The Facts About Physical Health
Good physical health is central to happiness and well-being. Healthy people are generally more productive and live longer. An individual in good physical health has a body that works the way it was designed to function.
For a healthy life, you need to eat a well-balanced diet, get plenty of physical exercise and effectively manage stress, all with the added goal of maintaining the body in ways that reduce the possibility of disease. Here's an overview of how diet, exercise and stress affect health, as well as guidelines for living a healthier life.
How diet affects health
Eating nutritious food is essential to good health. Food fuels the brain and the body. Children need to eat a healthy diet so they can grow and develop properly. The body needs nutrients, minerals and vitamins to function properly, and these come from eating a variety of healthy foods.
Healthy eating also decreases the risk of chronic diseases such as obesity. Adults who eat healthy foods tend to live longer because they reduce their risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Eating a well-balanced diet can help people with chronic diseases manage their symptoms as well as prevent further complications.
The diet of many Americans is high in saturated fats, trans fats, sugar and foods that are highly processed, and about 40 percent of the U.S. adult population is obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Diseases associated with obesity include high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis, respiratory problems and certain cancers. People who eat whole foods such as fruits and vegetables, lean meats, fish, nuts, whole grains and legumes have a lower chance of developing chronic diseases.
Consuming too much sodium, for example, can put you at risk of high blood pressure, and eating too much sugar increases the risk of weight gain. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends reducing salt intake to less than one teaspoon per day. Sugar intake should be reduced to less than 10 percent of total caloric intake, which is roughly 10 teaspoons a day for an adult. You can reduce your sugar intake by limiting sweets and sodas.
Cardiovascular disease is a good example of how a poor diet can lead to poor health. Studies have shown that the development of heart disease can be triggered by a number of factors. Each of the following factors can be influenced by nutrition:
High homocysteine level: Homocysteine is a type of amino acid that is made when proteins are broken down. Elevated homocysteine, known as hyperhomocysteinemia, can lead to arterial damage and blood clots. If you have a high homocysteine level, you might not be getting enough B vitamins from your diet.
Oxidative stress: This is an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body. A diet high in sugar and fat may contribute to free-radical production. Oxidative stress can also contribute to diabetes, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and high blood pressure.
Elevated cholesterol: High cholesterol raises the risk of heart disease. The body needs some cholesterol to function properly, but if you have too much, it can stick to the walls of your arteries and narrow or block them. This puts you at risk for a heart attack. Unhealthy foods that are high in cholesterol include fried foods, processed meats, fast food and desserts such as cookies and cakes.
Hypertension: Eating a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and nuts can help you to manage hypertension (high blood pressure).
In addition to being at risk for heart disease, people who do not eat a healthy diet and are overweight have a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. This is a long-term and sometimes fatal medical condition. It requires regular monitoring of the body's blood-sugar levels. People with diabetes do not properly produce or process insulin, a hormone that regulates the amount of glucose (a simple sugar) in the blood.
A study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that the foods you eat can impact your risk of dying from heart disease, type 2 diabetes or stroke. The researchers found that the risk of death from these diseases was greater for people who consumed large quantities of sugary beverages, sodium, processed meat and red meat. The risk of dying was also higher for people who did not consume enough fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats from seafood. In 2012, 45 percent of deaths from heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke were linked to too much or not enough of these foods, according to the NIH study.
How exercise affects health
Exercise is essential to good health and can even help you live longer. The benefits of physical activity are immediate: Studies show that right after moderate physical activity, children may experience improved cognitive function, and adults may experience reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.
People who exercise regularly are generally better prepared to prevent and manage a number of health problems, including stroke, type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, heart attack, high cholesterol, anxiety, depression, arthritis and some cancers.
You don't have to set up a challenging workout; just being active for at least 30 minutes five times a week is a great start.
An added benefit: Regular exercise will help you sleep better and maintain your thinking and judgment skills as you get older. Exercise stimulates your body to release chemicals and proteins that improve brain function.
A sedentary lifestyle, on the other hand, is one of the main causes of obesity. If weight loss is a goal, remember that regular exercise will help by supporting metabolism and burning calories, as well as adding muscle mass and boosting your endurance. By delivering oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, exercise increases the efficiency of the cardiovascular system. And when your heart health improves, you have more energy throughout the day.
Sexual health is another area improved by a regular workout. Exercise can reduce the risk of erectile dysfunction (ED), the inability to get and maintain an erection during sex. Exercise helps open the arteries, which increases blood flow to the penis.
Men who are active might experience fewer symptoms of an enlarged prostate, a condition known as benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH). Men with this condition typically have to urinate frequently. More severe symptoms include low sex drive and difficulty maintaining an erection. Some studies have found that men who exercise each week have higher sperm counts than sedentary men.
For women, a moderate to intense workout affects hormone levels, heart rate and blood pressure, and can lead to increased blood flow to the vagina as well as arousal.
Research indicates that exercise can help relieve issues such as vaginal dryness and hot flashes, common symptoms associated with menopause. Since exercise increases blood flow to the genital region, menopausal women can benefit from less dryness and a more comfortable sexual experience.
How stress affects health
Stress can occur when a change in the environment requires the body to adjust in response. Simply put, stress is our reaction to challenging situations. The body reacts to stress physically, mentally and emotionally. Stress can be good (eustress) because it keeps us alert to dangers. Stress becomes bad (distress) when we face frequent challenges without relief.
Stress can be the result of, and the cause of, poor health. Health issues can make everyday tasks more challenging and create more stress. Stress can exacerbate health issues, even turning minor health conditions into serious ones.
When stress begins to interfere with your life long-term, it becomes especially dangerous. The longer stress lasts, the worse it is for your physical and mental health.
Long-term activation of the body's stress-response system, as well as prolonged exposure to stress hormones, may place you at risk for health issues. The list of common physical, emotional and behavioral effects of stress is long and includes headache, muscle tension, chest pain, fatigue, lowered sex drive, upset stomach, weight gain, anxiety, insomnia, lack of motivation, irritability, depression, panic attacks, substance abuse and social withdrawal.
Everyone handles stress differently, and the symptoms vary. What causes stress in one person may not have any effect on someone else. If you are stressed out and you feel it's taking a toll on your health, speak with your doctor. Many stress symptoms can be signs of serious health issues. A doctor can evaluate your symptoms and determine which are caused by stress and which are due to other conditions.
Exercise is one of the best ways to manage stress. Go for a walk. Play a favorite sport. Here are some other ways to reduce stress:
- Count to 10 before you act.
- Use affirmations and positive self-talk.
- Meditate, pray or practice yoga.
- Take long, slow, deep breaths.
- Listen to relaxing music.
- Walk away from the situation and return to it after you've calmed down.
- Talk to a friend.
A combination of high stress, sedentary lifestyle and poor diet has been largely attributed for the rise in obesity and associated diseases over the past two decades in the United States. You can make a difference in your physical health and well-being with small, daily lifestyle changes. If you have questions about exercise, nutrition, stress and other health topics, talk with your family doctor. They may refer you to a specialist, such as a dietitian, physical therapist or counselor, who can better serve your needs and help you meet your health goals.