THE BLOG
06/30/2014 01:50 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

7 Ways Your Health Is Like a River (And Why We Should Take Care of Both)

I'm from a small town in the southwest corner of the Southwest. At around 6,000 feet, Silver City, New Mexico is a beautiful, mountainous, and environmentally- and culturally-rich area. It has been, and always will be, the place where I feel most at home. During my last visit, I went up to the small town of Pinos Altos, New Mexico, to see selections from the Wild and Scenic Film Festival at the historic opera house at the Buckhorn Saloon. The festival featured nine short films illustrating the importance of rivers in our ecosystem, the detriments to historically-precious artifacts and lands that can come from man-made dams, and the need for each of us to be more forward thinking when it comes to our precious water resources and remaining free-flowing rivers. The river I grew up fishing on, swimming in, and hiking and camping along -- the Gila River -- is at risk of being diverted.

As a registered dietitian who helps teach people to keep their bodies healthy, I couldn't help but see a striking resemblance between the delicate dance of human health and that of a river. It is a perspective that I think may help others be more mindful of how we treat our bodies, as well as our precious rivers. Here are those similarities:

#1 -- One small change can have a BIG impact (good or bad). Simple changes such as getting up from your desk for a quick stretch every hour leaves you with a less-stiff back. On the other hand, staying up two hours past your bedtime to watch a movie leaves you lethargic and foggy-headed in your meetings the next day. It doesn't take an earth-shattering event to create impactful daily results. Similarly, small changes to the amount of water in a river or the temperature (a change in water temperature of only 2 degrees C has been shown to stimulate the metabolism, appetite, and growth of some stream fish by 30-60 percent) can create changes in the plants and animals that depend on that river.

#2 -- There's a very important miniature world that you will never see... but will feel its effects. A recent study showed that the bacterial balance in our digestive system could determine how many calories we get from our food. Our gut bacteria has been linked to the immune system, our intestinal health, and even suppression of potentially harmful pathogens. For critters you can't see with the naked eye, they sure do have important jobs! A river has a whole tiny world you can't see that helps to regulate the nutrients in the water, keep the water free of contaminants, and supply food for slightly larger organisms (and so continues the food chain).

#3 -- The objective is long-term health. Making adjustments to our food and exercise routines helps improve our energy levels and structural health so we feel better and last longer. For instance, eating more (and a variety) of fruit and veggies each day provides our bodies with antioxidants that help stave off disease. A river's goal is the same -- long-term, sustainable structural, soil, and water health and a nourishing, steady water flow.

#4 -- A flowing source of nutrients is the life force. Blood courses through our bodies, delivering oxygen and other nutrients we need to sustain life. If we put a toxin in our body (knowingly or unknowingly) it doesn't simply affect the point of entry; it can have an effect on every single cell. A river's flowing water is the circulatory system that carries nutrients that it deposits all along its banks. Toxins introduced into river water or changes in the river water level are felt along the entire length of the river.

#5 -- Long term community contribution depends on self-care/health. In order to be the best parent, spouse, partner, friend, community member, employee, etc., you need to take care of YOU first. It's the old oxygen mask analogy -- your mask goes on first so you can then be alert to help those around you. Rivers help deposit soil and nutrients along their paths. But before we can reap the benefits of a river, we must ensure the river is in top form and able to flow at its full potential for the long haul.

#6 -- There's no magic bullet/quick fix to reach long-term health. Reducing your food intake to extremely low levels or taking the latest diet pill might shave off a few pounds initially, but that weight (and then some) will likely come back. Both can pose irreparable damage and neither method has taught you how to eat healthfully for the long-term. A dam in a river might provide immediate construction jobs, a lake to swim in, or power, but those are all fleeting and come with a price that may be too high to repay.

You can learn more about that proposed Gila River diversion, including the facts on the financial impact it may have, via the Gila Resources Information Project (GRIP) website.