The University Record, May 22, 2000

Path to healthy lifestyle is step-by-step process

By Britt Halvorson

Health is a continuum along which people move throughout their lives. Making incremental progress along the continuum toward reasonable goals is the key to achieving a healthier lifestyle, according to Jeanne Quinn.

Quinn, a staff counselor in the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program, presented the workshop “Lifestyle Changes for Increased Energy, Vitality and Health” as part of the Workplace 2000 conference held last week and sponsored by Human Resource Development.

Quinn discussed the idea of biological “destiny”; stress and its effects on the body; exercise and its impact on health; sleep; and nutrition. Each workshop participant was given an “action plan” sheet on which to define personal goals related to sleep, nutrition, exercise and stress reduction. Quinn emphasized the importance of setting small goals for oneself when considering those areas.

“Be very careful what you say you are going to do. You are the most important person to keep your word to. If you don’t keep [promises] to yourself, then you lose respect for yourself,” she cautioned. Making a goal to drop 40 pounds in two months, Quinn said, is unreasonable and will almost always leave you feeling disappointed in your own lack of willpower. Over time, such goals erode self-confidence.

Quinn herself has lost 100 pounds since she began setting small, reasonable weight-loss goals. By promising herself to lose an attainable 25 pounds a year, she has met her goals and reaped a dramatic increase in energy. “As long as you’re moving along the continuum toward a goal, you’re making progress,” she said, regardless of how small the goal may be.

An estimated 65 percent of health is shaped by a person’s lifestyle, with 35 percent originating in genetics, Quinn said. DNA is not absolute destiny, she commented, even though some aspects of health are out of our control. To maintain health, Quinn advised, “it’s a matter of recognizing that while you don’t have control of your life, you have to behave as though you do.” By behaving this way, we often can at least delay the onset of illness.

Research has shown, for example, that older people who do exercises regularly, Quinn said, become stronger and often enjoy a better quality of life. By assuming that frailty comes with old age, people reinforce a cycle of sedentary behavior. Since we lose muscle mass with age, people, rather than accepting frailty, can increase health by incorporating exercise into their daily lives, Quinn said.

Daily stresses can be characterized as external or internal, Quinn noted. External stresses, such as the demands of children and supervisors, are not always within our control, but internal stresses, based on expectations we create for ourselves, are modifiable.

Quinn suggested that people examine their priorities and not always strive for perfection in small, everyday chores. Changing the sheets once a week, a “rule” Quinn was taught by her mother, adds to mental expectations, internal stresses and need not be done with absolute vigilance. “I could be busy every moment that I wasn’t working, with something productive that I ‘should’ do. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for fun. When you are telling yourself you should do something, it doesn’t hurt yourself to ask why. ‘Where was it written? What rule book did it come in?’” she said.

Find some time for yourself and your own interests to reduce stress, especially if you have children, Quinn advised. When taking care of a nephew, Quinn said she made it a rule to have some time for her art. “Without a certain amount of [time alone], I couldn’t survive. I thought, ‘How can I nurture him, if I don’t give myself the same considerations and concern?’” she said.

Stress triggers a crisis reaction, or short-term survival mechanism, in the body. People are not programmed for ongoing stress, Quinn said, and its effects can be very detrimental to health. During a period of stress, or crisis, the body floods with the “worry” hormone (glucocorticorticoids); depletes the brain of norepinephrine and serotonin (leading to depression); increases abdominal fat and blood pressure; depresses the immune system; increases fatigue and decreases energy; inhibits fat metabolism; and decreases the function of memory.

Exercise, besides adding muscle mass and increasing personal energy, reduces stress and allows one to cope with it more easily. Since beginning a weekly exercise plan, Quinn said she has the energy to go out twice a week at night after work or tackle projects at home. “Ten years ago it took all of my energy to do what I think are life’s requirements of work, basic household maintenance. I want enough energy left over after life’s work to have life’s play,” she said.

Research on regular exercise also has shown that it can lead to a more satisfying sex life, better memory, fewer colds and flus, and a more balanced mood, Quinn noted. “You have a higher tolerance for all of the things life throws at you.”

Adequate sleep is yet another component of wellness. The National Institutes of Health estimate that about half of all Americans do not get enough sleep, Quinn said. “What’s happened is I think we’ve started thinking that sleep is weakness. You can’t be productive when you’re sleeping.”

At the beginning of the 20th century, people received an average of eight to nine hours of sleep per night. Cultural changes, artificial light and more “temptations” in the form of television, computers and other electronic devices have dramatically changed the amount of sleep Americans get each night. “We’ve convinced ourselves that we shouldn’t get eight hours of sleep and that somehow we can push ourselves to get a little more done,” Quinn said. However, if you fall asleep within a few minutes of your head hitting the pillow, it is likely that you need more sleep each night, Quinn said. Taking five or 10 minutes to gradually fall asleep is considered normal.

Being sleep deprived (having two or three hours less sleep than you need) for one night will result in an average 40 percent decrease in immune function the next day, Quinn said. Know your own physical limitations and respect them, she advises. Besides having a detrimental effect on health, lack of sleep also can result in lost productivity. “I’m convinced that how much [in hours] you save at night on sleeping you lose during the day due to inefficiency,” Quinn said.

Many belief systems and choices are connected to nutrition, Quinn said, which makes change difficult. “The fact is that we’re programmed to eat,” she said. Disposable wealth, the availability of every kind of food and ever-present advertising about food contribute to our country’s weight problem, Quinn said. Making small, everyday nutritional choices that reflect your goals and your position along the health/nutrition continuum can set positive patterns of behavior.

Quinn challenges people who say they have no time for exercise or more sleep to use short blocks of time during the day and set small, attainable health goals. Clearly define when and how you will attain the goals before implementing them, she advised, in order to be successful.

Tips on increasing energy, vitality and health

How do you find time in a busy schedule to exercise and reduce daily stress? Jeanne Quinn advises that people find ways to fit exercise into the "nooks and crannies" of their daily schedules and, besides reducing a focus on perfection of the home, use some services and conveniences that simplify life and save time. Jeanne Quinn shared some of the small changes that have made a big difference in her life.

  • While on hold for several minutes on the phone at work, Quinn pulls a five-pound dumbbell out of her top desk drawer and works on her upper arm muscles. She leaves notes to herself on her computer and mirror at home to remind herself to do these exercises. She also suggests doing stretches while waiting for food to be cooked in a microwave, for example.

  • Quinn introduced an exercise into her day by walking 10 minutes each morning from her car to her office. She gradually increased her amount of exercise by walking up and down the steps at Crisler Arena on her way in to work. In addition to a walk back to her car, Quinn also takes her dog out for a walk at night when she has time.

  • Find co-workers who are interested in an alternative lunch break. Quinn organized a small, lunch-time tai chi group in her office.

  • Keep in mind that three 10-minute exercises are basically equal to one 30-minute exercise period. Small blocks of time can be used for exercises.

  • Go in with several friends and hire a personal trainer. This will make the service more affordable.

  • Quinn often has found that paying the extra money to buy vegetables already cleaned and cut at a grocery store's salad bar is worthwhile. It gives her at least an extra 20 minutes otherwise spent cooking to dedicate to her own interests or to just relax.

  • Quinn said she does not buy any clothes that need to be ironed or dry cleaned. By doing this, she saves time spent ironing and money for other stress-reducing services.

  • Pick a week and give yourself enough sleep every night. "Your immune system will thank you," and the increase in energy you notice may convince you to make permanent changes in your schedule.

  • Give yourself an extra day after a trip to unwind and unpack before going back to work. Quinn said she used to return at 9 p.m. the night before going back to work but changed her behavior because it created unnecessary stress.

  • If you have small children, make friends with other mothers of young children in your neighborhood. Being able to sometimes share parenting responsibilities and seeing other adults will be stress-relieving and rewarding.