Improving well-being: Mind what matters

I recently attended the UPMC-sponsored first annual all-day Physician Wellness Seminar, and I wanted to share the information the conference provided, along with how it has impacted my individual approach to my own well-being as well as that of my colleagues and other friends and family I interact with on a daily basis.

The conference was divided into four distinct segments. These were Nutrition (not Diet), Movement (not Exercise), Sleep and Relaxation, and Stress Reduction. These four components were identified as the major determinants of our well-being, and empiric and careful medical research was presented at the conference to bear this out. It was fascinating.

Two of these categories are under our complete control, and two are not. The two that are under our own control are Nutrition and Movement. The data presented were clear, simple to interpret, and straightforward. The role of Nutrition and Movement in the mediation of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory markers, and their impact on chronic illness, is evident.

With regard to Nutrition, the message was simple. “Eat Whole Foods. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much.”  The data presented on the harm of non-nutritive “food” and the value of nutritive plant-based whole foods was overwhelming. Cutting out most or all of any sugar-sweetened beverages and most or all of any heavily processed food eaten out of a box or package is a great start to improving one’s well-being.  In fact, the breakfast and lunch served at the conference was entirely plant-based … and delicious. It included coffee and tea, plant-based smoothies and whole fruits for breakfast. Lunch was tacos filled with walnuts or chickpeas for protein, along with hummus and tahini for dipping freshly cut vegetables. It is even possible to have dessert without straying. Dark chocolates were available. Sparkling water of a variety of flavors was the beverage of choice. Menus were distributed, and tables were presented demonstrating how plants and whole foods can provide all of one’s dietary needs, including calcium and protein.

An important emphasis was taking your current non-nutritional food habits and doing what you can to move a little further toward a more nutritive approach to eating. It doesn’t have to be an “all or none” approach, which causes most people to quickly lose interest. Rather, maybe just eliminate most sugar-sweetened beverages. Or try to stop eating chain fast food three out of five days. Or add chopped vegetables with a healthy dip as a snack on weekends. Or a meatless Monday. Or whatever. The important take-home point was as clear as the data presented: The more non-nutritive, processed and sugar-sweetened items we consume, the more our well-being suffers, and the more chronic disease we expose our bodies to as we age.

Indeed, UPMC is going so far as to implement plant-based food stations in the cafeteria in some of their hospitals because the data is so powerfully clear. One presenter commented on how silly it is for a hospital that emergently places a cardiac stent in a patient to treat their ischemic heart disease to then provide to that patient a cheeseburger and French fry lunch the very next day, along with a prescription for a statin.

With regard to Movement, the message also was simple. “Move. Often.” Our bodies were designed with movement in mind, and medical data was presented detailing how our brain cellular function improves as the movement in our bodies increases and becomes more regular. You do not need to train for a marathon to see these effects occur. Of course, actual regular intervals of exercise do not hurt. One of the presenters had completed multiple Iron-Man triathlons well into his 70s.

With regard to sleep and stress, the message was clear but clearly less under our own individual control.  Sleep is so important, but we are getting less and less of it. Strategies were presented and smartphone apps were identified that might be able to help with this problem. But we have become our own worst enemies as we trade sleep for other less important and health-disabling choices.

Controlling stress also is clearly important according to the data presented, and ways to do just that were presented. Meditation, Mindfulness, Actual Social Connectedness and Yoga were outlined. Ways to get started even as little as 5 to 10 minutes a day were reviewed, and again, smartphone apps that can assist in these endeavors were identified.

One of the most fascinating things I learned at the conference was that there is now a recognized Board Certification in Lifestyle Medicine (ABLM). Certification as an ABLM diplomate distinguishes a physician as having achieved competency in lifestyle medicine and signifies specialized knowledge and competency in the four pillars of lifestyle medicine previously identified.

As the people I spend time with at work and outside work can attest, I have made my own choice to move farther along the line of a more nutritive and plant-based diet after attending this conference. I started reading some of the books recommended. I am making progress in incorporating a more mindful and stress-reducing approach to life in general. I feel better already, and I can’t wait for the second annual conference next year.