Photo: Kang Kim
What would happen if instead of just thinking about taking better care of yourself (eat right, get enough sleep, exercise, floss, blah, blah, blah), you went ahead and—urk—did it? Would it be awful? Would you feel any better?
My habits weren't horrible, but they weren't great, either. No sodas, fast food, or cigarettes, and I ate my share of broccoli...but I also liked heavy cream in my coffee, butter with dinner, and fortifying spoonfuls of ice cream when afternoon hunger hit. If I was stuck on what to have for lunch, the solution invariably included melted cheese. I was too fond of my evening cocktail(s). I exercised hard, but sporadically, and I never stretched. I wore sunscreen...sometimes. I usually forgot to floss. Etc.
I'd always gotten by. Mostly because of dumb genetic luck, I'm thin, with low blood pressure and cholesterol (I know, you hate me already). But I couldn't deny seeing some changes as I hit my 50s: less energy, a growing pot belly, pain that I assumed was early arthritis in my neck whenever I looked over my shoulder. Caring for aged parents and in-laws offered a none-too-gentle reminder that this was just the beginning.
But could it be slowed if I were very, very good? If I really cleaned up my act? What if, for a month, I embraced every health dictate we all know we should follow but blithely ignore? Would I feel rejuvenated, young? Or just like the butt of that old joke: "Eating healthy doesn't make you live longer...it just feels that way"?
With the help of the Internet, I researched a plan for perfect living. I'd follow traditional USDA guidelines for diet: 2,000 weight-maintaining calories a day, no more than 67 grams of fat (only 22 of them saturated fat), and no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium. Exercise advice came from the government as well: a minimum of 30 minutes at "moderate intensity" most days of the week, though my goal was the more highly recommended 60 minutes of running, jogging, swimming, weight lifting, walking at 4.5 mph, or biking at more than 10 mph. Afterward I'd stretch my major muscle groups.
At some point during the day, I'd also do more personal exercise, aiming for increased sexual pleasure now and protection against urinary leakage later by strengthening my pelvic floor muscles with Kegels, something I've been meaning to do, oh, since I gave birth 14 years ago. I would sit and stand up straight. Because I'm an osteoporosis poster child (a thin white woman whose grandma had a hump), I'd take a calcium supplement to make sure I got the recommended 1,200 milligrams each and every day. After I learned that as many as 30 percent of adults over 50 may have a reduced ability to absorb vitamin B12 from food, I decided to add a B supplement as well.
Although evidence on the benefits and risks of alcohol is mixed, to be safe I also decided to cut out cocktail hour. I'd get seven hours of shut-eye a night because a six-year, large-scale population study of sleep done at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine associated it with the lowest death rate among adults. I would floss every single day. And I would never, ever, ever venture out of the house without slathering on UVA/UVB sunscreen 30 minutes prior to exposure.
Sound uplifting? Frankly, the first two weeks were hell. I quickly realized that the peanut butter I always put on my morning toast (while healthy) along with the heavy cream in the coffee and my afternoon ice cream fixes (not so great) added up to about 45 grams of fat a day, almost half of it saturated. One tablespoon of the hot mango relish I use as a condiment was 94 percent of my daily salt allowance. And while I was getting too much fat, I wasn't getting nearly enough potassium, calcium, fiber, or variety. (Data from the Centers for Disease Control found that only about a third of Americans consumed fruits twice a day and only a quarter ate vegetables at least three times daily. Oy.)