“Health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind and spirit” – BKS Iyengar
When we think of health, what comes to mind?: Sweating it out at the gym, eating a healthy diet, quitting smoking or drinking, or making sure we’re happy with what we see in the mirror or read on the scales?
Well, it turns out that physical health can only take us so far…. If we want to be truly vibrant and healthy, we have to take in to account the health of our mind – I don’t mean the brain, here – the mind. And what makes our mind happy? It has a lot more to do with the things we take for granted than it may seem….
While we know that the benefits of exercise, fuelling our bodies with healthy foods and drink, and getting enough sleep all keep us feeling good, we don’t often consider that things like our sense of purpose, relationships with friends, or ability to express creativity also has a big impact on our physical health….
We might think our DNA is our destiny – that genetics determine whether you may be diagnosed with cancer, suffer from hereditary heart problems, or that arthritis ‘runs in your family’ – and while some aspects of genetics are unavoidable, we can actually control things we may assume are pre-destined…. Things like our environment can alter the way our DNA actually expresses itself; pollution, the amount of sunlight we get, and the amount of time we spend in nature are some of the physical aspects which alter the way our DNA is expressed. Things like our relationships – are we surrounded by people we genuinely care about and who care about us? Our sense of self-worth, the amount of gratitude we express, and our life’s purpose, are all vital factors that have a big impact on our health.
The biological chemicals released in to our bodies when we are filling our time doing meaningful things, can literally save us from suffering. Studies have been conducted in which the effects of being primarily an optimist or a pessimist affected overall health; it showed that those who are considered to be optimistic recover better from surgeries, have stronger immune systems, and ultimately live longer than pessimists. Heart disease rates are halved in positive males, as is the amount of time taken to recover from injury.*
Parts of the world known as the ‘Blue Zones’ have the populations who tend to live the longest and have the healthiest lives; these areas include Loma Linda in California, Nicoya in Costa Rica, Sardinia in Italy, Ikaria in Greece, and Okinawa in Japan. These places are all pretty far apart, but they all have certain things in coming (some of which may be surprising) that means their populations are the most healthy in the true sense of the word ‘health’; The things they all have in common is known by the Blue Zones project as the ‘Power 9’, they include:
- Move Naturally: the people in these places don’t get their exercise from formal gym memberships or fitness classes…. Their lifestyles encourages them to just move more often!
- Know Your Purpose: These people felt they had a calling in their lives and they knew they were doing something meaningful with their time.
- Down Shift: Eliminating stressful situations may not be easy, but those who live the longest, healthiest lives manage to fit in a small amount of time each day to take time out for themselves to do something that relaxes them.
- 80% rule: These populations generally eat until they feel 80% full up, instead of rushing their meals until they feel like bursting!
- Plant Slant: The Blue Zone populations consume a mostly plant based diet, rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, and minimally processed products. Things like nuts are an important part of their diets, and eating just a handful a day has been proven to add 2-3 years to your life expectancy!
- Wine @ 5: One glass of wine for women and two for men has actually been proven to have a healthy effect on the body – the antioxidants in wine reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases, certain cancers, and slow the progression of Alzheimer’s. (This only works with wine though – not pints of beer or cider or vodka!)
- Right Tribe: The healthiest people in the world are surrounded by people they feel safe with and supported by. Studies show that loneliness encourages depression, which has a detrimental effect on the body’s wellbeing – so surround yourself with people you love and who love you too!
- Community: Nearly all of the people in a study to determine the Blue Zones attended some sort of faith-based community gathering regularly. This doesn’t mean you have to join any sort of religion if you don’t believe in it, this could mean just being with people who believe in similar sorts of ideas that you too hold true, and realising that there is something bigger than all of us in the universe.
- Loved Ones First: The happiest, healthiest participants in the Blue Zones study put their families first, and being in a positive, committed relationship can even add 6 years to your life! **
Happiness directly effects our health, and it turns out it’s contagious:
A study at the University of California concluded that happiness is in fact contagious; if a friend of yours is happy, you’re 25% more likely to be happy yourself, and even if a friend of a friend is happy, we’re 6% more likely to be happy. So, we can directly influence the happiness of people we don’t even know, just by being positive ourselves!
If we’re able to widen our perspective of ‘health’ to include these aspects, we can prevent illness long before it occurs, and live as fully, healthily and happily as we deserve to.
*Research from Lissa Rankin’s amazing book ‘Mind Over Medicine’. You can watch her TED talk here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tu9nJmr4Xs
** To learn more about the blue zones, read Dan Buettner’s book ‘Blue Zones’ and watch his fascinating TED Talk here: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_buettner_how_to_live_to_be_100.html