Dr. Peter Barkett
Lately, I’ve been thinking about routine maintenance, paying attention to keep things running effortlessly. This spring I had some trouble with my lawnmower. The machine had been so reliable that I took it for granted. I had been delinquent on some routine maintenance items and had hoped I could push them off a bit longer. Then the lawnmower just quit on me. While I had it in the shop my grass grew 6 inches.
When it comes to power tools, a bit of preventive maintenance keeps them running better and longer.
The whole incident got me thinking because it happens to be men’s health month, and if our lawnmowers need some regular care, how much more important is our own self-care?
Generally speaking, men have a tendency to focus on work or to-do lists. We tend not to admit when we feel worn down or need to recharge our batteries. We also have a bad habit of avoiding healthcare providers.
It’s important to get in for routine wellness checks, but seeing a doctor isn’t the only way to start taking care of your health. For this month’s column we’ll cover self-care — inspired by men’s health month but applicable to everyone.
Diet: Fuel for our lives
My young sons play a game in which they pretend to be sports cars and zip around the yard then pull up next to me, pretending to have run out of gas. My role is to fill up their tanks with premium gasoline so they can take off again for more laps chasing each other. Machines need gasoline but people need fuel, too, and the fuel we choose matters. High-quality fuel provides our bodies with the vitamins and minerals they need while avoiding excess sodium, sugar and unhealthy fats.
My patients often ask me what type of diet I recommend. There are lots of good diets out there. Whichever diet you choose I encourage you to eat mostly plants (i.e. fruits and vegetables) with as little processing as possible. Such a diet is naturally low in the things we want to avoid – salt, sugar and unhealthy fats. It is also high in the things our body needs – vitamins and minerals.
Eating right helps maintain a healthy weight and reduce the likelihood of blood pressure and blood sugar problems. Still, it is tough to do it all the time. So, if you are like me and have trouble giving up an unhealthy food completely, try limiting the portion size or the frequency of eating that food. For me, that means eating all the right things six days per week and giving myself a break on the seventh day. That grace day gives me extra flexibility if I am out at a restaurant or eating at a friend’s home, but enough structure to eat the “right” things most of the time.
Exercise: All systems in good running order
I have a generator, and if I start it up every three or four months, it works great. If I forget about it for 6-12 months it takes quite a few more pulls and some tuning up to get it running again. When I go long stretches without exercise, I tend to have a similar reaction. Exercise not only keeps our bodies in good running order, it’s important for maintaining a healthy weight, promoting cardiovascular health, and boosting mental health.
Exercise can take many forms, but the key is getting approximately 150 minutes per week (e.g. 30 minutes per day for five days per week). Walking is a great form of low-impact exercise, and we have lots of parks and hikes here to take advantage of. Walking has the added plus of being beneficial for many forms of musculoskeletal low back pain. Many of my patients suffer from joint pains of the knee or hip, and walking can be difficult for them. In those cases try other low-impact activity like swimming, stationary bicycle, rowing machine or the elliptical.
Sleep: More than a recharging
Have you ever needed to use a cordless drill for a project and gotten everything ready to go only to realize that the battery is completely drained? A cordless drill is useless without a charged battery. Charging a battery is a pretty good analogy for the role of sleep in human health, but sleep actually does quite a bit more than just charge our batteries. Sleep is a critical step in memory consolidation. Hormone levels change and reset when we sleep. There have been large studies done showing improved health outcomes for those who are able to get quality sleep during overnight hours.
Our understanding of what goes into a good night’s sleep has grown. In healthcare, we recognize that good sleep habits and practices are important, and we call these “sleep hygiene.” Some of these seem obvious – like getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night, having a predictable bedtime, and making sure that the bedroom is dark and quiet. Others are not as obvious. Looking at television, computer, or smartphone screens in the time immediately before bed can interfere with your ability to have high-quality sleep. Alcohol before bed also increases the chances of waking up during the night. Over time, good habits are reinforcing and lead to more consistent high-quality sleep by training our minds and bodies to fall into beneficial patterns.
Mental Health: Connection and purpose help us thrive
Good self-care can support mental health. There are also some other good ideas worth trying to promote mental wellbeing. One of the easiest things to do is to take time for gratitude. Saying or writing down what you are grateful for on a regular basis can shift our own attitudes and influence the way we perceive the world around us and our own experience of it. Building in time to be in nature or to pursue a creative endeavor can provide a sense of inspiration and reinvigoration. Another worthwhile habit is volunteering for a worthy cause. Volunteering connects us to other people and to a sense of purpose that can both give back to our communities and enrich our own lives.
When I go to work, I want to be the best doctor I can be for my patients. That requires staying up to date with the latest medical research and standards of care. I want to be the best husband and father. To do that I need to intentionally let go of what happened in the office when I drive home and focus on my family. To be the best version of ourselves for ourselves and those we care about requires first paying attention to some self-care.
The recommendations here are straightforward, but it can be tough to make these habits stick. Over the years I have made lots of self-care plans that never really took hold. The times I have been successful are the times that I have told someone else about my plan or enlisted someone else to participate with me. When my wife knows I have committed to a healthy diet, she can keep me honest. When I have a regular Saturday morning bike ride with a friend, it won’t fall by the wayside. If you have struggled to make time for self-care in the past, try enlisting an accountability partner.
Some of us have gotten out of routines or had to establish new ones in the last year. By focusing on self-care, we’re doing the regular maintenance needed not just to maintain a functioning body and mind, but to thrive and be our best.
Peter Barkett, MD, practices internal medicine at Kaiser Permanente Silverdale. He lives in Bremerton.