For the past couple of months, I've been exploring ways to improve my overall health. Like most people, I figure the best places to start are diet and exercise, but when I sat down and actually tried to figure out what to DO about diet and exercise, things quickly got confusing. Some Internet research reveals that there are an overwhelming number of diet plans out there: Atkins, Beck, Eat to Live, Food Combining, Glycemic Index, McDougall, Metabolic Typing, Ornish, Pritkin, South Beach, Zone, and on and on. Some plans include psychological reconditioning strategies as well as nutritional guidelines so that you improve your changes of sticking with your plan over the long term. Others, like Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers, have support networks with monthly subscription costs and commercially prepared portion-controlled meals you can buy.
To further complicate things, there's also a whole slew of alternative health care trends and products. Some of my friends have endured week-long detox regimens, ingesting nothing but lemon water, nothing but fruit, or nothing but vegetable broth and ice cream. When I went to my local vitamin shop for guidance, there were shelves and shelves of some truly scary-looking products designed to cleanse, irrigate, enlarge, shrink, and/or repopulate various internal organs. I had no idea that our bodies are so totally incapable of taking care of their own housekeeping.
I didn't want to do anything drastic that might jeopardize my health, and I didn't want to spend money on subscriptions, so in the end I decided to track my exercise and diet habits through a free website called PEERTrainer. The site promotes its social support network as the key to help its users reach their fitness goals, but I since I was mainly interested in using it as a personal online health journal, I just created a private group for myself and got started logging my daily workouts and meals for later analysis.
I promised myself that I would truthfully log everything I ate, no matter how terrible it might look on the screen. Almost as an afterthought, I also resolved to exercise six days a week.
It's been two months now, and I'm calling an end to my little tracking experiment. Here are my conclusions drawn from both my research and personal observations of myself and others:
1. Exercise is more important than diet.
If you can only make one change to improve your life, make it 30-60 minutes of daily exercise. Athletes can have really lousy diets and still outperform the rest of us. Exercise plays a crucial role in weight maintenance, regulation of mood, sleep, and stress, and keeping the body physically youthful. Cardio, strength training, and flexibility are all important, so it's best to mix up workouts through the week to reap greater benefits and keep things interesting. Buddy up or attend group classes. Other people can be great motivators for those of us who aren't lone wolf runners. Push yourself to the point of discomfort but not pain. If you never feel uncomfortable, you're not pushing hard enough; get a heart monitor if you're worried you're pushing too hard.
2. Eat whole, natural plant foods.
The most reliable scientific research shows that the best diet for maximum health and longevity and minimum occurence of Western diseases like cancers, heart disease, and diabetes is a low-fat vegan diet with plenty of fresh and frozen green/low-starch vegetables, fruits, and legumes, a moderate amount of starchy vegetables and whole grains, a small amount of nuts, seeds, and avocados, and not a whole lot of anything else. Snack on fruit and raw vegetables. Stay away from refined anything. Organic is nice in philosophy, but it's probably not essential for good health.
3. Plan ahead.
It's really difficult to buy healthy ready-to-eat foods in the U.S. To make matters worse, there are an overwhelming number of temptingly convenient unhealthy foods for sale in stores and restaurants. Buy the majority of your food from grocery stores, farmers' markets, and CSA organizations. Supplement with homegrown produce and herbs if you can.
There. Now stick those three points on an index card, stop stressing, and go enjoy your life.