Making healthier habits: Happy, Healthy Heart

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I was going to write a blog about lessons you could cull from being on holiday, but it felt a little smarmy. I confessed on Tuesday that I have been in Mexico for the last week, so I have had time to reflect. The sun and the sand are therapeutic, but I do believe that we can all reap some of the riches of going on holidays ‘ little changes we can make to your life as relaxing, invigorating and enriching as a week of not working, spending time with your family, and eating to your heart’s content. I strongly believe in the positive effect of cutting yourself off from the world ‘ maybe not all at once, but from time to time. I opened my Google news today and saw another headline about Rob Ford and thought how nice it has been not being bombarded by this story.

I also realized how much I’ve been conditioned to the sound of the ‘ping’: an email, a text message, a Tweet or a Facebook status update. We are ‘on’ so much, that when we shift the button a little more to off, we get in touch with elements of ourselves that are driven by’dare I use an overused word? Happiness.

There is a lot of research that has been done into happiness. My original concept of ’66 days to change’, on wanting to be healthier ‘ was based on the Blue Zones; and what it meant to live a long, healthy life. The fundamental thing that underlies good health is happiness.

Laura Kubansky, an associate professor in society, human development and health at the Harvard School of Public Health, is at the forefront of such research. In a 2007 study (that took place over 20 years) of more than 6,000 women aged 25-74, Kubansky found that emotional vitality ‘ a sense of enthusiasm, hopefulness, engagement in life and ability to face stress with emotional balance – appeared to reduce the risk of coronary heart disease. The protective effect was measurable. In other words: Happiness equals less chance of dying of a stroke or heart attack. I’m sorry ‘ but that’s a really great reason to focus on the positive.

My father died of a heart attack when he was 41 ‘ a year younger than I am right now.
This is a little known fact about me. It was tragic ‘ it occurred at home, and left my mother at the age of 38 a widow with two young children (my brother was 12, and I was 10). This wasn’t a one-off: in the 1970s, my father suffered strokes, had triple bypass surgery, was told to eat healthy and cut back on drinking and smoking but didn’t always listen to reason. Then the big one came for him and took him out. We could spend a lot of time talking about what growing up without your father is like. But that’s not the point.

The point is that you can’t change your genetics; you can’t change random events ‘ like a car accident. The only thing you have control over is how you live your life ‘ if you take care of yourself, or you don’t.

In the back of my mind, I know that genetics aren’t on my side: estrogen might protect me for a while, but I have to be careful. In Canada, someone dies from a heart attack every 7 minutes. That’s a bit scary. 

And I know that one of the reasons I eat well, that I exercise daily, is that I want to stay healthy. This has become more and more important as I’ve gotten older, and having children. I want to be around to see them grow up, to see them have kids of their own.

The Harvard research also shows that not only does your emotional vitality ‘ your enthusiasm, hopefulness and engagement with life matter for happiness; it is important that you stay positive, and are good at self-regulation ‘ bouncing back from challenges, choosing healthy behaviors such as physical activity, eating well and avoiding excess with food or alcohol. All these things factor in the measurement of protective health.

And there is more: a 1979 Harvard study of 7,000 adults in California found that people who had fewer social ties ‘ like close relationships with family and friends ‘ were more than twice as likely to die over the nine-year follow-up period of the study, and this was unrelated to smoking, drinking or physical activity. Marriage, connectivity with your friends and kids, and connections with organizations such as churches mattered. This is right in line with the Blue Zones ‘ centenarians around the world feel a sense of connection, and put their family first.

So it does lead me back to lessons learned from this holiday: I’ve spent lots of time with my family, I’ve been on holiday with great friends from Vancouver, I’ve played with my kids, moved every day and eaten well. I’ve taken daily moments to experience gratitude. And, I’ve been less plugged in ‘ from my email, from social media ‘ and I believe it has made me a little calmer. But then again, I’ve also been enjoying all of this on holiday. I hope I can remember these lessons when I get back to the hustle and bustle of every day life.

And an important P.S: I boogey-boarded for the first time today ‘ igniting a new passion within me. I want to learn how to surf. As I bounced in the ocean, waiting for a wave and then riding it into shore, I was schooled in the art of patience, a concept I’m not always good at. But when I found the perfect wave to ride to shore, it was incredible.

I thought to myself ‘ there is something missing from the happiness studies. You should try something new, whenever you can.

‘Erin
Follow me on Twitter @erinpp

Erin Phelan is a fitness trainer and mom of two. She’s a regular contributor to Best Health.