My birthday is this month. This month also marks the beginning of the school year and the changing of the seasons. It is a naturally contemplative time of year, but because my birthday coincides with the onset of autumn, I always take this time to reflect and contemplate how the year has been going.
I don’t do this randomly or in some dreamy stream-of-consciousness way. No, I literally take out my calendar and flip through every month, starting from the September before. I look at what I did and I think about which events have made an impact in my own life, as well as the lives of the people around me. Sometimes I recognize that things I thought would be significant really were, or really were not. Sometimes I recognize that things I thought were insignificant turned out to be more meaningful than I could have imagined. And sometimes I see how I could have done better.
My primary focus in doing this annual assessment is this: How can I be a better version of myself in the next year? I ask myself where I am lacking and where I can make changes. I question my motives and my desires and contemplate how much I am applying my own principles to my daily existence. Am I practicing what I preach? Am I living my truth? I critique myself in the hopes of making positive changes and being better. And, finally, I consider how I can do even more to advance women’s heart health. Call me obsessive, but that’s what I do. It’s part of who I am.
During this year’s personal analysis, I found this World Health Organization study, “Worldwide trends in insufficient physical activity from 2001 to 2016,” published in The Lancet Global Health, addressing the effects of sedentary lifestyle from around the globe. It reported that about one in three women and one in four men do not exercise enough to prevent chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia and cancers. This trend towards a more sedentary existence is increasing, having risen from 23% of people reporting that they are mostly sedentary in 2010 to 25% in 2016. That’s 1.4 billion people throughout the world! What? We have a highly effective, easy, free prevention strategy for most chronic diseases in our culture, and that many people are ignoring it?
Maybe the problem is that people don’t realize the power of exercise. As a cardiologist, I can vouch for the fact that when it comes to preventive strategies for heart disease, stroke and dementia, getting your heart rate up is one of the most effective.
It’s also important to note that heart disease affects more women than men, and this study demonstrates that there is a large discrepancy in the exercise patterns between the sexes. In the U.S., 48% of men are exercising compared to only 32% of women. This isn’t just an interesting statistic. It demonstrates a pervasive disconnect regarding the power of prevention and the grave impact of a sedentary lifestyle for women. Perhaps most importantly, it demonstrates that we are not doing what we could be doing to be better, healthier, stronger and longer-surviving versions of ourselves.
So how do we get people to move for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise per week, as recommended by the American Heart Association and the World Health Organization? How do we get the world active? Sadly, the public policy strategies implemented for this purpose have not made any meaningful changes in physical activity. The CDC created the Healthy People 2010 initiative, with a 10-year goal of improving exercise rates in Americans, with little effect. What else can we do? How do we make moving the norm and sitting the exception?
During my birthday contemplation, I thought a lot about human nature, and our tendencies as people. I thought about how things that are challenging are difficult to incorporate into daily life. We are busy and stressed and we don’t want to have to do one more time-consuming, unpleasant chore. We also tend to get caught up in the minutiae of daily living, without remembering the bigger, longer-term picture. I also thought about the many ways our sedentary tendencies are connected to the world of technology, as so many of us are tethered to our computers, our tablets and our smart phones. But what if technology could be used for good?
I decided to search for possibilities, and I found an article published on AMA Wire about artificial intelligence and its role in promoting health. Doctors are often skeptical about the use of technology, but there seems to be a driving force behind it that is allowing people to be more engaged and proactive about their health. An obvious example is the fitness watch, which has taken self-monitoring to a new level, enabling people to count their steps, track their exercise and monitor their heart rate. Many say this technology is motivating and makes them feel empowered to take control of their own health, as well as to find ways to make movement part of their daily lives. I keep hearing people say that they have to get those 10,000 steps!
I’ve recently connected with a company in Australia that has set out to brighten the bleak picture of women and heart disease by empowering and engaging women as their clinical team works to identify risk early, and to implement successful preventive strategies. They are focusing on those of the lowest socioeconomic status, who may have the least access to health information, to see if early intervention can make a difference in better outcomes—as it has in pregnancy. What they have discovered is that technology is the inroad. It is just a matter of making it available and easy to use for everyone. The team, called Taringa, is spear-headed by Don Coles, whose passion for preventing heart disease comes from a dedication to his mother. He knows that heart disease is something that we can prevent, and awareness is critical to making that prevention real.
Stepping back to see that big picture, my assessment is that it’s time for a change. It’s time to open our minds and our thoughts to the possibilities of better health, more vitality and a better life through greater fitness. Let’s each of us embrace where we are today and analyze with a critical eye how to get to a better place.
Why are you more sedentary than you should be? What would motivate you to get moving more often? Technology could be one answer—if artificial intelligence can remind us to get up and walk, count our steps, monitor our target heart rates, and even nag us until we get off the couch, I’m all for it. Maybe there are other ways, too. I’m going to keep looking.
This year, I have one simple birthday wish. As I pack my exercise clothes in my work bag for tomorrow and scheduled time on my busy calendar to get my heart rate up and my body moving, my wish is that each one of you will find a way to do better when it comes to moving your body, exercising and improving your fitness. I do it to feel vital and strong, and to continue to feel healthy. I do it to prevent heart disease, stroke and dementia. The research is there. The effects are real.
Will you join me? Maybe this could be your birthday wish for the year, too.
Click here to buy Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s book, Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum’s Heart Book: Every Woman’s Guide to a Heart-Healthy Life