Are you stressed out about what to eat and how much to exercise? Do you allow a small choice, like eating a couple of cookies, to bug you for hours or even days? Well, according to some experts, we’re unnecessarily stressing about the details, and living a healthy lifestyle is actually a lot easier (and more fun) than we think. Dr. Alice Domar, co-author (with Dr. Susan Love) of Live a Little!, explains why you shouldn’t let the pursuit of optimum health and fitness interfere with your quality of life.
Q: Have we lost the plot when it comes to how to live a healthy life?
A: I think women used to have some intuition about how they should live their lives. Your body tells you what it needs, but now there’s so much information out there in the media. For example, it’s ridiculous to insist that you have to sleep eight hours a night if you actually feel fine with seven. And yet, women are taking sleeping aids because they’re being told that eight hours is the requisite for good health. We have lost our way.
Q: So we should pay more attention to physical cues and less attention to advice?
A: Well, it depends where the advice comes from. What amazed us as we were working on this book was just how hard it is to find research that isn’t biased. I tell patients that if you hear about a study, you have to ask yourself three questions:
1. Was it done on humans?
2. Was it a randomized control trial, or is it epidemiological (which means you observe a difference in people)?
3. Who paid for it?
If it’s a randomized control trial on humans that was not industry-sponsored, then I’m far more inclined to think that it really is relevant. I think we’re getting a lot of misleading information. When you look at the sleep research, a lot of that is funded by the sleep pharma industry because they want people to believe that you have to get eight hours of sleep a night to be healthy. With a lot of the health and nutrition data, I don’t think there’s any malintent on the part of promoting fruits and vegetables and exercising. In all likelihood, that’s a better way to live – but you can’t say that definitively. All you can do is look at the fact that people who exercise tend to be healthier; but is that because exercise makes you healthier or because healthy people exercise?
Q: What do you mean when you say that perfect health is not achievable?
A: We don’t have as much control over our health as we think we do. I had a graduate student many years ago who had the most perfect lifestyle habits I’d ever seen: She exercised for an hour every day, she didn’t eat sugar or flour or meat, she didn’t smoke or drink alcohol, and she did yoga and meditated. She did everything you can possibly do. And then she got a very aggressive form of breast cancer and died at 27. That’s obviously an extremely unusual example, but I think we like to believe that we have control over our health and the truth is that a lot of people with great health habits still get sick. You can’t control your genes, a lot of your environment, stress levels or accidents. I think women feel so guilty [about their choices], and for them this is a breath of fresh air. If you don’t exercise today it’s not going to kill you.
Q: It is amazing how many connotations women can load onto a single choice – they might have a dessert one night and then agonize about that for days.
A: Which is ridiculous. You have to look at the big picture. Eating badly for a few days isn’t going to harm you. We read these headlines about how sleep deprivation can lead to heart disease and obesity. If you have sleep deprivation over five years, maybe – but a lot of us who have kids have experienced a lot of sleep deprivation and new moms are not dropping dead.
Q: Any other examples of things women tend to unnecessarily stress about?
A: All of the health rules – you have to sleep eight hours a night, exercise for an hour a day, eat five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables every day, have a lot of friends and a lot of social time, and that stress is bad. In fact, if you look at the research on social support, it depends on the quality of that social support. If you are hanging out with people who criticize you or who are takers, they’re not going to make you healthy. And same with stress – people with zero stress in their lives are depressed. A good life brings with it both highs and lows. And our hearts do better with cardiac variability – you want your heart to speed up and slow down.
Q: But you’re not saying that people shouldn’t worry about their fitness levels and what they put in their mouths.
A: No, and we’re really clear about that. We’re not saying it’s OK to be overweight couch potatoes. There’s no question that obesity is linked to a lot of bad things, and that people who exercise do tend to be healthier. What we’re saying is that you don’t have to exercise an hour every day at the expense of a lot of other things in your life in order to be healthy. And if you look at the research on exercise, it’s probably better for you to get some exercise throughout the day than for you to sit on your butt all day and then get up and go to the gym for an hour.
Q: Do you think it’s easier to live a healthy life than most people assume it is?
A: Absolutely. We call it “a pretty healthy life.” And it’s quite easy to live a pretty healthy life; it’s not easy to live a perfect life. If you look at resistance to changing behavior, it’s often due to black and white thinking – if I can’t exercise for an hour, I’m not going to exercise at all. But we’re saying that even if you can exercise for 10 minutes it’s so much better than not exercising at all. It doesn’t have to be an hour to benefit you; anything you do is better than nothing.
Q: So what are your recommendations for living a pretty healthy life?
A: First of all, tune into your body. If you’re sleeping seven hours a night and you feel fine, then that’s right for you. Try to be as active as you can without making yourself crazy over it. Think about what’s going on in your life right now. If you’ve got a couple of little kids, you can’t get to the gym everyday easily; but if you’re taking a toddler and laundry up and down the stairs, then you’re probably more fit than you think you are. Eat fruits and vegetables and other good foods, but don’t eat a bowl of blueberries at 11pm just to get that fifth serving in – that’s just not rational. And, finally, accept the fact that you can’t control everything about your health and focus on improving the areas you can.