Wellness: You’re On Your Own

Drowning In A Sea Of Poor Health Advice

It’s A Family Affair

I was 62 in May. It’s documented elsewhere, but it feels like a golden time of life for me. Health and wellness is high on the agenda. Obviously I’m in quarter four of the game and the awareness of the clock ticking has clambered into my consciousness. Not just how much time left, but how much time lived in a quality way. It’s reasonable to expect more than twenty years. But for me twenty productive and enjoyable years is the aim.

The issue is exacerbated for me given the less than stellar health record of my family. My mother died early from a raft of cardiovascular related issues and her mother died in her sixties from a stroke. My father died in his early seventies from a heart attack, his father the same. Issues such as smoking and obesity played a role, for sure. But nevertheless the genetic grim reaper is hanging around in the background for me.

I try to do the right thing. I’ve never smoked. I have tried to exercise on and off for most of my adult life. Mostly on and especially in the last dozen years when I rediscovered my love for cycling. I gave up alcohol completely a year ago. Wellness has forced its way high up my lifestyle agenda.

I do struggle with weight, you see several generations of my family and it’s clear why. As busy life makes it tougher. I dropped a lot of weight a couple of years ago by using a low carb, high fat diet. I drifted up 4kgs again this year, mainly because my bike remained firmly in the house and not on the road. But the issue is manageable and the motivation is high.

Time To Gather Health Data

I’m an odd mix of someone who looks like everything is done by gut feel and instinct, while actually a lot of data sits in my head. It’s somewhat of an Instagram meme of a statement, but I believe if you can measure it, you can improve it. I’ve set out with a vengeance to measure health and wellness in recent months. I’ve improved as a result. The issue arises when I try to seek information in order to improve further.

There’s a world of good information, bad information, propaganda and plain bullshit out there in the age of seamless digital shouting at each other. We need to be careful. First, I’ll describe my attempts to establish what my health status really is. Then get into trying to establish how I kick it on further.

A very good doctor told me a man of my age should do four things to deal with the biggest risks. Get an annual prostate check. Have an annual skin cancer check. Look at the delights of a colonoscopy every five years and; have an annual ECG test for the heart and a CT scan each five years. “Do all of that, eat one pizza a week and not three pizzas. Live a good life.” A pretty clear wellness agenda for me.

I’ve done all of the above. The skin cancer one forced my hand a bit, I had a basal cell carcinoma removed a year ago and have just had the first annual check.

And Some More Data

I have an annual medical and it usually tells me all is well and that my cholesterol is marginally high. As a result of the latter, plus the family track record of dropping dead from heart attacks, I’ve been on a statin for a number of years. I did it again this week and the numbers were very good. In fact my blood pressure was 103/58 which is ridiculously low.

Discussing it with the doctor, we thought that a reasonable level of fitness and banishing alcohol use had improved that number. He did comment that my focus on wellness was commendable. He sighed a little and wondered aloud what the reduction of burden on the NHS would be if more people focused. That’s not me humble bragging as an aside, I was sitting opposite a guy who had a touch of frustration at the absence of self care by many people.

I wanted to go further this year and know more about my heart. Was I walking around with a hand grenade inside me? I decided on a CT scan in a facility with a machine with a very low radiation dose. In this case, the radiation equivalent to what I would collect just going about my everyday life for a year. This gave me a calcium score of 24. Definite mild plaque. Possible artery narrowing.

So I underwent a further scan two days later, this time with iodine injected into my system, in order a full 3D image of the inside of the arteries could be assessed. This came out with positive news, there is mild plaque in two arteries but no narrowing of any sort. The rest of the arteries clear. For my age and family history, this was regarded as a win. The precaution was to up my statin dose.

What To Do With Your Wellness Data?

With all the four previously mentioned health and wellness screening areas dealt with, I felt good. So now my task, having a lot of hard data in front of me, was to see what I could adjust in my lifestyle to maintain and possibly improve health and potential longevity further. I say potential, because I’m on an insurance actuary’s chart like everyone else, who knows what tomorrow brings.

Various consultants and doctors had summed it up as: lose three kilograms, take a statin and lose dose aspirin every day for the next fifty years. That’s it. Very good consultants as an aside, regarded as some of the best in their field.

I was already on the three kilogram and cardiac health project through exercise and working with two very good coaches, an endurance exercise specialist and a strength and mobility specialist.

The Labyrinth World Of Diet

Diet is a key interest to me, given a life long yo-yo weight trajectory. I had used the LCHF diet to successfully remove eight kgs a couple of years ago. It wasn’t really a sustainable diet for me and I’m a fanatical meat eater. But even I could only stomach meat, eggs, cheese, yoghurt, greens for so long. Ten months to be exact. Interestingly the weight fell off quickly and then for months there was no further progress.

More recently I tried intermittent fasting, but with limited success. The limited success due to boredom. I enjoy eating. Waiting sixteen hours to eat again just bored me in the end. No I’m not a titan of Silicon Valley who sees time spent eating as time lost in conquering the digital world.

Low Carb Ain’t Easy

It’s very difficult to eat high fat and low carb for month after month after month. I love to eat a 700-gram bone in ribeye. I love a four egg cheese omelette. Bacon and sausage? Bring it on. But after a while, it wears off. I know there’s a guy on my Twitter feed right now eating three pounds of steak for lunch, never having eaten anything green since the age of six. Or something something.

Looking back at both the LCHF and intermittent experiments. Successful in the former, as I achieved the target weight loss. In both cases, the data told me that I ate 10-15% fewer calories each day due to either protein-induced satiety or missing a meal. Give me all the arguments about rewiring my metabolism and those other lines of argument, but essentially fewer calories went into my mouth. Wellness improved by eating a little less.

Take Your Pick

I always like to look for an advantage, it’s just my curious nature. A reasonably good bill of health and some comfort on the cardiovascular health front. Carry on. No, not me. I started to research what I could do to help my overall wellness a little more. Good old Dr Google will take you out of your conventional comfort zone in seconds.

I thought it might make sense to look for a book on what dietary interventions might help me. Page one on the search gave me: a vegan diet; a carnivore diet; a low carb high-fat diet; something called the Pioppi diet; a celery juice diet; Mediterranean diet; and low cholesterol diet. My favourite was called “The How Not To Die Cookbook” – getting to the point marketing 101 with that one. I could go on, that was a selection and there were more avenues to explore. I didn’t see a book that said “eat a balanced diet in moderation” because that’s too mainstream.

Now Take Your Medicine

My next port of call was to look at statins. I’m on a statin as advised a few years ago by a top cardiovascular consultant with expertise in the area. The consultant I saw last week was very eminent too and told me to carry on with the statin and consider adding a low dose aspirin. I asked about the side effects and the controversial status of the drug in some quarters. The responses accepted that side effects can be seen. I haven’t seen any. I do know someone who had muscle pain and adopted a different format. With regard to efficacy, both experts pointed to countless clinical trials and studies.

My next action was to look at Dr Google’s widely available dispensary of gold plated information once more. I’m a schmuck apparently. Sucked in by the profit crazy pharmaceutical industry. I’m using a drug to lower cholesterol and cholesterol isn’t a problem. I’m going to suffer muscle pains, get dementia, increase my risk of disease. The worrying part of all this is some commentators are medical professionals and professors. I’m an innocent and if a doctor or professor speaks, I tend to listen. By now my head was spinning. Who to believe?

Diet And/Or Exercise?

Stepping back to nutrition, I looked at the LCHF diet once more. It somehow seemed counter-intuitive, that eating a low high fat diet and nothing in the way of carbohydrate would improve my health. When I lost weight with this diet before, my triglycerides improved a little as did my total cholesterol. But there’s a good case to say just the weight loss would have delivered this. It occurred to me that palaeolithic man didn’t live very long, maybe to thirty. Of course, a hamburger only eating guy had done analysis and removed all the infant deaths and deaths by being scooped up by a swooping Teratornis. Somewhere between forty and sixty was a reasonable lifespan he suggested. Whenever rational argument for the benefit of modern medicine gets made, someone else out there in the digital ether is ready to temper any bullishness about living forever.

My final port of call was exercise. Everyone agrees exercise helps health. Reduces obesity, lowers risk of diabetes, improves cardiovascular health, etc. So all good. Not so fast. A book and a series of articles informed me that pushing too hard into endurance sport has serious risks to heart health. I give up. I don’t really, I just wanted to express my frustration by this point.

The case for exercise helping health is strong and I don’t think there’s a lot of pushback there. Start doing ultramarathons and the like and you might see some increase in risk. That level of training is never going to trouble me, so I’m ok.

Make A Health Decision And Own It

As to the rest of it, we all need to make an informed decision on our personal wellness. Time and time again people exhort us to take back control and make an informed decision on our own health. We only have one body and one life, so it’s important to think carefully and then choose a course of action. The small flaw in this some of the people doing the exhorting are self-appointed experts with their own N=1 proof and a gang of mates on Twitter who all shout loudly about the institutionalised corruption of the healthcare industry.

I’m known for experimenting with a lot of aspects of my interests and will tend towards trying something new or taking a reasonable risk. In this case, I’m going with the people with extensive training and experience and will take my statin. What a cop-out I am. I’m going to eat a rounded diet with a balance of food groups.

I’m not going to feature on the cover of Caveman Quarterly; but I’ll still be a regular at the local steakhouse. I’m going to exercise at least four times a week. That’s my plan. Weight of evidence, accepting there is no secret. There’s an undercurrent of our human fear of death and people forming groups and helping soothe each other’s fears. But the bottom line is none of these fads have any longevity that can produce any proof any particular thesis works. Imagine basking in the warm glow of a Facebook LCHF group and finding out all too late it doesn’t work.

Wellness – Good Luck

Read all the available data. Even some of the flat earth stuff. Understand all the points of view. Then you know the full extent of the spectrum of views. Then make your choice. There is no black and white, like most things in life, including life itself. I would bet you will end up somewhere towards the middle of the bell curve. Good luck, whatever your choice. I hope your wellness improves, whatever your choice. Good luck to all of us.

Also published on Medium.

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