Earlier last week on my way to speaking appointments I was a passenger on a South African Airways jetliner as it lifted off from Washington’s Dulles International Airport bound for Johannesburg, South Africa. It was a long, sixteen hour flight with a refueling stop in Dakar, Senegal. The majority of the flight was spent at approximately five miles above the earth where the air is thin and jet engines are the most efficient.
On the seat back in front of me was a small LCD screen which displayed flight information, movies, TV programs, games and more. This flight information is what intrigued me the most. Thanks to the marvels of GPS technology I could watch on that little screen the exact location of our plane on the globe. I saw the coast of North America disappeared to the west, and much later noticed the coast of west Africa appear in the east. In between there was nothing but the Atlantic Ocean.
As we flew southeastward, I reflected on how important it was for the pilots to keep the jetliner on course. The entire flight was more than 8000 miles in length. Even a fraction of a degree change in course could mean hundreds of miles off course at the other end! Thanks to the wonders of modern technology we arrived and landed at precisely the spots intended. A most remarkable feat that is repeated thousands of times each day around the earth.
As a health educator and nutritionist I have worked with many people who over the years have made an accumulation of what they perceived as small, insignificant, but unhealthy choices that led them far from their desired destination. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer are all influenced significantly by our lifestyle choices.
On the other hand, I have also worked with many individuals who attempt to make major changes in their lifestyles in order to achieve quick results. Sometimes that may be necessary, but it is always difficult and challenging to accomplish. On the other hand, most of us can make relatively small changes that will result in big differences in our health without finding it so hard.
For example, simply changing to smaller plates and cups will result in significant decreases in caloric intake over time. Choosing to remain more than an arms length away from food at a social gatherings discourages over-consumption. Because it takes 20 minutes for our brains to know we have eaten, eating slowly helps to reduce the amount we eat.
When we add more fruits and vegetables to our diets we gain the many benefits of those protective foods, but they also tend to replace other less healthful items in our diets. Including whole grain foods improves our nutrition and often is more satisfying, resulting in fewer calories consumed.
When it comes to physical activity there is a big misconception–that it must be performed vigorously and all at one time to be beneficial. Shorter, more moderate forms of physical activity have great benefit. Parking the car farther from the office or mall is good for our health. If you take the bus, walking to the next stop can be very beneficial. Today, research tells us that multiple, shorter bouts of physical activity can be just as beneficial to our health as longer ones.
Getting some physical activity each day and making small, but important dietary changes can lead to major improvements in our health. These and many other relatively small positive choices, applied creatively, and consistently will lead us to our destination of better health!