The quest for a simple and sustainable makeover: A challenge for 2013

It’s that time of year again… January and we all know what that means.  Time for the book of New Year’s resolutions!  Start a new hobby?  Read at least another 10 books a year?  Spend more time with the grandchildren? Tidy the garden?  It’s all about setting an intention and an expression of goals for the immediate future and that’s an important and necessary undertaking. However, the reality is that most New Year’s resolutions are ditched by mid-year. The reason is that the resolutions we often make are too radical and are therefore not sustainable.

I would suggest that when it comes to setting your New Year’s resolution this year, you target your own health and lifestyle!  Furthermore what you want is a sustainable lifestyle change and not a radical unsustainable intervention.  This three step plan will help you towards a healthier, happier year.  The best part of this plan is that I know that it works.  This is the same plan that I tried myself just over a year ago and am still living by. (See my makeover results at the end of this article).

Step 1: The Exercise

This is a great place to start because your exercise habits affect every one of the other
lifestyle factors below.  So, I am going to make a few assumptions here: Firstly, I am going to assume that you are presently doing very little!  Secondly, I am going to assume that you are essentially healthy.  Having said that, it is always a good idea to see your doctor before changing your exercise habit because exercise does impose a (good) stress on the body’s physiology and can reveal any weak link in the chain.  Any which way you look at it, it is better for you to be exercising than being a couch potato.

So where to start?  Walking is an excellent starting point!  If you are coming off a base of little activity build this up very slowly.  Unfortunately too many people start off exercising too quickly and try to do too much.  This can too often result in injury, which is not necessary.  I would suggest trying the beginning-walking programme shown below.  This will gradually build your tolerance and should help you avoid injury.  Should you have a skeletal problem that does not allow walking or prefer another mode of exercise, then you can substitute swimming for the walking.  The goal is to gradually build up to a minimum of 30 minutes of activity most days of the week.  Remember you should exercise at an intensity that makes you sweat but you should always be able to talk to the person exercising next to you!  And while you are at it, try build walking into all you do in a day – try take the stairs instead of the lift or escalator and try to minimize the amount of time you spend sitting.

I have included a beginners walker’s training programme at the end of this article.

After completing this beginning exercise programme it would be a good idea to have a
session with a biokineticist to design a more comprehensive and varied exercise programme that incorporates a resistance component (some weights or bands), some core training (to prevent lower back pain) and some flexibility training.

Step 2: The Diet

We are indeed what we eat, and I had to learn this the hard way.  I had been gaining an extra kilo a year which “crept” up on me from years 35 – 45!  The scary thing is that I never considered myself overweight until I now look at photos of myself and realize the truth.  (See makeover pictures at the end of the article).  However, there are some basic principles that I found certainly worked for me.  Before you begin, decide if you really do need to lose weight or change your diet.  If in doubt consult your doctor.  If you do need to reduce your weight, the two considerations are quality and quantity of food.  Let’s deal with the quantity issue first!  Generally speaking, we tend to eat too much!  One of the most powerful anti-aging interventions is to cut our daily total calorie intake by 20%.  You can achieve this simply by decreasing your portion size by a quarter to a fifth of the portion size you normally take.  Do this and there is a very good chance that you will effectively lose weight.

The second issue is quality of food or, what to leave out or reduce.  I targeted the carbohydrates and found this incredibly effective.  A bit more detail?  These are the basic dietary steps I took:

  • Limit bread or pastry (if you do eat bread make it whole grain)
  • Limit refined sugar (as little as possible)
  • Limit potato
  • Limit pasta
  • Limit rice (if you do eat rice make it brown)
  • Limit fruit juices/dried fruit.
  • When you do eat fruits – berry varieties are preferable (lots of fibre)
  • Liberal salads and non-starch vegetables, avo and nuts
  • Remember that if you choose to increase your meat intake to eat fish, free range chicken and free range red meat in that order of preference
  • Keep well hydrated
  • If constipated take 1 tablespoon psyllium husks in water each day.

The second important point of the discussion on diet is individuality.  The optimal diet is certainly not the same for every individual, and it is always a good idea to consult with a dietitian should you require help with your diet.

Step 3: The Mind & Spiritual Quiet Time

As we always tend to first target our food and our bodies in any makeover, we tend to ignore
one of the most important things that we can do – paying attention to our spiritual selves, our quiet time.  There are many ways of doing this and the principle of individuality is as important
here as it is regarding diet or exercise.  Many people find their effective quiet time in the form of prayer, meditation, yoga, martial arts, music, dance or even sitting quietly watching the birds or being in nature.  Whatever you do, you need to build up to at least 30 minutes of quiet time most days of the week.  The principle here is (similar to exercise) baby steps!  What I found useful is
sitting quietly in a comfortable surrounding, closing my eyes and focusing on my breathing, paying attention to the feeling of the in-breath and out-breath.  Each time I noticed my mind drifting off I would bring my attention back to my breathing again.  I did this for only five minutes a day or the first two weeks, ten minutes a day for the second two weeks and then five
minutes longer a day each week thereafter, until I was able to sit in silence for half an hour. However, this is more difficult to do than it seems!  Many of my patients find it most beneficial to do an eight week mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) course where the techniques are taught in a supervised environment.

For a list of mindfulness resources and programmes please visit

There are some very important principles to consider when looking at a lifestyle makeover:

Firstly, there is no magic bullet!  Don’t put your faith in supplements, lotions, potions or miracle cures.  Work with holistic general principles that have been well researched.  Secondly,
changes happen slowly.  Allow three months to see the results.  However, many folk will start noticing changes in mind and body after six weeks.  Finally, don’t beat yourself up if you stray
from the path!  On occasion, I join my friends for a pizza or have a burger with my kids and I certainly don’t deny myself in life….

Remember a pilot of a plane is flying off-target a significant percentage of the time and it takes small but frequent corrections to get the plane to land on target at the correct airport!  Aim to be on target 80% of the time and you will see rewards… good luck and good health!

Table 1. The beginning walker’s training programme for the first 12 weeks.  Indicated is the number of minutes to walk each day.  A dash indicates a rest day.

 Day   Week 1    Week 2   Week 3   Week 4   Week 5  Week 6
1 20 min 20 20 10
2 20 20 20 20 25
3 20
4 20 20 20 20 20
5 20 10
6 20 20 20 20 20
7 20 10
Day  Week 7  Week 8  Week 9  Week 10   Week 11    Week 12  
1 10 10 15 10 30 30
2 20 25 25 30 30 30
3 20
4 20 25 30 30 30
5 25
6 20 25 30 30 30
7 25 30

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