Healthy eating, exercise, stress reduction are keys
Millions of New Year's resolutions are made every year, and most of them concern personal health. Poll after poll shows the number one resolution is to lose weight, which is not surprising, given the fact that obesity is rapidly becoming one of the most serious health problems in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration calls the problem an epidemic, which is an apt description, considering some 65 percent of American adults are overweight, more than 30 percent of them obese.
Weight is more than just an aesthetic issue, of course. Veterinarians are well aware that overweight pets are at a higher risk of developing various health problems, from cardiovascular conditions to diabetes to joint problems. The same is true for humans.
The AVMA Group Health and Life Insurance Trust has felt the impact of this growing problem. Last year, the Trust paid out more than a half million dollars in claims related to a diagnosis of obesity. Two common conditions experienced by many professionals—stress and an overly full schedule—can have real impact on health and, in particular, weight control.
Stress is a culprit because it can induce the body to release coping hormones, including cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. Whereas epinephrine and norepinephrine concentrations subside fairly quickly, cortisol concentrations tend to remain high after the stressful event has passed. In the case of chronic stress, cortisol concentrations can remain persistently high. One of the actions of cortisol is to stimulate fat and carbohydrate metabolism to provide quick energy (the "fight or flight" response to stress). It also stimulates insulin release—and appetite.
The National Institutes of Health has published results of studies regarding the effect of the stress hormone cortisol. Many symptoms are attributed to high cortisol concentrations, including an increased risk for accumulating abdominal fat. While individual response to stress may vary, studies have shown that, in general, high cortisol concentrations can result in weight gain.
Part of the stress of being in the veterinary profession stems from the often strenuous schedule. And if those long hours translate into less sleep, weight gain might be the penance paid. A recent study released by Stanford University School of Medicine found an important relationship between sleep and metabolic hormones. Specifically, researchers found that sleep loss impacts several hormones related to appetite and food intake. Two of those hormones—ghrelin and leptin—are thought to play a role in the link between short sleep duration and high body-mass index.
Many studies have long supported the link between sleep deprivation and weight gain, and the Stanford study was able to confirm this connection, using a general population sample. The study found that people who slept two to four hours per night were 73 percent more likely to be obese than normal sleepers.
Tackling stress and getting a good night's sleep should be a priority for every veterinarian seeking to maintain a healthy weight. Nearly all experts and organizations also subscribe to some basic principles of healthy eating.
While the low-carb and low-fat proponents may be at odds about a lot of things, one thing they do seem to agree on is that sugar can sabotage any weight-loss effort, especially when it comes to candies, cookies, and the like. Empty calories should be eliminated or eaten in moderation.
It's universally agreed that breakfast is important. Eating breakfast can kick-start the metabolism in the morning, and may also keep one from succumbing to that mid-morning donut or to overeating at lunch.
The simple routine of eating regularly is, in itself, an important principle, whether one chooses to eat three regular meals, or several smaller meals and snacks throughout the day. Someone who eats regularly will feel fuller and be less likely to binge. Going long periods without food may cause the body to go into a conservation mode, which is just the opposite of what one wants.
Water is an important component of many diets. It can produce a feeling of fullness that may help keep a dieter from overeating. It is also widely believed that being fully hydrated is beneficial to a dieter, one reason being it can help flush toxins that are released when stored fat is burned.
Eating fewer calories than one burns through activity—or, conversely, burning more calories through activity than one consumes through food—is the mathematic formula behind every successful weight-loss program. Activities such as biking, jogging, tennis, or aerobics will burn calories. One doesn't have to be an athlete to get moving. Calorie-burning exercise can take the form of a brisk walk around the neighborhood or active yard work. Aiming for 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a minimum of three times a week is a great goal.
Exercise is only half the activity equation. The other half is strength training. Building lean body mass burns more calories, pound for pound, than fat tissue does.
In conclusion, developing a healthy lifestyle—one that involves stress control, adequate sleep, regular exercise, and a balanced diet—is vital to those who are serious about attaining and maintaining a healthy weight. It's an ongoing, long-term mission with ongoing and long-term benefits.
Of course, there is no substitute for consulting a physician before making major diet and exercise changes. The AVMA GHLIT realizes the importance of routine physicals and recently enhanced the Wellness Benefit of many GHLIT medical plans to help participants lead a healthy lifestyle.
For more information on the AVMA Group Health and Life Insurance Trust, call (800) 621-6360, prompt 3 or visit www.avmaghlit.org