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OPINION: The path to health is a series of simple choices

September 15th 9:40 am | Carey Restino Print this article   Email this article  

In Dillingham, likely the oldest practicing doctor in the state is going strong at 81. His prescription for long life? Move. Dr. Dan O'Connell has been walking every day for decades. Before he walked, he ran. We are made to stay in motion, he said. It's that simple. If we don't move, we deteriorate, he told a reporter recently.

O'Connell has been practicing in medicine, mostly in rural Alaska, for some 50 years now. When he first started treating those in Bristol Bay, there was very little obesity, almost no diabetes or heart disease or the other main diseases that rob people of a vibrant life today.

But over the years, things changed. Tools that we now see as essentials, like snow machines and chainsaws, dramatically decreased that amount of physical labor needed to live in rural Alaska. At the same time, nontraditional foods became more commonplace. The result has been that, while successful medical care improved while health care aides, technology and communication increased, overall health continues to falter.

But while millions of dollars are spent on medicine and the latest diet books, O'Connell and others say the answer is much simpler than all that and really boils down to eating well and exercising regularly. O'Connell says he walks a mile every day, except on Fridays, when he walks to work and back, a total of 10 miles. He walks in all weather, and doesn't even use ice cleats.

In Igiugig, the community is embarking on a journey of similar simplicity. After reading Michael Pollan's "In Defense of Food," the high school class decided to rally the community to mimic Pollan's seven-week project where aboriginal Australians who had been eating a Western diet moved to the Outback and ate traditional food for seven weeks.

Starting Sept. 17, the adults and children in the village will challenge themselves to eat only traditional foods, locally raised foods and oatmeal. The effort to gather new subsistence items, such as sour dock and different greens, has already gotten underway, organizers said. Everyone will have regular health screenings throughout the program to compare results from before and after the challenge. The village is also planning a four-day hike to Big Mountain, 23 miles east of Igiugig, where they will have a Native foods potluck and then fly home.

While their paths are different, the common thread between these two efforts is the acceptance that health is a personal responsibility and something that in most cases, we have the power to control to large degree. Most of us know full well what healthy living is all about.

The problem is that, in most cases, the decline in health is gradual. If we could spend a day in our bodies 10 years from now, and feel the weight-associated aches and pains all at once, we would probably take a long look at our lifestyle. But it's so gradual — the loss of mobility, the things we tell ourselves we can and cannot do. And then one day, there we are, 10 years older and markedly different.

That doesn't have to be the story line, though. As we move into fall and winter, a more sedentary time of year for many, it's a good time to renew your commitment to making healthy choices for you and your family. While it may seem like life would be impossible without the convenience foods of today, in fact, it takes no more time to boil a pot of rice or beans than it does to heat up a pizza. And though it is certainly an adjustment to weave more physical activity into your life, the trade-off is that you wind up with more energy in the end.

Eating more healthy, traditional and unprocessed foods and exercising more does not guarantee that you will live a life devoid of medical problems, but it does make us stronger if and when we do face those challenges. Recovery times for those undergoing serious medical procedures and surgeries are greatly reduced for those who have a baseline level of fitness.

We all know people like O'Connell who seem to have found the magic elixir for long life, but when you dig right into it, you realize that in most cases, all they are doing is the very things we've known all along. Healthy living is no secret, it's a day-by-day commitment to investing in yourself for the future. That's a gift we all deserve to give our families and ourselves.


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