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Dr. Don Ardell on Living Healthier

Dr. Don Ardell on Living Healthier

Donald B. Ardell, Ph.D., is credited with founding the wellness movement in the United States, beginning with his 1977 book, High Level Wellness: An Alternative to Doctors, Drugs, and Disease. Ever since, Ardell has been speaking, writing and teaching about wellness across the United States and Canada. He produces the quarterly “Ardell Wellness Report” and posts essays on the Seek Wellness website. A marathon runner, he won his age group in both the duathlon and national triathlon championships in 2004, and he also holds the title of fastest runner in the world in his age group. Here, Ardell describes the difference between health and wellness.

How do you define health?

Most people think of health as not being sick with an illness. It’s often equated, I believe erroneously, with the presence of well-being. I’m so dissatisfied with the confusion that occurs when the word “health” is used; I use the term “wellness.” Health in a wellness context is a lifestyle approach to advanced states of both physical and biological well-being. Wellness reflects three dimensions, including the physical, the mental and the third dimension, which many people would call “spiritual” but I would call “meaning and purpose.”

Do you think the physical, the mental and the spiritual are equally weighted?

Yes. Obviously it’s great to be terrific in any one of them, but to be really healthy you need to address a level of sufficiency in each that no one can define because it’s personal. It’s a matter of your unique circumstances, your opportunities, your genetic potentials, your lifestyle circumstances and your commitment to consciousness.

Can you heal yourself without a foundation in the third category, what you call “meaning and purpose?”

Sure, but a lower standard of being well, I think. In a sense, the physical, mental, meaning and purpose are integrated and are almost inexplicably interlinked. So you really couldn’t be physically well and mentally well and not have the “meaning and purpose” attached and addressed.

What are the biggest health myths that people buy into?

The first is the notion that the healthcare system will help people stay healthy. A gigantic medical complex of separate, disparate parts can be very helpful for some kinds of conditions if you get to the right place at the right time and have enough money or health insurance. But, in general, it’s not about health; all it does is pay for sick care. Another myth is that doctors are experts in health. They’re not. They’re technicians in medical care. I think another damaging myth is that it’s a good thing to be normal. Normalcy should be equated with mediocrity. In fact, it’s worse than mediocrity when you consider that 64% of the people in this country are either obese or overweight. Obviously, normal is a pretty sorry state.

Why are there are so many conflicting views about what makes a diet healthy?

One is that the evidence is not so overwhelming that a certain type of nutritional approach is best for everyone. It’s a complex field and what worked under circumstances for certain subsets of the population isn’t optimal for everybody. There’s a lot of profit in selling diet approaches: It’s an entrepreneurial game that leads people to produce books and pills, open centers and otherwise try to convince the public that their particular dietary approach is the best for everybody. People want easy answers; they’re not willing to do the work to understand what an optimal diet might be for them.

What are some not-so-obvious obstacles to health?

The public is very undereducated in terms of wellness. It’s not a value in our culture to be living a wellness lifestyle. It seems like it’s too much trouble, and people believe that it will cost more and take a huge amount of leisure time. There’s insufficient cultural support for optimal living. There are neither ethnic groups, nor affiliated groups, nor religious groups, nor any other obvious type of group to which people belong that addresses these issues and can reinforce traditions and elements of optimal living through use, patterns, habits and rituals.

In what ways do you see someone’s health affected by something like love?

The outcome of love, connections and loyalty affects our physical state. There’s a lot of supporting information that people have to feel love, feel good about themselves and reciprocate affection with other people to have emotionally healthy lives. The dynamics of exactly how that works is something that neurobiologists have been exploring for some time, but I don’t think anyone would argue that love isn’t a factor in how we feel about our lives.

What advice would you give someone who wants to live healthier?

Learning about the wellness concept is a great way for anyone to assess his or her own thinking about the nature of health. A wellness perspective will invite a person to ask, “Am I really well? Am I anywhere, anything, like the person I could be or want to become? And what are some possibilities?” A conversation like that can set new horizons. It’s very personal: It has a lot to do with who one is, where one is, who one is with and where he or she wants to go. Not to mention the options a person might have in relation to economics, intelligence and physical capabilities.

How do people find a supportive culture?

I don’t think that there’s one single place that it should come from. I think an individual physician can have an impact. I was at the store the other day and the salesperson saw the running shirt I was wearing and started telling me how he’s changed his lifestyle. He started a walking program, is planning to run a 5K in another year and has lost 60 pounds. The reason he did this is because his doctor asked, “How long do you want to live, Wally?” The doctor told him he wasn’t going to see his kids out of high school. The doctor caught his attention and helped put him on track.

What are the biggest myths around exercising?

The biggest myth is that exercise is optional, and that exercise is something that people can do when they get around to it. I don’t think it is: I recommend that people do one hour of rigorous physical exercise daily. Cooper Clinic says to get 20 minutes of exercise daily and that will reduce your exposure to illness. But that’s the problem. People are not motivated to avoid getting illnesses; they need something positive and exciting and fun. You have to motivate them to do something that they want to realize in the near-term. I feel that nothing has the power to provide early returns to a person who’s muddling through and not healthy than a strenuous exercise program from the get-go.

What do you think of less-vigorous exercises?

I think they’re great; anything someone does that leads to flexibility, strength-training and cardiovascular activities like fast walking are terrific. I’m giving you the gold standard when I talk about getting an hour of fitness a day. If you want to pursue a vigorous and dramatic change in your quality of life, exercise is just one of many requirements and recommendations for a wellness lifestyle.

What about food? What do you recommend people eat?

It’s really not that complicated unless you have obesity or blood sugar problems. The key is to maximize the amount of vegetables and whole grains you eat and stay away from empty calories. Lay off fats, sugars, junk foods and excessive salt. Lean toward fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, whole grains and white meat, and go easy on highly saturated animal fats.

What are your views on fasting and detoxing the body?

Based on what I’ve read from nonobjective third parties that are not selling the stuff, I think it’s all just a bunch of hocus-pocus. The body takes care of itself. Eat good food, exercise and enjoy yourself. There may be other reasons to fast. Someone may get great satisfaction out of it, such as doing it for a cause or as a means to demonstrate mastery over desires. But I think you’re deluding yourself if you think that your body needs to somehow rid itself of toxins.

What do you think is the next big thing on the health horizon?

The biggest benefit for our overall wellness would be for a wide variety of things to happen. From public leadership at the top, to cultural transformation, to giving people a stronger sense of the positive payoffs, to a much stronger sense of personal responsibility regarding wellness. And, if people relied more on personal responsibility, less on medications, doctors and medical breakthroughs, and learned key principles of the wellness lifestyle and acted accordingly, there would be an extraordinary revolution.

For more information about Dr. Donald Ardell, visit www.seekwellness.com.

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