If You Value Your Life, Why Not Improve Your Health?

Emerson Quote: "The First Wealth is Health"When I got married, I knew nothing about nutrition, or how to cook. I had been given all kinds of kitchen stuff at my wedding shower, but was clueless about what to do with it all.

Early Marriage Culture Shock

Our first apartment didn’t help. It was on the ground floor of an old two-story Victorian house. It had a small living room, one bedroom, a tiny bathroom, and a very large kitchen area, which was basically an empty room except for a small gas range, an old GE fridge, and a deep double sink of stained porcelain. There was a closet lined with shelves to be used as a pantry, and there were no counters. I lined up all my shower gifts on the linoleum floor, stared at them in a panic, and cried. In such a large room I had no space. And I had no idea how to set up a kitchen, much less cook in one.

I was clueless – and overwhelmed. I was in culture shock.

My husband drove us over to the nearest Goodwill store in our blue and white VW bus where we found our first items of furniture: an old drop leaf oak table, two mismatched wooden chairs, and a two-door, waist-high wooden cabinet with a top drawer and three shelves inside. We brought them back to our empty room of a kitchen. He refinished the table and chairs to a luster, and then he built a butcher-block top for the cabinet that would serve as my counter space. The finishing touch was a peace sign he painted in black in the lower right corner. (Yeah, we were sort of hippies back then.)

Nutrition Awareness Takes Over

Our first kitchen began to take shape – as did my first attempts at cooking. Though my mom was a first-generation Canadian-American brought up within Eastern European culinary traditions, she was more swayed into the “revolutionary” convenience of processed foods marketed by an emerging post-World War II food industry. I grew up with no idea how to cook a meal from scratch. So, in those first months of marriage, I relied on familiar boxes of Rice-a-Roni and Hamburger Helper for our dinners. As I said, I was clueless.

But I do remember quite clearly the tipping point that stirred what must have been a latent creative desire within me to cook more like my grandmother.

I had baked a yellow cake decorated with canned vanilla frosting, and had proudly set it on my much-loved butcher-block counter top. My husband ate a piece and said, “Delicious. You’re a good baker.” I thought about that long and hard. All I had done was empty the cake mix from a box into a bowl, whisk it with water and an egg, pour it into a cake pan and pop it into a preheated oven. How could he say I was a “good baker?” I really had nothing to do with the end result.

Cookbook CollectionI realized that to earn compliments for my cooking, I needed to really cook. So I began reading cookbooks, devouring them like bestseller novels, which led me to research nutrition, which led me to shy away from artificially processed foods. Reading food labels, buying organic as much as possible, and cooking from scratch became my passion.

For several years we ate vegetarian, much to my mom’s chagrin, and then, to keep the peace at holiday gatherings, we gave in and added back poultry and fish. It turns out we were basically following a Mediterranean diet before knowing there was a name for our healthy-eating lifestyle.

Good Food Defines a Way of Life

Once our two children came along, my focus on healthy eating took on even greater importance because I understood the strong connection whole food nutrition has on maintaining good health.

And, oddly, my self-taught exploration into health and nutrition got my mother interested in digging up old family recipes. It seemed like the better I got at cooking, so did she. When she died, I found her hand-written collection of recipe journals. They have become family treasures that some day will be passed on to her grandchildren who remember favorite dishes my mom made for them – delicious memories that are far better than mine growing up.

And now that my kids are adults, I know that they consciously continue to make wholesome food choices – and I’m proud of that.

Healthy eating is a way of life for my family. But, apparently it’s not that way for everyone.

Disease and Disability

I woke up to that fact in 2009, when I started writing for a Social Security disability advocacy group. Disability claims, specifically among baby boomers, were soaring so much so that there was a serious backlog of disability claims from people who could not work because of chronic health conditions.

While doing research in order to write about medical conditions that qualify for disability benefits, I found it so disheartening to learn that not only is chronic illness in boomers on the rise but conditions such as obesity and diabetes are becoming more prevalent in children. Nearly 12.7 million children are obese. And, in 2012, about 208,000 children under the age of 20 were diagnosed with diabetes.

I find these stats disturbing. And it’s getting worse.

According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “rates of chronic diseases —many of which are related to poor quality diet and physical inactivity — have increased.”

USDA Dietary Guidelines Quote

And, even more disturbing to me is this: “About half of all American adults have one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and overweight and obesity.”

Preventable Diet-related Disability – Why?

The guidelines go on to say that “higher intakes of vegetables and fruits consistently have been identified as characteristics of healthy eating patterns…” Yet, a USDA nutrition survey conducted from 2007-2010 found that 87 percent of Americans consume less than two and a half cups of veggies per day and 75 percent of Americans consume less than two cups of fruits per day.

Clearly, most Americans are not even coming close to meeting USDA’s recommendation of eating seven to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables a day – and it’s showing.

Serious Illness Can Strike Anyone

It was a strange twist of fate, when, after several years of writing stories about medical conditions and disability, I found myself a witness to a story that would devastate my own family – and most of all, my daughter – and I was powerless to do anything about it.

In April 2014, her otherwise strong and healthy husband died of leukemia at the age of 36, even Brown Bird Mandalaafter a successful bone marrow transplant. This ravaging blood cancer struck him, seemingly, out of the blue a year prior, while they were on tour performing as the popular music duo Brown Bird. Was the cause environmental from past years working as an electrician in a shipyard? Was it from a weak link in his DNA? We will never know.

But there is one thing I do know. Health should never ever be taken for granted. I find it hard to accept that so many Americans have allowed themselves to fall victim, unlike what happened to my son-in-law, to “preventable, diet-related chronic diseases” that are compromising quality of life.

I know I sound harsh, but if we don’t have our health, what else matters?

Good Nutrition Heals

I do believe that healing through nutrition can help reverse the costly epidemic of chronic health conditions that is gripping too many Americans regardless of age. In fact, the True Health Initiative, a “lifestyle as medicine” coalition of health experts, says that nearly 40 percent of Americans – that’s 130 million people – are sick with chronic diseases and that “the next generation will inherit a world where chronic disease and premature death are the norm, not the exception.”

Stats True Health Initiative

True Health Initiative

I don’t know about you, but I want to stay healthy. I want the people I love to stay healthy. And I want to do what I can to inspire healthy living in others I meet on this journey called life.

We Need to Eat More Fruits and Vegetables

I am not a trained nutritionist but I do believe we should be treating our bodies like finely tuned engines. Why not fuel our bodies with more fruits and vegetables if that’s what it takes to stay healthy? Regardless of how national nutrition guidelines have changed over the years, one recommendation has never changed. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables every day is essential to good health.

I truly believe that making simple lifestyle changes – a better diet; more physical exercise – can help people who have issues with their health feel better. And for those who are seemingly healthy, why not take steps to ensure they stay that way?

The Greek physician Hippocrates, called the “father of medicine,” said, “ If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.” He also said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

I think it’s time to take his ancient wisdom to heart.

By the way, we still have that old butcher-block cabinet. It’s been repurposed several times over the years, and is now sitting somewhere in the depths of our cluttered garage. I think it serves as storage for old paint cans. It’s one of those pieces of furniture that (sorry Marie Kondo) still “sparks joy.” And the peace sign hasn’t faded over time.

Eat More Fruits & Vegetables


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No One is Watching, So Get into the Zumba and Soar

Zumba Women

I am hooked on Zumba. I admit it. When I started taking Zumba classes just over a year ago, I didn’t know too much about this fitness program or what to expect.

What I had heard was that Zumba was very strenuous and kind of wild, and maybe even a little intimidating. So I started my initiation into Zumba with a low-impact class called Zumba Gold. At first I thought “gold” meant that the class was designed for Seniors, but my class included women of all ages, from millennials to baby boomers, with varying levels of fitness aptitude. I fit right in.

Wow! The Music

What grabbed me first was the music – a diverse, international blend of mostly Latin-based rhythms that was immediately uplifting and liberating. I live and breathe music. I’m one of those people who must have music playing in the background most of the time, so I was naturally attracted to this new-world blend of sounds that very literally made me want to get up and dance.

What a Workout

Of course, the point of Zumba is to move. It’s a high-impact, sweaty, cardio workout, but because I’m moving to this amazing music, it doesn’t feel like I’m exercising at all.

I like to mix up my routine with a combination of regular Zumba (the high-level version I thought I could never do), Zumba Gold, and Zumba Toning, where you use weighted shaker sticks to build up muscle tone. Then, once the music starts, I pulsate right into a different zone where I simply feel like I haven’t a care in the world.

There’s also a unique camaraderie with the other Zumba-loving women in my class – the ones who have also made their one-hour with Zumba a driving ritual for starting – or ending – as many days as their schedule can fit in. We don’t really know each other, but we know we’re having fun. We all share the same big Zumba smile.

The Health Boost

The best thing about Zumba – which is actually a made-up word that means absolutely nothing, but sounds like it does – is how we look and feel.  As we glide across the studio floor in perfect unison with the music and the instructor, we feel strong. We feel empowered. We feel healthy. We look awesome.

This was a gradual realization for me. So much so that, after doing Zumba for about six months, I was surprised when a friend said, “You look more fit and toned than I can ever remember.” I was having such a good time I hadn’t even noticed!

Another surprise happened this past summer while on vacation in New Hampshire. I was hiking up a mountain road I had hiked many times before but I could never make it all the way to the top. This time, I did reach the top with little effort, and with plenty of breath to spare. I was elated.

The big cool was when my daughter gave me a gift of a pair of skinny jeans one size smaller than I usually wear. “Oh come on, “ I said. “I doubt these will fit.” I was wrong. They were a perfect fit. Zumba – Yes!

I guess when you’re living in your own skin you don’t necessarily notice the subtle changes going on. At least, that’s how it’s been for me. My advice, if you decide to give Zumba a try, is to stick with it. You’ll burn fat, improve muscle tone, gain energy, improve cognition (you really have to think about those left and right steps) and you’ll feel great.

Fitness Success

I love Zumba, but apparently I’ve been late to the party.  Zumba Fitness® has been around for over 10 years, and is not only one of the most successful fitness programs around, it is a successful business model for entrepreneurs too.

In 2012, Inc. Magazine named Zumba Fitness the Company of the Year. It has its own brand of unique fitness swag that includes clothing, CDs, DVDs, and licensing packages to help instructors run their own Zumba business. And, according to the Zumba Web site, more than 14 million women and, yes, men, in 150 countries take Zumba classes.  Including me!

My Zumba instructor likes to say, “Dance like no one is watching.”  How liberating is that? It doesn’t matter if you’re not a natural-born dancer. Don’t make that an excuse. Just try it. Give it some time. Get into the zone. Think that it’s just you, the instructor, and the music. No one else is watching, after all. Get into the beat. Shake off the rest of the world – and soar.

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