Habits for a Healthier Life

Between TV appearances, and magazine and newspaper interviews, Dr. Mehmet Oz consults patients and performs more than 200 surgical procedures each year. This cardiothoracic surgeon has published more than 400 articles for consumer and medical publications and is the co-author of the best-selling YOU book series. That’s all in addition to being a professor and vice chairman of surgery at Columbia University, director of the Cardiovascular Institute, as well as director of the Complementary Medicine Program at New York Presbyterian Hospital. It’s no wonder Time magazine listed Oz as one of the world’s most influential people and Oprah Winfrey has dubbed him “America’s Doctor.”

Clearly, this surgeon, entrepreneur, husband and father leads a busy life. He knows success doesn’t come without significant effort and a fair amount of stress. But stress is something Oz can handle, and it’s one of the “major agers” he is passionate about helping people understand. More than how to just survive stress, Oz teaches people how to offset its aging effects by developing healthy physical, mental, lifestyle and even fiscal habits.

“We are designed to withstand stress; it’s a natural part of life,” Oz says. “When you have no stress, you’re almost certainly dead already.” Any change to the body’s natural balance creates stress, but not all stress is bad. For example, exercise initiates change within the body: faster pulse, increased oxygen intake, the release of endorphins and other beneficial chemicals. Episodic stress, like exercise, is good for the system and can result in lower blood pressure and a healthier body. But in today’s fast-paced culture, Americans often fall victim to the downside of stress.

“The chronic, unrelenting stress, which is so typical of the modern life, is what we have trouble with because it doesn’t allow our system to reset itself,” Oz says. Unlike exercise, which revs the body’s engine and then allows it to return to its natural rhythm, ongoing stress keeps the body in a state of tension. This can be unhealthy for a number of reasons, but perhaps one of the most detrimental effects is aging.

Ongoing stress—the constant pressure of deadlines, politics at work, a dripping faucet, financial problems— makes people feel as if they’re perpetually behind, that they no longer have control. “That’s what’s behind the stress that’s really detrimental to us,” Oz says. “As soon as you’re no longer in control of your destiny—you’re not running after the prey but being run after—the benefi ts of stress begin to shift away from you."

The problem is not stress itself, but an individual’s reaction to it. Here’s the good news: While it’s impossible (and undesirable) to control everything and everyone around you, one thing you can always control is your reaction. By developing a game plan for life, you’re more likely to react positively and at least mitigate the negative effects of stress.


Making Exercise Routine

Becoming active is one of the best things a person can do to improve overall health. And before you say it, Oz doesn’t allow the “I’m too busy” excuse.

“You only have to work out for half an hour a day,” he says, and walking at a good, heart-pumping pace is a huge step in the right direction. “Do it by incorporating exercise into your job, take the stairs from one meeting to the next. Develop a routine so you’re not ‘working out,’ but it’s just part of your day. It’s the small things that make a big difference.”

Oz points out that Manhattan has a lower incidence of obesity than many cities because walking is part of the daily routine. “It’s too expensive to drive a car, so you walk. I biked from New Jersey into the city for more than a decade when I first came to New York,” Oz says, and exercise was only one of the benefits. “I did it in part because I didn’t have a car, but the main reason was I was by myself—no one could talk to me. I had an hour by myself when it was peaceful and I would come across the bridge and there was no traffic, no one was controlling my destiny but me. There’s a lot to be said for that. “In most parts of the country, you can’t walk [to work]. So we have to build communities long term that allow people to walk,” he says. “In the meantime, you’ve got to create your own existence.”


Eating Healthy

What goes into the body is also critically important. For Oz, a simple rule is: “Your diet should be rich in foods that come out of the ground looking the way they look when you eat them.” Natural, whole foods are the key to a nutrient-packed, healthy diet. Fresh produce, 100 percent whole-grain breads, 100 percent juice are all good options. When shopping, Oz says, “Look at food labels. Avoid trans-fats, which are hydrogenated oils; saturated fats, which are fats that are solid at room temperature; and simple carbohydrates, which on a food label look like simple sugar, alcohol sugars and molasses. You want to reduce the amount of these in your diet.”

Good health prepares the body to deal with stressful situations and it begins with healthy physical habits. But Oz says poor diet and lack of exercise aren’t detrimental only to adults. “If you look at the increased incidence of obesity in this country, it’s doubling among adults but it’s tripling among kids,” he says. “This is not just a problem we ought to get around to when we can. You can’t have a wealthy society if you’re not a healthy society.”


Building a Support Network

Successful people know the power of surrounding themselves with positive people. But Oz points out that one’s social network can be the key to a longer life.

“Major life events that are stressful— divorce, bankruptcy or any major financial stress, litigation, getting fired or losing your job for any reason—these strip away, on average, about eight years from your life,” Oz says. “If you have a social network intact that can support you during these diffi cult times, you can cut away three-fourths of the aging. So from the pure aging perspective, you can go from losing eight years for bankruptcy to losing two years of life. It’s still a detriment, it’s not good for you, but you can cope.”

In the parts of the world where people have the greatest life expectancy, relationships take priority. “People who are lonely do not do well long term,” Oz says. “Which is why active maintenance in friendships and networking, the role of the family, keeping people you love and who love you near you are very important drivers of healthy aging.”

One of the biggest challenges people have is the inability to live in the moment; “They don’t enjoy the now,” Oz says. “When you think about it, worry, fear, all the big stressful events are primarily issues of past or future; very few of them are issues of now. Meditation is one of the ways to put you in the moment. By getting into the moment you have probably the best stress-reduction technique of all.

“You start with breathing, but ultimately you control heart rate, brain wave function; you begin to control how your body responds to everything—good and bad. And that’s an important insight to know you can control the body to that degree.”


A Positive Outlook

Surrounding yourself with a supportive network and learning to live in the moment are part of the habit of optimism. “Your level of optimism and pessimism directly impacts how you cope with stress,” Oz says. Your outlook on life can also affect your physical health. The physical effects of attitude are best measured in illness. “When you compare pessimistic to optimistic people facing similar diagnosis, the infection rates shift, survival rates shift,” he says. “We think there’s a connection between mood and immune cell function.”

He explains the connection this way: “If you feel stressed and attacked and you’re pessimistic, you send different signals to immune cells which suppress helper T cells. Then your T-cell function, which would normally enhance your ability to withstand infection, starts to decline so you become more prone to infections. You also stimulate a maladaptive response in your immune system, which can create too many antibodies, and that can increase the risks of thrombosis, blood vessel spasms and the like.”

Another way to think of the effects of stress is to think of your body as being on an “autopilot system,” Oz says. “That auto-pilot system is supposed to be able to undulate—to be able to go back and forth between being revved up and not. But if you’re pessimistic, that autopilot system can fi x itself in a very ‘on’ position. It never turns off because you feel attacked. You magnify the stressful state rather than mitigating it.”

By maintaining an optimistic view of life—even during stressful situations—you give your body the chance to breathe, to recuperate. One of the ways to develop and maintain a positive attitude is to live with passion. “You have to have passion in life—you have to have a reason to keep your heart beating,” Oz says. “Pursue what you love in life.”


Habits for a Wealthy Life

It may seem strange for a doctor to be concerned about someone’s financial status. But on his radio show, Oz devotes serious airtime to credit, debt and money discussions. As long as insurance covers the bills, why would a doctor care about your financial well-being? Because money—specifically a lack of money—can contribute to stress, illness and aging. Oz, who earned an MBA from the Wharton School of Business while attending the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, sees a significant correlation between finances and health. “Four of the major causes of illness are driven by bankruptcy,” he says.

“And for personal bankruptcy, illness is by far the No. 1 cause. The reason bankruptcy is such a problem for us is that we lose the locus of control. And when you don’t have confi dence that life is going to work out for you—that you actually have some element of control over what’s going to happen in that life—you begin to develop chronic issues like hypertension, obesity.”

When hard times hit, maintaining a sense of control helps reduce stress and its effects. That’s why having a strong social network of friends and family who offer mental and even financial support is beneficial. It’s also why having an emergency fund is important. Though he isn’t a financial advisor, Oz gladly shares a simple tip he follows: Put aside 10 percent of what you earn. “I tithe myself,” he says. “This was true when I was making $29,000 a year as an intern, and it’s true with my money now. Ten percent of what I earn, I don’t touch. It’s as though I did not earn that money. I don’t actually put it aside for a rainy day. I’m putting it aside because that buys me peace of mind.”

Even if he never spends it, he says the peace of mind it gives him is worth saving that money. Peace of mind… it goes back to having a sense of control, which lowers stress levels, which reduces the likelihood of developing stress-related illnesses. While you can’t predict the future, you can prepare for it. By making an investment in your health with exercise and good eating habits, developing good mental habits, maintaining positive relationships and making wise financial decisions, you can offset the effects of stress and live a longer, healthier and happier life.


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