Four Easy Steps All People, Including People with Disabilities, Can Take to Improve Our Health
Originally published in CAPTIVATING! Magazine, this version has been revised and edited.
Recently, I read an article on ABC News that stated that being visually impaired may shorten a person’s lifespan. According to Michael J. Karpa, of the Westmead Millennium Institute in Sydney their study, “revealed greater effects of non-correctable visual impairment on mortality risk, with both direct and indirect effects (Preidt, 2009).” Furthermore, “Their study confirms previous findings that had linked vision impairment with an increased risk of death from such factors as accidental injury, depression, a low body mass index, slow walking speeds, a greater likelihood of falls, lower levels of physical activity, cardiovascular disease, dementia and cancer (ibid).”
There are many reasons why being visually impaired may shorten a person’s life span. For some people, their visual impairment may be connected to another issue. For others, lack of vision may make it hard to exercise. For a long time, I know that I used my visual impairment as an excuse for why I could not live a healthy lifestyle. I hated going to the gym because I couldn’t read the buttons the machines and I had no idea how they worked. I felt as if everyone was staring at me.
By the age of twenty-two, I had reached the weight of 200.9lbs. This meant that, with my height of five foot four inches, my BMI was classified as “obese.” During my annual checkup, my family physician gave me a kind but stern warning.
“Rebecca,” he said gently, “You know that I am the doctor for your mother, your grandmother, and your entire family. High blood pressure runs in your family. You are very young to have a BMI this high. For your own health, and the health of your heart, I have to recommend that you lose some weight.”
“If I lose some weight, will I be healthy?” I asked.
“No,” he replied. “It takes more than weight loss. Good health is a life time commitment; however, losing weight, eating a balanced diet, and living a healthy lifestyle are all good ways to do our best to ensure a long and healthy life.”
Learning about heart health
In February of 2018, Stephanae McCoy, creator of Bold Blind Beauty and co-founder of CAPTIVATING! Magazine, asked if I would do some research about an article related to heart health. February is Heart Health Awareness Month. My research for that article taught me a great deal about heart health. It also helped me to realize, especially when I considered my own personal journey, that small changes can make a big difference. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, “heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. Every year, one in four deaths are caused by heart disease. (ODPHP, n.d.).”
Although according to the Center for Disease Control, some traits that can cause heart disease are likely genetic, there are still some key things that all people can do to to lower their risk of heart disease (CDC, n.d.).
I turned thirty-one in July and I am happy to say that I am the healthiest I have ever been in my entire life. I have lost over 75lbs. To date, I have run three half marathons.
Here are some small but significant steps that I took in my life that added up to a big difference in my overall health- and the health of my heart!
Step 1: Stop smoking- or don’t start!
True confession time: My first job was in food service. It can often be challenging for people with disabilities to find employment. That is why I was thrilled with my first job, even though it was exhausting work that was often less than glamorous.
At this particular job, I quickly learned that people who were smokers got more frequent breaks. My allergies were too bad to allow me to pick up the habit (I’m highly sensitive to cigarette smoke) but I can understand the temptation. I understand that smoking is an addiction and that tobacco use is highly habit forming.
According to the NHS, smoking can greatly increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, COPD, and lung cancer (NHS, 2018). If you are a smoker, I encourage you to consider taking strides to quit this February.
Step Two: Find ways to be active that you enjoy.
I love to run- but that wasn’t always the case. I used to loathe exercising when I was a young child. I was terrified of gym class because I couldn’t see what was happening. Kids can be cruel and I was constantly being hit in the face with basketballs, volley balls, and kick balls.
I carried my hatred of sports into my adult years. I became anxious whenever I set foot in my college’s fitness center. I was uncertain of how to work any of the machines and I couldn’t even see the buttons on the treadmill.
It wasn’t until years later that I learned that the key to health is finding an exercise that you enjoy and that fits with your unique abilities. Eventually, I discovered that I enjoyed walking.
I walked for miles and miles on the treadmill and around the track at my graduate school. Many years later, walking turned to running.
Step Three: Reduce stress- try yoga!
I know that not everyone has the ability to walk- but I am certain everyone who is reading this article is breathing!
If you can breathe, then you can do yoga! Yoga is a great way to relieve stress and improve your sleep cycle. The American Heart Association recommends reducing stress and getting sufficient sleep as two ways that you can reduce your risk of heart disease (AHA, 2017).
I led yoga for over a year at my church and I taught people of all ages and ability levels. Many yoga asanas (poses) and vinyasas (flows) can be adapted for people to do while seated. I am a huge fan of chair yoga and adapted yoga.
Often, when we think about yoga, we tend to place an emphasis on the physical poses or asanas; however, the heart of any holistic yoga practice is connecting to one’s breathing. Not everyone can shape their bodies into a downward facing dog position, but everyone can learn to calm their minds and control their breathing.
By combining both yoga and meditation, we can create a holistic practice in our own lives that is both relaxing and refreshing. It can even help to improve your sleep cycle, reduce back pain, and improve concentration.
Step Four: Small changes make a difference!
It’s no secret that I love food. My friends and family constantly joke that I am always hungry. I also have a serious sweet tooth.
When I first started attempting to live a healthy lifestyle, I slashed my calorie intake to 1200 calories a day and exercised for at least an hour every day.
It didn’t take me long to learn that for me, this type of dramatic lifestyle change just wasn’t going to work all at once. I was so hungry that I couldn’t concentrate during my graduate classes. One day, I almost fainted while walking home from the bus stop. As a person with low vision, it’s incredibly important for me to do my best to not become disoriented while traveling. For my own safety and peace of mind, I decided that I would make small but significant changes to my diet.
I started by reducing my sweets and allowed myself to eat only one dessert a week. I joined Weight Watchers, and as part of the program, I was allowed to eat as many fruits and vegetables as I wanted. This taught me to fill my plate with mostly salad and other green foods. Eventually, I learned that being healthy didn’t have to mean that I constantly felt famished.
Now, eight years later, these small changes have made a huge difference in my life. It feels natural for me to eat a healthy diet and I have even developed a taste for salad! Years ago, if you would have told me that I would crave romaine lettuce, I would have never believed you.
Striding toward heart health
My New Year’s resolution is to run my very first marathon in 2020. Running is a great way for me to relieve stress and is an important part of my attempt to live a healthy lifestyle. Even if you don’t enjoy running, try asking yourself: What other activities do I enjoy? What small changes can I make to my diet? Do I take time to relax?
My marathon training has taught me that the most important part of reaching any goal is taking it one step at a time. We just need to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Even if your mobility is limited, we can all take small but significant metaphorical steps to improving our own health.
Remember- it’s not about winning. It’s how you run the race!
American Heart Association. (6 June 2017). Four Weeks of Heart Healthy Tips. American Heart Association: Healthy Living. Retrieved from: http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/HealthyLiving/Four-Weeks-of-Heart-Healthy-Tips_UCM_462873_Article.jsp#.XGGV41xKiao
CDC. (n.d.). Heart Disease: Family History and Other Characteristics that Inease Risk for Heart Disease. CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/family_history.htm
NHS. (2018). What Are the Risks of Smoking? Retrieved from: https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/lifestyle/what-are-the-health-risks-of-smoking/
ODHP. (n.d.). February: Heart Health Month. HealthFinder.gov- Live Well, Learn How. Retrieved from:https://healthfinder.gov/nho/februarytoolkit.aspx
Preidt, Robert. (14 October 2009). Impaired Vision May Shorten Lifespan. ABC News. Retrieved from: https://abcnews.go.com/Health/Healthday/impaired-vision-shorten-life-span/story?id=8821365
This essay and many others like it are available in my new book The United Methodist Church and Disability: Essays and Practical Tips for Clergy, Churches, and People with Disabilities.
Due to be released in large print paperback and Kindle on November 25th. Now available for Pre-order!
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