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Little by little, by exercising our minds and our common sense, we Americans are inching toward a more practical definition of health, fitness, and overall wellness. That's the encouraging word from health professionals and lay people of all ages. We may still be, too often, a sedentary and out-of-shape society, but more and more people are learning to incorporate a few simple activities and a little common sense into longer, healthier, and more active lives.
"People have shifted attention over the past few years from weight and body morphology issues to fitness," reports Thomas Hawkins, M.D., M.P.M. '85, associate medical director at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, who helps companies set up programs that promote fitness measures--like ergometric training and health screening--among employees. "Fitness," he says, "is what makes you feel better, makes you able to do the things you like to do. It is also a better predictor than weight or body shape of how well and how long you'll live."
For Hawkins, recognizing and respecting individual needs and physical limitations is key to this shift in focus, which he would like to see continue. Wellness, he points out, can be broken down into simple components. First, we have to eat healthfully. New information from the Harvard School of Public Health and from long-term, large-scale studies like the Nurses' Health Study (based at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital) is just beginning to demonstrate quantitatively how diet affects our lives, he says. The nurses' study, for example, has indicated that fruit-, grain-, and vegetable-rich diets high in antioxidants and nutrients such as Vitamin E may deter certain kinds of cancer and heart disease, and that actually eating such foods may be better than simply taking various supplements. "They've really taken nutrition out of the realm of advice from your mother and transformed it into serious scientific information," says Hawkins.
Just as important, he notes, is the fact that Americans are starting to recognize the benefits of regular exercise: more of us are moving our bodies on a regular basis. But exercise doesn't mean simply gym work, Hawkins is quick to point out. In fact, time spent on a Nautilus may not be the best workout for everyone, and certainly isn't enough for anyone.
Well-rounded programs that provide some variety work out best. Hawkins breaks down necessary exercise into four components: daily activity, aerobic exercise, flexibility, and resistance or strength training. He stresses the fact that even those who can't do any kind of formal aerobic activity can often increase their ordinary daily activities to compensate. The point, he maintains, is to do something. "There are many people with disabilities and chronic diseases who can improve their health within a framework of eating well and keeping active," he says.
One common concern Hawkins tries to address is maintaining a fitness program. Too often, he says, people report that despite their best intentions, exercise programs get derailed. "It's hard to get started," he acknowledges, "but the real concern is, 'How do I maintain this over six months, one year, three years, while working, traveling, whatever?'" His recommendations are simple: Be realistic, and "don't beat yourself up" if you "fall off the wagon" and break your exercise routine. "You've just got to say 'This happened,' and get started again. Hopefully, we learn each time."
Such health habits have already paid off for Frank Pelrine. Four years ago, Pelrine, a manager of information systems at the Harvard University Employees Credit Union, had a heart attack. At age 44, he'd been expecting it: his father had died at 46 and his brother at 42 from coronary disease--both had arteriosclerosis.
"I'd been worried about it ever since my father died, when I was 16. So I had changed my lifestyle years ago," says Pelrine, now 48. He describes his regimen as a combination of diet and regular exercise: "No sugar, no salt. Trying to eat better and exercising properly with cardiovascular and weight training."
He is convinced that this early training saved his life. "One of the reasons I survived the heart attack was that I was in better shape than most," he says. "Two weeks after the heart attack I was running on the treadmill."
Key for Pelrine, he says, is the variety that makes exercising four or five times a week more interesting. In between the twice-weekly modern dance classes that he takes through the Harvard Health and Fitness program, he swims, runs, and lifts weights. Lunch hours often find him at Malkin Athletic Center or at Blodgett Pool, while the after-work dance classes break up his routine. "You can't do just one thing. That targets only part of the body," he says.
His one indulgence, he says, is chocolate. "I have choc-attacks at work," he reports. "But I don't get carried away." As a father of four, Pelrine has extra motivation to beat his family history. "I'm always concerned about my heart now," he says. "I don't let that rule my life, but it's always there."
Sometimes our newly raised consciousness includes awareness of the world we work in. For Janet Echelman '87, focusing on health and fitness meant reevaluating her studio habits. The 31-year-old artist and sculptor occasionally works with hazardous materials, and only in the last few years has she taken proper precautions.
"Ten years ago I felt somewhat immortal," says Echelman, who is artist in residence at Adams House. "But I'm going to be an artist throughout my life and exposure to materials is cumulative, so I'm now much more aware of safety precautions, like providing proper ventilation and not exposing myself to toxic materials."
For Echelman, the change came when she hit 30 and "started to think in a long-term perspective." Practically, that means wearing a mask or respirator while using certain chemicals or soldering metal sculpture. Outside work, her new health focus has led to some beneficial fitness habits. "I don't think I used to care about regular exercise," she reports. Now she goes for long walks along the Charles and swims four times a week. "It makes me feel good," she says. "I used to have back pain, and I don't when I swim."
Not everyone is shaping up for a fitter life, of course. From her vantage point as a founder of the Boston Women's Health Book Collective, Judy Norsigian '70 observes that the concept of "being healthy and fit as an end in itself" may still be limited primarily to well-educated communities. She also notes that many people, women in particular, are bombarded by so much health and medical information that they often end up confused or misinformed. Norsigian particularly warns consumers to check their sources. Many seemingly scientific studies, especially those published on the World Wide Web (which has little or no editorial supervision), are funded by pharmaceutical companies that have an interest in pushing certain drugs, she warns. Reading thoroughly--and checking to make sure that the "study" comes from a reputable research group or medical school--can save both unnecessary expense and overmedication.
But if specific information about drugs or treatment options may be confusing, and occasionally misleading, general news about staying healthier longer does seem to be sinking in. Despite her concerns, Norsigian, coauthor of the forthcoming Our Bodies, Ourselves for the New Century (scheduled for publication in May 1998), says that some of the more useful information, particularly about the need for regular exercise, is getting around. The Nurses' Health Study sees a clear connection between regular exercise and a decline in colon cancer in women, for example, and related studies have focused on the ability of weight-bearing exercise to ward off the bone-density loss that can cause osteoporosis in postmenopausal women.
"I do think there's more awareness of the need for physical activity," she says. "One of the things we've noticed is women combining some sort of physical activity with social activity, like taking a brisk walk with a friend. We've been encouraging this."
She could be talking about helen citron Boodman. Now 70, Citron Boodman turns her morning two-mile walk into a social outing by taking it in the company of a neighbor. The Harvard University Art Museums docent augments these walks with yoga and weight training. "All of this takes up so much time," she laments. "But it pays off in the way I feel."
Citron Boodman's exercise regime, along with a return to a healthier diet heavy in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, is a relatively recent development, she says. "I never was into the upkeep," reports the former painter and printmaker. "I practically didn't move until I was 50." That's when the beginnings of osteoarthritis served to spur her into action, specifically into aerobic dance classes. Twenty years later, she's still dancing. "It changes my state of mind," she says. "I'm more serene."
Such quality of life, say all the experts, is reason enough to care for our health.
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