10 Health Tips from Harvard Institute of Lifestyle Medicine

by Susan Biali, M. D.

HK-SB-2-THIS-adjAs I’ve mentioned in past posts, this summer I got to attend one of my very favorite continuing medical education courses at Harvard Medical School, from their wonderful Institute of Lifestyle Medicine. (link is external) This year there were hundreds more physicians in the room than the last time I attended, it’s so exciting to see the passion for prevention and wellness that is blooming in our field.

Here are some of my favorite health gems that I learned:

1) Practicing relaxation regularly improves the executive functioning of your brain

Practices such as meditation or guided relaxation, which elicit the body’s innate relaxation response, actually increase the cortical thickness of your brain. Not only is this awesome for obvious reasons, but it also means that as we get older our brains don’t have to shrink in size. We can do something this simple to help keep our minds vital and young.

2) Fat cells are metabolically active

A fat cell sitting in your abdomen isn’t just an inert substance. Fat cells are actually miniature endocrine (hormone-producing) organs and can impact appetite regulation. If you have too many of these, you need to get rid of them.

3) Stop worrying about which diet to follow

The ones that work are fundamentally the same, in that you have an optimally balanced plate at every possible meal: a modest serving of a healthy protein, a minimal amount of carbohydrate, and tons of vegetables. If you follow that simple guideline you’ll lose weight, have more energy and be healthier. You don’t need any fancy eating plans or strategies. (Bottom line: „Don’t diet. Eat real food.“)

4) Small amounts of weight loss have big payoffs

You may look at the scale and feel like it will take you forever to lose the weight you want to. Be encouraged by this: by losing just 5-10% of your weight, you decrease your risk of developing diabetes by a whopping 58% and also increase your overall life expectancy.

5) Forget slow steady weight loss, lose as much as you can right off the top

This is hard for me to write, as I was always an advocate of the classic „aim to lose no more than 1-2 pounds a week“ rule. Apparently the more weight loss you lose at the very beginning, the more likely you’ll be to lose more and you’ll be more likely to keep it off. I’m still not sure how this looks in a practical sense, in terms of what’s still reasonable, healthy and achievable, but it’s a pretty interesting statistic.

6) Exercise could be the most powerful „cure-all“ drug we have

We have strong scientific evidence that exercise decreases the probability of early death, heart disease, breast cancer, stroke, colon cancer and diabetes. It prevents weight gain and falls, decreases rates of depression and improves the cognitive function of older adults. All you have to do to take advantage of all these benefits is to start walking daily; walking is the most popular physical activity worldwide.

7) If you have problems with insomnia, resist the temptation to take a nap

I had recently seen information that promoted the idea of napping (who doesn’t love a good nap?), based on the idea that you could catch up on sleep debt and get in a full sleep cycle within a 30 minute afternoon nap. What I was reminded of at the conference is that all day long, while we are awake, our body builds up more and more sleep pressure. By night-time, this pressure has built to the point that you naturally feel sleepy and are more likely to fall asleep when your head hits the pillow. Taking a nap interrupts this build-up process and would decrease the pressure to naturally fall asleep in the evening (the last thing an insomniac wants).

8) CBTI is one of the best available (drug free!) treatments for insomnia

I’ve been hearing about this more and more – cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) is highly effective over both the short and long term. Many doctors aren’t aware of just how powerfully effective it is, and for that reason don’t refer patients to trained CBTI practitioners. There aren’t that many psychologists trained in this technique, but there are also online programs that people with insomnia can access.

9) Screen time puts infants and toddlers at risk for obesity

Children under the age of two should not have any screen time, period. I know this is almost unfathomable in an era when the average two year old can navigate an iPhone, but research shows that exposure to television and other screens in infancy decreases sleep duration (moms did you hear that – they’ll sleep longer without the screens) and increases the risk of developing obesity.

10) Prioritizing caring for others while devaluing your own self-care is a primary source of burnout

I’ve said it over and over again, and it was wonderful to have it validated at this course: you absolutely need to take excellent care of yourself. It is not selfish. It is vitally necessary. If you’ve been feeling burned out, you need to take better care of yourself. Urgently.

 

by Susan Biali, M. D.

HK-SB-2-THIS-adjAs I’ve mentioned in past posts, this summer I got to attend one of my very favorite continuing medical education courses at Harvard Medical School, from their wonderful Institute of Lifestyle Medicine. (link is external) This year there were hundreds more physicians in the room than the last time I attended, it’s so exciting to see the passion for prevention and wellness that is blooming in our field.

Here are some of my favorite health gems that I learned:

1) Practicing relaxation regularly improves the executive functioning of your brain

Practices such as meditation or guided relaxation, which elicit the body’s innate relaxation response, actually increase the cortical thickness of your brain. Not only is this awesome for obvious reasons, but it also means that as we get older our brains don’t have to shrink in size. We can do something this simple to help keep our minds vital and young.

2) Fat cells are metabolically active

A fat cell sitting in your abdomen isn’t just an inert substance. Fat cells are actually miniature endocrine (hormone-producing) organs and can impact appetite regulation. If you have too many of these, you need to get rid of them.

3) Stop worrying about which diet to follow

The ones that work are fundamentally the same, in that you have an optimally balanced plate at every possible meal: a modest serving of a healthy protein, a minimal amount of carbohydrate, and tons of vegetables. If you follow that simple guideline you’ll lose weight, have more energy and be healthier. You don’t need any fancy eating plans or strategies. (Bottom line: „Don’t diet. Eat real food.“)

4) Small amounts of weight loss have big payoffs

You may look at the scale and feel like it will take you forever to lose the weight you want to. Be encouraged by this: by losing just 5-10% of your weight, you decrease your risk of developing diabetes by a whopping 58% and also increase your overall life expectancy.

5) Forget slow steady weight loss, lose as much as you can right off the top

This is hard for me to write, as I was always an advocate of the classic „aim to lose no more than 1-2 pounds a week“ rule. Apparently the more weight loss you lose at the very beginning, the more likely you’ll be to lose more and you’ll be more likely to keep it off. I’m still not sure how this looks in a practical sense, in terms of what’s still reasonable, healthy and achievable, but it’s a pretty interesting statistic.

6) Exercise could be the most powerful „cure-all“ drug we have

We have strong scientific evidence that exercise decreases the probability of early death, heart disease, breast cancer, stroke, colon cancer and diabetes. It prevents weight gain and falls, decreases rates of depression and improves the cognitive function of older adults. All you have to do to take advantage of all these benefits is to start walking daily; walking is the most popular physical activity worldwide.

7) If you have problems with insomnia, resist the temptation to take a nap

I had recently seen information that promoted the idea of napping (who doesn’t love a good nap?), based on the idea that you could catch up on sleep debt and get in a full sleep cycle within a 30 minute afternoon nap. What I was reminded of at the conference is that all day long, while we are awake, our body builds up more and more sleep pressure. By night-time, this pressure has built to the point that you naturally feel sleepy and are more likely to fall asleep when your head hits the pillow. Taking a nap interrupts this build-up process and would decrease the pressure to naturally fall asleep in the evening (the last thing an insomniac wants).

8) CBTI is one of the best available (drug free!) treatments for insomnia

I’ve been hearing about this more and more – cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI) is highly effective over both the short and long term. Many doctors aren’t aware of just how powerfully effective it is, and for that reason don’t refer patients to trained CBTI practitioners. There aren’t that many psychologists trained in this technique, but there are also online programs that people with insomnia can access.

9) Screen time puts infants and toddlers at risk for obesity

Children under the age of two should not have any screen time, period. I know this is almost unfathomable in an era when the average two year old can navigate an iPhone, but research shows that exposure to television and other screens in infancy decreases sleep duration (moms did you hear that – they’ll sleep longer without the screens) and increases the risk of developing obesity.

10) Prioritizing caring for others while devaluing your own self-care is a primary source of burnout

I’ve said it over and over again, and it was wonderful to have it validated at this course: you absolutely need to take excellent care of yourself. It is not selfish. It is vitally necessary. If you’ve been feeling burned out, you need to take better care of yourself. Urgently.

 

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