect health is a frustrating way to live our lives, warn experts Susan Love and Alice Dolmar in their book, Live a Little!Instead, they say we need a better goal: a “Pretty Healthy” lifestyle.

What does that mean, exactly? According to the authors, Pretty Healthy is that middle zone between not doing enough (like not seeing a doctor or not doing anything to control stress) and obsessing over our health. It means taking prudent steps to prevent untimely disease, disability and death — but not at the cost of enjoying life too.

Here are five tips for a Pretty Healthy lifestyle:

Do: Get enough rest

Avoid: Thinking you have to follow certain rules.

Think you need that eight hours every night to be well rested and avoid harmful consequences like weight gain or decreased immune functioning? Stop losing sleep over losing sleep, warn Dolmar and Love.

The truth is your body may need more or less sleep — it’s really up to the individual. Sleep research isn’t the best measure: many studies were conducted under ideal conditions (minus children, hot flashes, night sweats and full bladders, for instance). Instead, we should pay attention to how we’re feeling, and adjust our habits accordingly. For instance, if we’re feeling the effects of poor sleep — like difficulty concentrating, yawning and lethargy — it’s time to make a few changes to our habits.

And yes, it’s okay to stay up past your bedtime. We don’t need the same amount of sleep every night, and occasional bouts of sleep problems isn’t going to harm your health. If you look at your sleep habits over a year, chances are you’re getting enough on average.

Do: Take steps to manage stress.

Avoid: Putting too much pressure on yourself — or trying to avoid stress altogether.

We can’t avoid life’s ups-and-downs — nor should we try. The care-free life is as much a myth as a perfectly balanced one, so coping with challenges is where we should seek improvement. Often our stress comes not from the problems we face, but from feeling like we don’t have the time, support and resources to meet them, according to Love and Dolmar.

The good news is we can change that, even before a stressful situation hits. Some steps we can take include learning to say “no” so we don’t become overburdened, building our support network and asking for help when we need it. Stress management techniques — like meditation, keeping a journal and exercise — are also a boon when we’re feeling pressured.

With these steps comes a pretty hefty dose of self-acceptance. Things aren’t going to be perfect, and we won’t always handle things the way we know we should. That’s okay too.

Do: Make regular physical activity part of your life.

Avoid: Treating exercise like a religion.

Yes, exercise is known to reduce our risks for certain disease, and it goes hand-in-hand with other healthy lifestyle choices like eating well and maintaining a healthy weight. We should make an effort to get regular physical activity — but not punish ourselves for missing a workout.

However, Love and Dolmar warn that exercise isn’t a cure-all or guaranteed preventive measure. We may try to wrap it up in emotions like guilt (“if I get sick, it’s my fault for not doing more”), fear (of illness, gaining weight, falling, etc) — not to mention a sense of moral superiority (or inferiority). But we may not be as out of shape as we think: Dolmar and Love note that if you can walk a mile in twenty minutes, carry a week’s worth of groceries, stand on one foot and get up from a chair without using your hands, you’re out of the danger zone.

As for emotion, the one that will keep us motivated in the long run is pleasure. Enjoy what you’re doing and make it a habit rather than trying to stick to some artificial regime.

Do: Eat good foods for nourishment.

Avoid: Viewing food as medicine or poison.

So much for “an apple a day…” Now we’re inundated about research on this or that superfood and it’s anti-aging, anti-inflammatory and disease-fighting properties. Love and Dolmar warn that many people equate downing a cup of blueberries each day like popping pills. Where’s the enjoyment in that?

There’s a lot of information out there, but we shouldn’t be making our dietary decisions based on the latest hype. It’s important to remember that studies are often inconclusive and incomplete. For instance, studies can show the presence of certain vitamins and antioxidants in certain foods, but there’s no little or no research long term research into the promised outcomes.

It’s easy to miss the big picture. Many foods have the nutrients we need like protein, vitamins and those sought-after antioxidants. It’s our habits — not a specific food or trendy diet — that make the difference in the long run. Good nutrition is common sense: like eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats and low-fat dairy. A healthy diet doesn’t need to involve keeping a tally, and it doesn’t have to be perfect all the time. (Yes, you can eat that brownie — moderation is key.)

Do: Be informed about your health.

Avoid: Worrying about it.

There’s always new study, a new risk, a new preventive measure… While it’s important to be informed, keeping track of it all and attempting to figure out how it applies to you can drive you crazy. Before you add another rule or habit to your daily routine, it’s important to ask questions. For instance:

– Who is conducting the study? It’s important to be aware of bias because many studies are conducted or funded by the company that produces a certain product.

– What kind of study is it? Certain kinds of studies (like double-blind clinical trials) have stricter controls than others, like voluntary surveys and polls.

– Who are the participants, and how were they chosen? Is it a laboratory test, or was research conducted on animals or humans? How old were the participants? (A study conducted using university students may not necessarily apply to Zoomers, for instance.)

Even when studies involve people, the experiment’s conditions are also important because what happens in a lab doesn’t necessarily translate to real life.

– What should you do with this information? If you read the original journal article or results, you’ll often see the line “more investigation is needed.” That’s smart advice for us as well as for future researchers. If you’re worried, do a little further investigation and talk to your health care professionals before making any changes.

Overall, aiming for “Pretty Healthy” is a goal that’s more attainable — and less stressful — for most people to achieve. Obviously, you’ll want to follow the specific advice of your health care providers, especially if you’re dealing with an existing health condition, but the point is not to cause yourself undue stress and misery trying to live up to an image of perfect health that doesn’t exist.

And perhaps the most important point that we often forget: Healthy habits are meant to help us enjoy life. We don’t have to choose quantity of life over quality — it’s all about balance, after all.

For more information about the book, visit RandomHouse.ca.

Additional sources: Health Canada, WebMD

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Tom Hirtreiter

Keep healthy food healthy
Grow your own grub
5 hot trends for the barbeque