Lose weight, exercise more, get 8 hours of sleep, eat more fruits and vegetables, reduce stress, take supplements… have you grown weary of all the health rules offered by TV doctors, magazine articles and well-intentioned friends? Dr. Pauline Chen, in her New York Times column last summer, wrote about a patient’s difficulty in absorbing “a fire hose of advice.” “Thanks to some dazzling advances in preventive medicine and public health,” she wrote, “doctors in almost every specialty of medicine now have a panoply of proven preventive recommendations to keep their patients from getting sick.”
Dr. Susan Love, the well known breast cancer researcher, takes issue with many of those recommendations, or “health rules” as she calls them in a book called Live a Little!: Breaking the Rules Won’t Break Your Health. She goes down the list of well-known “to do items for healthy living” and questions the etched-in-stone rules that seem to be guiding many of our every day decisions. She writes;
Health rules can mislead you into half way believing that if you eat only the right things, or exercise in the proper way, you can escape not just run of the mill illnesses but death itself. This way of thinking leads to a distorted set of priorities: Instead of trying to be healthy so that you can enjoy life, you squander your happiness in the pursuit of more health.
Dr. Love “studied the studies” in six areas that generate the most health rules; sleep, stress management, health screenings, exercise, nutrition, and personal relationships. While new research has added to our knowledge (and grown the list of rules) since then, her thoughts about putting research findings in context, and using common sense to guide our actions, still holds up. Here are a few examples from her book:
Sleep -The two sleep studies that originated the “myth” of an ideal eight hour sleep only showed how much people will sleep when there’s nothing else to do. And there’s no evidence that sleep deprivation causes brain cells to die. Dr. Love says to trust your instincts. If you function best on eight to nine hours, use that information. But if you feel great on six hours of sleep, go for it. It’s fine to get more sleep on some nights and less on others.
Stress - Stress can be good, even great! Some people work best under stress. When stress is severe and prolonged, however, it’s linked to high blood pressure, heart problems and a weakened immune system. The goal is to have a reasonable amount of challenge and excitement in your life with strategies to keep us from being overwhelmed in times of pressure or crisis. She offers some practical tips for achieving this.
Exercise - Free yourself from fussy fitness rules and make your own decisions about the intensity of your workouts, or the need to warm up and cool down, or how many minutes you should exercise each week. If you engage in real-life weight training (children, garage doors, sacks of mulch) you’re in “pretty good health” just as you are without extra weight training.
Food – It’s hard to enjoy food if you believe it’s either medicine or potential poison. “Good nutrition is common sense. Lots of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low fat dairy. It’s so clear…and easy.”