The body's a temple, that's what we're told
I've treated this one like an old honky-tonk
Greasy cheeseburgers and cheap cigarettes
One day they'll get me if they ain't got me yet
Kenny Chesney, "Living in Fast Forward"
Mens sana in corpore sano. A healthy mind in a healthy body. Juvenal said that in Satire X when listing things people should want out of life. The Latin phrase is the motto of athletic organizations ranging from the Asociacion Atletica Argentinos Juniors to the Beale Gaelic Football Club in County Kerry, Ireland, and educational institutions ranging from the Kongsbakken videregående skole in Tromsø, Norway to the Dhaka Physical Education College in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Healthy body, healthy mind: everyone has always known it.
Why then do so few people have healthy bodies?
There are several rules to keep in mind when endeavoring to have a healthy body.
Rule one: Drink clean water. If you're dying of cholera or dysentery, you're not healthy. Over a billion people get diarrhea every year, and two to five million of them die. The easiest way to assure clean water to drink is to buy bottled water. The next easiest is to live somewhere with a decent municipal water system. Failing that, count on charity: water, The Water Project, water.org, and such like. As for quantity, drink as much as you need. The 'eight eight-ounce glasses' rule of thumb is bull, but if you're thirsty or your urine is yellow, you haven't been drinking enough water.
Rule two: Breathe clean air. The more air pollutants you're exposed to, the more likely it is that you'll contract respiratory disease. Support the Environmental Protection Agency or your local equivalent thereof, and if you live next door to a factory that spits smoke constantly, move. Also, avoid being around smokers whenever possible; secondhand tobacco smoke contains dozens of carcinogens.
Rule three: Keep yourself clean. Proper hygiene is necessary to prevent the spread of many illnesses—washing hands alone has saved hundreds of millions of lives. Brush and floss your teeth; gingivitis makes your gums easily hurt, and bad teeth are one of the most obvious markers of poverty.
Rule four: Eat clean food. Cholera is no longer a common food-borne illness, thank FSM, but Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. coli still abound. The symptoms of all three (fever, cramps, diarrhea) are unpleasant, and diarrhea, again, can kill. If you do not live somewhere with a Food and Drug Administration or equivalent, emigrate, or become a food safety expert.
Rule five: Eat enough food. If you're starving to death, you're not healthy. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization defines hunger as the consumption of fewer than 1800 calories a day. For comparison's sake, that's three Big Macs and a four-piece Chicken McNuggets. More than a billion people in 2009 failed to get that magic number of 1800 calories a day; these people are predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. To avoid undernutrition, live somewhere with a stable government; to avoid undernutrition in children under five (the most important time of life, nutritionally speaking, is conception to twenty-four months), live somewhere that values women. If you already do both of those and you're still hungry, patronize your local food bank; otherwise, rely on one of these charities.
Rule six: Eat enough protein. Ten percent of your daily caloric intake should be protein; significantly less for long enough and you're at risk of kwashiorkor, a disease primarily found among undernourished children. Protein from animal sources supplies all nine of the essential (that is, not synthesizable by the human body) amino acids. Protein from plant sources is invariably very low on at least one of the nine, usually lysine or methionine, but eating some grains and some legumes (corn and beans, rice and soy) will balance matters out; what one plant lacks, the other has in plenty. If you're relying on a food bank for your nutritional needs, don't; food banks are in perpetual need of foods containing lysine, such as animal protein, beans, and peas.
Rule seven: Eat enough fat and enough essential fatty acids. Fats are necessary to the diet because certain vitamins are only effective when dissolved in fats, because the body needs insulation against cold and against physical shocks, and to keep cells functioning smoothly. ω-3 and ω-6 fatty acids and the ratio between the two are important to nervous system function. Fats are found in everything, it seems. ω-3 fatty acids are found primarily in oil from cold water oily fish or from the algae those fish eat, and ω-6 fatty acids are found in basically anything with unsaturated fat. So make sure to eat fish once or twice a week, unless you're a vegetarian, in which case take algal-oil supplements, and eat enough unsaturated fat. But:
Rule eight: Don't eat too much fat. No more than ten percent of your daily caloric intake should come from fats, and those should be primarily non-hydrogenated monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, that is, oils instead of solid or spreadable fats, which are saturated fats and which put you at risk for cardiovascular disease. Also, the more fat you eat when you're getting enough calories from other sources, the more fat is stored against future need that may never come. I'm a Health at Every Size advocate, but the world in general is not. Doctors in particular, I keep being informed (trigger warning, swearing), are generally under the impression that for people over the arbitrary 'healthy' weight, losing weight cures all ills. So if you're eating fatty food, it might be better to stop or cut back. If you're eating fatty food only because it's cheaper, definitely stop.
Rule nine: Eat enough micronutrients. There's a laundry list of elements and compounds necessary in small quantities to the proper functioning of the human body. Sulfur and selenium, for example, are key to the manufacture of certain amino acids. Vitamin K is involved in making injuries stop bleeding. In general, the more varied your diet, especially with regards to fruit and vegetables, the less you have to worry about your micronutrient intake. Eat dark green leafy vegetables daily for assorted vitamins and minerals; eat citrus and tomato multiple times a week for other vitamins and minerals, especially vitamin C. Drink fortified milk for calcium and vitamin D. Use iodized salt for iodine and sodium, though if you're worried about eating too little sodium, either you have scary-low blood pressure or you don't eat estadounidense cuisine. If you can't afford a varied diet, take a daily multivitamin, but that is not the preferred option for multiple reasons, not least being, who wants to eat the same things all the time?
Rule ten: Eat enough carbohydrates. Simple sugars are the primary energy source for the body. Complex carbs are just strings of simple sugars. Whole grains are better than processed, again because of micronutrients, in this case thiamin, which is vital to the peripheral nervous system and the cardiovascular system and which is found in the part of the grain typically removed during processing. Don't worry about the added expense. Which brings us to:
Rule eleven: Don't stress. Work stress, relationship stress, money stress, lack-of-privilege-related stress, trauma-related stress—stop. Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out. Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out. As Kenny Chesney says, we're living on fast forward, and we need to rewind real slow. Stressing disturbs your sleep and your digestive system, gives you tense and aching muscles, and exhausts you, and that's just the physical symptoms. Take five every so often, fairly often, and just breathe. Take thirty every day to do something relaxing: a bubble bath, a pleasant book, a yoga session. If you don't have time, make time.
Speaking of yoga, rule twelve: Exercise. The rule of thumb is at least thirty minutes a day of moderate physical activity. Make sure you balance that among cardio, flexibility, and strength exercises, and make sure the strength and flexibility exercises work your whole body. The Onion jokes about forgetting to develop the muscles in one arm, but it's not funny; if your work requires you to carry a toolbox, for example, and you habitually carry it with one arm instead of switching between them, you'll wear out the one arm and fail to strengthen the other, which is counterproductive. If you don't have time to exercise, again, make time.
(Trigger Warning: Car accidents) Rule thirteen: Get enough sleep. Too little sleep screws with your ability to receive, process, and recall information and puts you at greater risk of mental illness, diabetes, and heart problems, as well as making it more likely that you'll fall asleep at the wheel and total your car and yourself. You know better than anyone else how much you need; the rule of thumb for adults is seven to nine hours. If you don't have time, make time. Schedule sleep the way you schedule work. Right before bedtime is a good time to pencil in your daily half hour of peace, to help you wind down for the day. Do not, absolutely do not, use caffeine within a few hours of bedtime. Invest in a high-quality mattress and pillow suited to your comfort.
Rule fourteen: Have good health and dental care. In an emergency situation, the need for good health care is obvious; no one wants an incompetent setting a broken bone or drilling a cavity in a tooth. In non-emergency situations, good health and dental care is vital. Regular checkups make it possible to catch major health problems while they're still minor health problems.
All these rules derive from one basic rule. If you can't, for whatever reason, follow all of the above, as long as you follow this one you'll be all right. Rule zero of maintaining good health, the cardinal rule, is this:
Don't be poor.
Good health is a privilege, not a right. Exercise it. If you can.
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