Each is responsible for own health -- years of neglect take toll in later life; good lifestyle pays dividends

While every age group has its own specific concerns regarding health and fitness, some general guidelines apply to everyone. The following questions and answers are based on a conversation with Dr. Garth Fisher, director of the Human Performance Research Center and professor of physical education at BYU.

What are some general principles of physical fitness and health that seem to apply to all ages?Everyone is in charge of his or her own health. Years of poor habits and neglect take their toll later in life in the forms of coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes, lung disease, liver disease, high blood pressure, stroke or osteoporosis.

"In terms of a preventive lifestyle, you ought to live all of your life as if you're going to be 60 or older," Dr. Fisher said.

Such a lifestyle includes proper attention to nutrition, accident prevention, adequate rest and exercise.

What constitutes proper nutrition?

Principles revealed by the Lord in Section 89 of the Doctrine and Covenants are substantiated by science and widely accepted nutritional research. (Please see accompanying article on this page.)

The "Food Guide Pyramid" published in 1992 by the United States Department of Agriculture conforms to the Word of Wisdom. It places emphasis on bread, cereal, rice and pasta as the base of the pyramid. (D&C 89:14 says, "All grain is ordained for the use of man . . . to be the staff of life.") Fruits and vegetables are the next level of the pyramid. (Verses 10 and 16 state that "wholesome herbs" and "that which yieldeth fruit" are for the "constitution, nature and use of man.")

Higher on the pyramid are milk, yogurt and cheese, followed by meat, poultry and fish, indicating that these, while important, are to be limited, as stated in verse 12: "Yea, flesh also of beasts and of the fowls of the air, I the Lord, have ordained for the use of man with thanksgiving; nevertheless they are to be used sparingly."

At the very top of the pyramid are fats, oils and sweets, meaning their use should be restricted the most.

The National Cancer Institute recommends adults consume at least five servings a day of fruits and vegetables. The counsel in D&C 89:11 to use vegetables and fruits "in the season thereof" supports what scientists say: that vegetables and fruits yield the greatest nutritional value when consumed in a fresh, unprocessed state.

What kind of exercise is beneficial?

Cardiovascular exercise is the most beneficial in terms of the basic effect on the body. It uses the large muscle groups (primarily, large leg muscles) moving in a rhythmic fashion and performing continuously. Examples of such activities are walking, running, swimming, bicycling, cross-country skiing and aerobic dancing.

"But as you get older, strength training becomes more and more important," Dr. Fisher said. "Strength training maintains muscle mass longer. Many of the people in rest homes are there not because they're sick but because their muscle fibers have atrophied to the point they can't take care of the necessities of life."

After age 30, most adults begin to lose muscle mass unless they do resistance exercises.

What are some general principles for maintaining optimum body weight?

Eating food low in fat and sugar, with lots of vegetables, fruits and grains, combined with regular exercise, promotes optimum body weight. Because of the variety of maladies associated with excessive body fat, former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and others have said that next to smoking, obesity is the most prevalent preventable cause of premature death among adult Americans.

Does physical fitness affect mental health and strength?

Exercise can counter mental depression. It stimulates certain chemicals in the brain that promote a feeling of well-being. Evidence from military schools suggests that people who are physically fit rank higher in their class standings. One study at a school linked poor physical fitness with the dropout rate.

For someone who may be suffering the consequences of years of neglect, what advice is there?

It's never too late to start living a more fit lifestyle. "The miracle of the whole thing is if you're really out of condition, exercise is more effective for you and you'll improve faster than those who are in condition," Dr. Fisher said. "It's interesting to watch the training effect in people in their 80s and 90s. They can actually gain strength, muscle mass and cardiovascular fitness. The worse your condition the greater your potential for change and the less it takes to bring it about.

"People in poor condition should see their physician to make sure there's nothing serious enough about their health to stop them, and then start a program of gradually increasing activity."

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