When the word healthcare comes up, most people complain about their plan, bad experiences with services or the heavy financial burden it places on society. While these are among the problems that exist worldwide, one item usually not mentioned could be the most important of the healthcare discussions at all levels, and the most logical remedy: self-health management.
We are responsible for our own health, not governments, insurance companies or even healthcare practitioners. Through self-health management, we can best keep injuries and disability, illness and disease, body fat and weight to significantly lower levels, while dramatically improving our quality of life. This allows us to be proactive and address the causes of illness, disability and disease in a simple, effective and inexpensive way. We then avoid the current healthcare model (it’s really disease-care), which is reactive—waiting for a serious condition to occur then treating it with very expensive tests and remedies that do not always address the cause of the condition.
While this concept of managing our own health may seem simple, which it is, accomplishing it is quite basic too. Reducing the risk factors—the causes of disease and dysfunction—is a matter of choice.
We think of disease risks as unhealthy habits found mostly in sedentary, overfat people, but athletes are not immune. Many fit, active individuals, even Olympians, have chronic illness, disease, excess body fat, and are prescribed medications for poor health.
Improving health comes down to reducing risk. The good news is that there are many clues about these risks, indications informing us that our health is weakening. Most recognized successful remedies that significantly reduce risks are associated with our lifestyle.
The bad news, of course, is when a person won’t make healthy changes, leading to the need for expensive remedies, such as medication or surgery, which come with their own added risk of side effects and further impairment. In most cases, these remedies do not address the cause of the problem. (Of course, in some cases, this radical approach is truly necessary, but not for the majority of people.)
One reason people are resistant to making even a basic healthy change is because of propaganda. There is an entire industry selling unhealthy products through clever misinformation. Each year, billions of dollars are spent to successfully market unhealthy lifestyles to adults and especially children (who are future customers), junk food in particular.
At the same time, there are relatively few ads, educational programs or public service announcements countering this harmful (and some would say unethical) campaign. Nor do most healthcare professionals, who are not immune to unhealthy habits, teach patients how to live healthy lives.
We are now past the days when ads featured doctors advertising the benefits of cigarette smoking—people now know how absurd this campaign was—yet many people don’t think twice about ads promoting junk food in similarly deceptive ways. It’s quite possible that junk food consumption is as harmful as cigarette smoking.
The majority of health conditions observed in both active and sedentary individuals are preventable. This means we can avoid them by living a healthier life. Even for those with serious conditions, the same conservative lifestyle measures can still be a successful remedy. Consider two serious and common risk factors for heart disease, hypertension and high blood triglycerides. With relatively simple dietary changes, both conditions can be remedied in a matter of weeks (or even days).
By modifying lifestyle, such as improving our diet, we not only reduce disease risk factors, we also improve human performance. This is true for adults and children—it means our executive functions improve (better brains), we increase athletic performance, burn off excess body fat, and quickly develop virtually unlimited physical and mental energy.
Expensive Health Problems
The World Health Organization (WHO) lists the three highest costing conditions, among the most common health problems, which have also doubled in the last decade:
- Cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, stroke and hypertension. Worldwide, this category far outpaces all other conditions.
- Ill-defined conditions, which include many subclinical, functional signs and symptoms that usually can’t be diagnosed through traditional methods. Despite the lack of accurate diagnosis, too many people in this category are subject to unnecessary tests, medications, surgeries and other, often unsuccessful, therapies. Many of these patients eventually find relief with simple dietary changes, often using so-called alternative medicine remedies.
- Muscular conditions associated with pain, low back problems and other physical injuries and disabilities. Large numbers of these problems are also difficult to diagnose by traditional methods. Smaller numbers of patients have more clearly defined conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and others.
One factor commonly found in all three of the above categories, and a factor in most other health problems too, is being overfat—a significant risk for current and future dysfunction and disease.
Biggest Risk Factors
The WHO lists these leading causes of the most common conditions worldwide: unhealthy diets and physical inactivity. Of course, most people already know this.
Unhealthy diet is a polite way of saying junk food. It includes most packaged, prepared, and processed foods, and all refined carbohydrates, including sugar in its many forms.
Junk food is one of the main villains of health, directly triggering many risk factors for chronic disease, including high blood pressure, the overfat epidemic, high blood fats, blood sugar stress and others. As such, junk food is one of the primary factors associated with the absurdly high cost of disease care around the world, with developing countries affected by it too (where obesity now outpaces starvation).
Soaring healthcare costs are one of the most serious hidden threats to the global economy, yet we only hear about how stable and successful Wall Street’s health sector has performed.
The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that, in the U.S. alone, this year’s healthcare expenses are going beyond belief: $4 trillion, which averages to $12,320 for each American. More than 75 percent of these costs are for preventable, chronic conditions. Most of us choose our fate when it comes to developing heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes, and many others. This includes being overweight, now rising above 75 percent of Americans (with the same rates projected for Australia, Latin America and other areas of the world, with China, India and Africa following suit).
In addition to an unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity, the WHO lists two other modifiable health risk behaviors that also contribute to chronic illness—excessive alcohol consumption, defined as more than one alcoholic drink for women and two for men, and tobacco.
The WHO estimates that modifying these four major risk factors could lead to an 80 percent reduction of all heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes (not to mention cancer and many other conditions).
I recently received an email from someone who had taken charge of his health, implementing two key lifestyle changes—a healthy diet and physical activity. Here is Ben’s story:
Dear Dr. Maffetone,
I am just someone who has had a lifestyle change to become healthier over the past two years. My success has been mostly a result of the advice I received from your books, as well as your interviews that I have listened to on the Internet or watched on YouTube. I have also read Gary Taubes’ and Robert Lustig’s books both of which are terrific, but I have to say that your books and interviews have been the most helpful and informative. I am 51 years old and a physician. I am 5’5″ and weighed 180 pounds two years ago (in the obese range according to BMI), and was leading a sedentary lifestyle at the time. After reading your books I changed my diet, eliminating refined sugar and other refined carbohydrates as well as most packaged foods. I also started training according to the “Maffetone Method.” I am now a lean and muscular 134 pounds and feeling better than I did when I was 21 years old!
My aerobic training has been primarily running outside (I do not enjoy treadmills) and using my elliptical machine at home. Interestingly, I have made more aerobic progress as measured by the MAF test on the elliptical than on my running. I am not sure why that is other than I probably do spend more consistent time on the elliptical, especially now when the weather is quite cold here in New Jersey. I also try to follow your advice as far as resistance/strength training, but I have to admit I do enjoy sometimes lifting heavier than you recommend and with shorter rest periods between sets.
Like others who are succeeding in turning their health and fitness around, Dr. Ben should be congratulated. Despite the many roadblocks we have all encountered in choosing health over illness, it begins by making the choice.
The Big Roadblock
Unfortunately, the WHO, governments, and other agencies claiming to curb chronic illness, including the overfat epidemic, are influenced by Big Food. Like Big Tobacco before them, the world’s largest junk food makers, including Coca-Cola, Nestle, Unilever and others significantly influence food policy around the world. An example is the WHO report sited above—it’s very scientific in its analysis of disease risk, numbers of deaths, the overfat epidemic and the assessment of other important data. But despite making the key point many times that poor diet ranks as one of the most important causes of chronic disease, virtually no recommendations are offered to reduce and eliminate the very foods that cause the problem. Corporate influence is powerful.
In addition, these same corporate conglomerates spend billions of dollars each year to convince people to eat junk food, consume excess alcohol, and partake in other unhealthy lifestyles.
But there’s a remedy.
Enter self-health management. We decide how healthy and fit our lives will be.