Alicia Jacobs, MD, family medicine physician, is Vice Chair of Clinical Operations in Family Medicine at The University of Vermont Medical Center. She is also practices at Family Medicine Colchester.

What does “wellness” mean, anyway?

Wellness implies that we are fully taking care of ourselves.  Typically, we think of eating well and exercising, which are important components of being well.  Obtaining preventative medical care and immunizations against infectious illness helps maintain wellness.  Treating any chronic medical conditions to prevent complications also improve overall wellness.  Spiritual fitness also contributes to wellness – whether it be in religion and prayer, meditation and mindfulness, or more simply just being outside and connecting with nature.

Why should we aim for wellness?

Healthier, happier people tend to live longer.  Living well helps an individual have higher energy levels.  A sense of wellness helps improve mood and can improve depression and anxiety.   Wellness can bring a sense of peace and acceptance over the many stressors that can rear up in life.  Kids can learn healthy habits that lead to wellness, especially if adults role model these behaviors.

If wellness is so great, why is it so hard to maintain?

There are many unhealthy choices easily available in our society: prepared foods, no exercise, and lots of television.  All of these conveniences make healthy choices feel more like “work”.  Keep in mind that changing any behavior may take up to 6 weeks to really become a regular habit.  Hence, it is frequently hard to get into new groove.  The good news is that the more we attempt to change, the more likely we will eventually succeed.  The payoff is an overall improved sense of well-being.

Here’s some of my advice on achieving and maintaining wellness:

Eat Well

It is healthiest to focus on eating ‘whole foods’ which means fresh food rather than processed food, which often contains extra high-fructose corn syrup, salt, and other additives.  Generally, the healthiest diet is felt to be a “Mediterranean diet” which is high in fresh fruits and vegetables, protein sources such as beans and soy (not as much meat), and fewer carbohydrates such as breads, pasta, potatoes.  Remember that corn is really a grain rather than a vegetable and peas are very high in carbohydrates.

Most Americans have trouble reaching the daily goal of two-to-four fruits and three-to-five vegetables (two fists full each for kids) per day.  One trick is to make snacks heavy in fresh fruits and veggies to try to hit that goal – another is to serve two vegetables with a meal (for example, salad and broccoli).  Another trick is to look into local food sources or gardening opportunities.

Commit to Exercise

Generally, 30 minutes of light-to-moderate exercise daily is a great goal, but three times a week may be adequate.  Children should shoot for 60 minutes per day.  Any exertion such as walking, active gardening, swimming, even playing Wii, counts with a goal sustained heart rate of 55-65% of the maximum for an individual’s age group.  A health care provider could help you determine that goal, or calculate your target heart rate here.  In other words, you don’t have to run a marathon, but it is good to break a sweat and feel your heart rate increasing some.

Get those Check-Ups (they’re important)! 

At a minimum, the United States Preventative Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends blood pressure checks, health and cancer screening tests such as cholesterol, pap smears, mammograms, colonoscopies, immunizations including the flu shot and Tdap (which protects against the whooping cough), regular dental care every 6 months and eye checks every two years, and screening for any high risk behaviors or chronic health conditions.

You can download an app from the USPSTF’s Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality to get an individualized preventative services recommendation. The Vermont Department of Health’s Healthy Vermonters 2010 goals and Blueprint for Health initiatives are also great sources of information on this topic.

And finally…

Are there really health benefits to all this hard work?

Yes!  This is called primary prevention.  Studies have shown that a healthy diet and exercise, combined with a body mass index (BMI) below 30 for adult or below 85% of normal for kids can decrease rates of diabetes, heart disease, depression, arthritis, high cholesterol, and even cancer.  It’s best to work hard now, rather than developing a chronic condition later.

Calculate my BMI

Calculate my child’s BMI

How can I stay on track for achieving wellness?

Enlist a partner in making healthy changes, or make a commitment with a health care provider, which will give you incentive to continue working on the goal of a healthier lifestyle.  Best of luck!

Alicia Jacobs, MD, family medicine physician, is Vice Chair of Clinical Operations in Family Medicine at The University of Vermont Medical Center. She is also practices at Family Medicine Colchester.

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