No matter which side of the political divide you identify with, we have all been frustrated by recent antics in Washington. But, believe it or not, there are a lot of similarities between factors that led to the recent government shutdown and our own holiday season lifestyle behaviors. So there may be a few lessons we can all learn from Congress, especially with holiday season just around the corner.
Embrace moderation instead of extremes.
Recent congressional standoffs epitomize taking extreme actions. Similarly, most of us adopt extreme lifestyle behaviors throughout holiday season. Halloween marks the start of eating season, and soon after those tasty treats first emerge, the season becomes focused on revelry and rich food.
But there is another side to holiday season, one that usually begins after the effects of New Year festivities have worn off -- the focus on shedding those extra holiday pounds. Gallup polls show that more than half of all Americans every year want to lose weight, and they spend over 60 billion dollars on weight-loss products every year, with much of that spending occurring in the first quarter of every year.
Just like extreme political positions cost the economy billions of dollars, these extreme indulgences before and extreme dieting or exercise regimens after are both financially costly and damage our bodies. Starving yourself in January is about as healthy as shutting down the government due to lack of moderate compromise.
Act now, instead of kicking the can down the road.
The resolution to the partisan standoff in Washington was to defer decision making until January 2014. This sounds familiar, politically and personally. Most people find it difficult to make healthy choices during the holiday season. It's just so much easier to put it off until tomorrow, or until January 2. As Dr. Harvey Fineberg of the Institute of Medicine writes in The Journal of the American Medical Association, "Success of prevention is invisible, lacks drama, often requires persistent behavior change." This is possibly why we avoid the hard decisions now and try to repent for our indulgences after.
But much like Washington's regular absurdities have led to repeated embarrassments and economic losses, cyclical bingeing and repenting results in bodily hurt. Studies have shown that repeated sugar, salt and fatty-food binges deteriorate our bodies' ability to cope with normal doses of food, and eventually, diabetes, blood pressure and cholesterol problems emerge.
So instead of post-season resolutions, perhaps people should adopt pre-season resolutions. Behavior specialists have shown that mental preparation and dedication to lifestyle goals can help sustain healthy behaviors in the long term. Even the best of us have to plan ahead to fit in that run, or think about what lunch will look like the next day to avoid resorting to the convenient and often unhealthy options. So make that resolution now and stick to it.
Pick the right issue to address.
The political battles that led to the shutdown were about health care financing and the size of government. However, if Congress had asked common Americans what they care about, it would have found that jobs and economic well-being are our leading concerns. The shutdown actually had negative economic effects on government employees and businesses that depend on local spending or government services, and as a result, Congress' approval ratings have plunged.
Similarly, during and after holiday season, we are all overly obsessed with numbers on a weighing scale. Our lifestyle choices -- what we eat, our level of physical activity, tobacco use, and yes, even weight -- are powerful risk factors for diabetes and heart disease, which are the most costly, disabling and fatal diseases nationally. However, there is more to this story. Even people who aren't overweight get diabetes and heart disease, suggesting that factors other than weight are involved, like stress or smoking. Also, weight increases or decreases aren't immediate and usually occur after a lag. So weighing oneself over the season is not a great way of monitoring oneself. This also means, by the way, that it's still bad to indulge excessively, even though the weighing scale shows no change the day after!
Weight is also an imperfect measure of one's lifestyle: healthy lifestyles (more exercise, more wholesome diets) can lower diabetes risk without any weight loss. This may be because exercise and healthier diets lower the amount of fat in one's body and replace it with lean muscle, so one's weight might not change at all. Also, healthy lifestyle changes improve how efficiently the body manages the sugar and cholesterol we put in. And exercise has psychological benefits, both from the body's physiological response and from having a set amount of time away from work and life pressures.
Weight does matter, just like health care financing matters to Americans. Excess weight leads to many ailments -- joint troubles, poor wound healing, reproductive problems and even cancers. Clearly, moderate and sustained weight loss among people who are overweight will be of benefit. It's just that weight should not be the sole barometer of our efforts to be healthy. Though weight lost or gained is easier to monitor than calories consumed and miles run, our lifestyle choices themselves can be monitored, and once people know what to look for, healthy choices can become routine and a more accurate depiction of wellness.
Lead by example.
Voting in Washington tends to follow political and social alliances. Studies have shown that caucus voting behavior and lifestyle choices are similar in this regard. Social influences can shape one's likelihood of using tobacco or of being obese. So, don't just follow the pack in holiday season. Have the courage to continue to be active and make healthy choices. Leading by example may have trickle-down effects and encourage other family and friends to make and stick to their pre-season resolutions.
Strong leadership and having the courage to vote outside of party lines could have averted the shutdown and near financial collapse. Have courage and be a role model for friends and family, this (and every) holiday season.
Don't be powerless.
At times, it feels like we are at the mercy of Congress' whims. But, let's not forget that we are the constituents they are supposed to represent, and we have the power to vote for change every two years.
Similarly, although our environments are not always conducive to healthy behaviors, we aren't powerless, either. Yes, we need macro-level changes to make neighborhoods safer and increase access to healthier foods, but it's also possible to find solutions that fit our circumstances. There are increasingly community-based organizations (like the Y of USA) delivering lifestyle-change programs; more and more employers are offering wellness benefits and opportunities to attract and retain the most talented employees -- agencies like the American Heart Association, American Diabetes Association, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regularly produce freely available health-and-wellness guidelines based on the best evidence (look out for their emblems); and there are more online tools and gadgets to help us decipher food and exercise quality and quantity than ever before.
In summary, to avoid our own personal January 2 shutdowns, let's learn from Congress' transgressions. Let's be moderate, aim for pre-emptive physical and psychological wellness, and lead by example in both our voting and holiday season behaviors.
For more by Dr. Mohammed K. Ali, click here.
For more on diet and nutrition, click here.