Living a healthy lifestyle should be simple. You know what to do to be healthy: eat sensibly, exercise consistently, get a good night’s sleep, and avoid excessive stress. It seems simple enough. Well, simple doesn’t mean that it’s easy because most of the patients that I see at UCLA struggle to practice a healthy lifestyle. And, since two out of three Americans are overweight or obese, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is clearly a challenge for the majority of us.
This is why I’ve spent over two decades of medical practice creating a process that has helped thousands of my patients achieve a healthy lifestyle. I call this process The Wellness Code and it has become both my passion and my mission as a physician.
True mastery of wellness involves both understanding and practicing the habits of healthy living. In other words, you need to know both what to do and how to do it. Thus, The Wellness Code combines the knowledge of what is needed for optimal wellness with the practical information needed to implement a healthy lifestyle.
Why do I call this a code? The word “code” generally has two definitions. A “code” can be a system of letters, numbers, sounds, or other symbols that provide access to something important. However, “code” can also have a second meaning. A code can be a way of life; a set of principles for how you live each day. My hope is that “The Wellness Code” will serve both of these purposes by providing access to a system for lifelong optimal health and happiness.
My patients tell me that The Wellness Code is unlike anything they’ve read or heard before. I believe that’s because the focus ofThe Wellness Code is on practical strategies and tools that work for long-term success. This is not another diet program that offers short-term results and long-term pain. Instead, this program offers practical solutions that can last a lifetime.
The Wellness Code isn’t a diet. It’s a way of life.
A major problem with most diet and lifestyle programs is that they don’t take into account how people change. Most diets approach a healthy lifestyle with the mistaken belief that people can immediately rework their life all at once. This simply isn’t the way that life works. When these well-intentioned diet programs recommend that you immediately implement their entire system, it is generally a set-up for failure. Even if you are successful in making such sweeping changes, it is unlikely that you will be able to maintain these changes over the long-term.
Another reason most diets are unsuccessful is that they provide the information needed to be healthy, but don’t provide the tools needed to actually implement this knowledge. There is a big difference between theoretically knowing what to do and actually living these practices on a daily basis. Just as listening to music for years doesn’t qualify you to perform a concert at Madison Square Garden, simply reading about the practice of healthy living doesn’t prepare you to live a healthy lifestyle. I believe the disconnection between knowing and doing is the root cause of most people’s health struggles. The Wellness Code, on the other hand, teaches a process in which you learn both what you need to do for optimal wellness and also how to implement these practices.
Within this book, I’ve included a wealth of information about the “what to do,” as well as the “how to do it” for the practice of wellness. You will notice that I repeat some of the important principles throughout the different sections of the book. This is intentional. Some of you will read this book from cover to cover while others will only read the sections that are of interest. I’ve written this book so that it can be read either way.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of The Wellness Code, let’s define what I mean by “wellness.” The traditional definition of wellness is “the state or condition of good physical and mental health.” For me, that’s an incomplete definition as it only includes part of how I define wellness. Do you remember the original television show Star Trek? Leonard Nimoy played Spock on that show and would sometimes say a catch phrase that perfectly encapsulates what I believe is true wellness: “Live long and prosper.” Mr. Spock realized there are actually two components to wellness:
Optimal health (to prosper)
Longevity (to live long)
The first component of wellness is to have optimal health—to live a good, healthy life rich with depth and fulfillment, optimal health, and meaningful relationships. The second key to wellness is longevity. You want to live a life full of great experiences, great relationships, and great physical and mental health, but you also want to hang around for a long while. When I talk about trying to achieve wellness, I mean that you’re striving for both a healthy and long life. Living a life of wellness involves living a healthy, vibrant life so that you can savor your precious moments with friends, family and your community.
In addition to Spock’s message, I would go a step further and add one more component to the definition of wellness. That third component of wellness is happiness. By happiness, I don’t mean the sort of temporary feeling that passes in an hour or a day. I’m referring to a deep rooted appreciation and fulfillment in life. It is this joy in life, when combined with health and longevity, which leads us down the road to true wellness. Thus, my definition of wellness includes all three components: longevity, health and happiness.
Wellness = Longevity + Health + Happiness
Throughout this book, when I mention wellness, feel free to mentally substitute “living long, living well, and living happily.” If there’s a “secret” to The Wellness Code, it is to master the habits of these three arenas: longevity, health and happiness.
The Wellness Code is a practical roadmap to help you master longevity, health, and happiness in a way that will last a lifetime. This book will provide you with the information necessary to achieve optimal wellness. In addition, I will walk you through howto incorporate this information into your day-to-day life in a way that will last.
By practicing The Wellness Code, you will learn the strategies that have worked for my patients to find optimal health and longevity while still living their busy and demanding lives. And we’re going to have some fun along the way as well! So, let’s get started by going back to 1998 when the idea for this book was hatched.
Chapter 1: The Story of The Wellness Code
The story of this book began on February 21, 1998 when I had what I call my Jerry Maguire moment. Remember the scene in that great Tom Cruise movie when Jerry Maguire has his “eureka” moment where he’s inspired to write the mission statement that completely changes his life? We all have those moments in our lives when a flash of clarity changes us forever.
I had just started my first medical practice and was extremely busy. Even though I’ve always prided myself on being in excellent physical condition, I was unfortunately ignoring my health. I knew how to take good care of myself, but I was working very long hours and was living off takeout food and getting far too little exercise.
That winter, I wanted a break from the bitter Boston weather so I flew down to South Florida to visit my Grandma Emma in West Palm Beach. I figured it would be a nice respite of golf, sun and pampering from my loving grandmother.
When I arrived at Grandma Emma’s condo, the first thing she said to me was, “Brian, wow! You’ve gotten fat!” It was painful to hear my grandmother say that to my face. However, I could always count on Grandma Emma for her blunt honesty. I immediately ran to the mirror, looked at myself and realized that she was right. A tennis player for most of my life, I had always been in great shape and weight had never been an issue for me. Because I was so busy starting my professional life, I hadn’t noticed that I had gradually gained about twenty pounds. Grandma Emma sure noticed.
At first, I was hurt. How could my grandmother say such a thing to me? Then I became angry at myself for letting this happen. After four years of medical school, three years of internal medicine residency training, and several years of medical practice, I knew a lot better. Despite all of that, I found myself heading down the path of weight gain due to poor lifestyle choices which could eventually lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer if things didn’t change.
Once I got over my bruised feelings, I started to come to terms with the difficult realization that I needed to learn how to actually live a healthy lifestyle. I already knew what foods to eat, how to exercise, how much sleep I needed, and how to control stress. However, despite having an intellectual understanding of how to be healthy, I wasn’t practicing these habits on a consistent basis. I wasn’t walking the walk. I saw this mirrored in the patients I was seeing at the office and in the hospital as well. The vast majority of my patients knew exactly what they should be doing, but were not living in a manner consistent with that knowledge.
Let me suggest that we’ve reached a point in our society where most of us know what we’re supposed to do to be healthy. We’re supposed to eat healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources, and healthy fats in reasonable portions. We’re supposed to exercise regularly. We’re supposed to get a good night’s sleep each night. We’re supposed to avoid excessive stress. Sound familiar? You’ve probably heard all this before.
Well, despite knowing all that, today approximately two-thirds of all Americans are either overweight or obese. Yes, you read that correctly: only one in three Americans is in the “normal” weight range. And, because of poor lifestyle habits, the incidence of high blood pressure, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and many cancers are skyrocketing. Sadly, we’re witnessing a health crisis of epic proportions.
Genetics do play a role in this equation—some of us are born with a predisposition to being heavier or having medical problems such as high cholesterol or diabetes. However, lifestyle choices and environment also have a lot to do with your health. By environment, I’m talking about the day-to-day world in which we live; our jobs, relationships, kids, travel, and other factors that make healthy living a real challenge.
All the technological advances of the twenty-first century that were supposed to make your life easier have instead made life far more complicated and stressful. Compared to prior generations, we seem to have less and less time each day to take care of ourselves. And, that’s how I found myself standing in front of the mirror facing the unpleasant reality that I had let myself slip into an unhealthy lifestyle.
I spent that week in Florida doing a lot of soul searching. I thought a great deal about health and longevity. I’ve always enjoyed writing, so my first instinct was to write down my thoughts. It was during that week that I created the outline for what would change my approach to patient care and would eventually become this book. Ideas flew through my mind as I started to see the connections between pieces of information that I had learned in my medical training and in medical practice. I started to understand the big picture of how wellness truly works in both the short and long-term.
A week later, I left Grandma Emma’s Florida condo and flew back to Boston. I was eager to get back to my office and start sharing my enthusiasm and insights with my patients. I didn’t quite know how to implement all of this, but I could sense it was starting to come together.
One of the first patients I saw that week was Victor, one of the most engaging and likeable people I’ve ever met. However, his overflowing enthusiasm and zest for life contrasted sharply with his extremely poor medical condition. He suffered from severe complications related to his long-standing type 2 diabetes including heart disease and recurrent skin infections in his legs. He was on an enormous list of prescriptions. Despite all of the medications, his medical problems still weren’t adequately controlled because of his poor lifestyle.
Even though we discussed this at each office visit, Victor ate all the wrong foods in extremely large portions and lived a nearly completely sedentary life. Over the prior three years, we had many lengthy conversations about his high risk of having a stroke, heart attack, or even sudden death. Despite understanding all of this, Victor still hadn’t changed his lifestyle. Victor’s health was declining and we had reached the end of the line in terms of what traditional medicine could offer him. As I prepared myself to have the same conversation with Victor for the umpteenth time, I thought that there must be more that I could do to help him turn things around.
There I was in the exam room with Victor when, instead of again telling him what he needed to change, I decided to try something new. I asked, “Victor, what can I do to help you with this?” Victor didn’t respond for about ten seconds. The silence seemed to last for an eternity. When he finally spoke, he said something that has stuck with me to this day. “Doc, I know what to do. I’ve read every diet book there is.” Then he placed his hands around his belly and said “There’s more to this than just knowing what to do. Please help me figure this out.”
Victor then looked at me with defeat in his eyes and continued, “I want to be healthier, Doc. I just don’t know how to do it. I don’t know where to start, but if you tell me how to do it, I’ll try. I’ll give it everything I’ve got.”
Basically, Victor asked me for an instruction manual for implementing a healthy lifestyle, much like the one that I had been working on since my Florida trip. I realized that Victor—and many of my other patients—needed something beyond being told to eat right and exercise. They needed a lifestyle plan that could be individualized and tailored to their needs, and that would provide both the information and practical advice for how to incorporate the plan into their daily lives.
That night, I took the outline I had written in Florida and expanded it to include every habit that I believed could help Victor and other patients like him. I challenged myself to create a comprehensive list of the habits that contribute to healthy living and longevity. As I constructed this list, I included habits that involved nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress management. I also included habits from arenas that doctors don’t normally address such as relationships, parenting, driving, and even spirituality. Most importantly, I made sure that each of these habits was backed by sound science and high quality published studies.
I continued to work on this for several months until I had created a patient handout that included the fifty most important, scientifically-validated lifestyle habits needed for good health. Each of the habits focused on tools and strategies for both short-term and long-term success. At the office, I was still seeing patients with the same problems such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, but now I was beginning to find ways to combine the medical care that I had learned at Johns Hopkins and Yale (mostly medications and procedures) with practical strategies for a healthy lifestyle.
This handout quickly became an integral part of my medical practice. During office visits with my patients, I discussed important lifestyle topics such as nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress. With each patient visit, I tried to identify one or two lifestyle changes that would be most beneficial. I made sure that this was a collaborative effort so that these were habits that I felt were important and that the patient was interested in and committed to trying. At the end of each office visit, I wrote these habits on a prescription just like I would when I prescribed a medication. This lifestyle prescription became my patients’ “homework” until the next appointment.
In Victor’s case, he struggled with a sedentary lifestyle, so his first habit was to go for a five minute walk each morning. My goal was to make recommendations based on what was achievable and beneficial to the health of each patient.
In the beginning, I wasn’t sure how this approach would be received by my patients. Would they be interested in my new expanded approach to health? Would they be willing to try some of the tools that I was recommending? The answer was a resounding yes! My patients actually started to change their habits—and improve their health—based on their homework from their visits with me.
Many of my patients started to take ownership of their health as they saw that they could make a true difference in their well-being. Patients shared the lifestyle handout with their friends and family members. Sometimes I would receive a phone call from a complete stranger to let me know that they had been given a copy of the handout by one of my patients and that it had changed their life.
In conjunction with appropriate medications and procedures, these habits helped my patients take better care of themselves. They achieved measurable improvements with diseases such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and autoimmune diseases. In addition to improving their chronic medical conditions, my patients also experienced tremendous success in losing weight.
I was thrilled this new approach was helping so many people. Patients like Victor, who had struggled with their weight for years, began to find the success that had eluded them for decades. In Victor’s case, he lost approximately fifty pounds in the first year and then lost another fifty pounds the following year. His weight loss was the result of making slow, steady changes in his lifestyle habits. Victor looked and felt like a new person and his health was measurably improved in all areas. It was deeply gratifying to see him, and so many of my other patients, finally find the tools that he needed for long-term success.
While seeing such impressive results with my patients, I continued to add tools and strategies to the handout. I listened to my patients to learn what worked for them. I read dozens and dozens of journal articles each week searching for new and innovative strategies to add to the handout. I must have written several hundred drafts of that handout as I was determined to help my patients as much as possible.
Over time, I realized that the habits listed on the lifestyle handout represented timeless health principles that have always—and likely will always—support optimal health and longevity. Health is determined by a combination of genetics and environment: nature and nurture. In addition, there’s a third component to the equation which creates the bridge between nature and nurture. That bridge is our habits. Our habits affect how our genetics are expressed in the environment in which we live.
In this book, you’ll read success stories of how my patients have used these habits to improve their health and vitality. Some have lost impressive amounts of weight and are now in the best shape of their lives. Some have had incredible recoveries from autoimmune diseases, cancers, and heart disease. They’ve accomplished this by consistently practicing the principles contained in this book to find optimal physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
The Wellness Code is not a diet book, but rather a way of life that leads to greater health and happiness. A common “side effect” of making these healthy changes to your habits is that you may be able to lose those nagging pounds that been hanging around for all those years. No matter how many times you have tried to lose weight and improve your health, there’s still hope that you can succeed. That’s the hope that The Wellness Code offers.
I’ve been teaching this way of life to my patients, medical students, and colleagues for many years and I’m so thrilled that The Wellness Code is now available in book form. This book is intended to be as practical and implementable as possible—sort of like a good friend passing on some important information to you. My hope is that you will find yourself returning to this book as you seek your path to health and longevity by practicing these habits day by day, month by month, and year by year. I also hope that you will be inspired to pass on this information to others. One of the most effective ways to reinforce a habit is to teach it to someone else. Nothing makes me happier than seeing this information passed forward to someone else who may be in need.
We lost Grandma Emma in 2008, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss her. I look back fondly on that 1998 trip to Florida and that conversation with Grandma Emma. That was my Jerry Maguire moment; the moment that changed my career and my life. Will this be your moment?