Strategically Plan Your Health: Four Steps to Body, Brains, and Bliss

Dr. Vonda Wright

You plan all aspects of your life, be it your education, career,  finances, or  kids’ education, yet few of us take the time to plan the very part of our lives that makes all the others possible—our health.

Sure, there are those lucky few who seem to get away with every health mischief in the book and live to a ripe old age. But, for most of us, not paying attention to the details of our health can lead to a slippery slide from a life of vitality to a life of frailty.

It’s time you paid a little attention to yourself. It’s time to move out of the middle-age lane, with seemingly nowhere to go but old, and pay attention to the lifestyle choices that fortify your body, build a better brain, and change the way you feel about yourself, your life, and your future—your bliss.

You need a strategic plan to add high-quality years to your life, not just pass the time. I prescribe four simple steps:

  1. A Vision
  2. Action
  3. Attitude
  4. Achievement

Let’s talk about creating A Vision for your future—what do you really want and where are you going? Why is your health important to you? You need to take Action by assessing your physical health, fitness levels, and current nutrition. We’ll apply the plan to your Attitude by learning about the science of the body, brain, and bliss connection and taking steps to build a better brain. And finally, measure your Achievement.

A Vision

The first step in strategically planning your health is creating A Vision for your future. You have the power to make your life healthy, vital, active, and thriving but you have to know where you are going. According to Andy Stanley, in Visioneering, “creating a vision gives significance to otherwise meaningless details of our lives.” 

Think of it this way, if the work you do for life and for your health are like bricks then laying them without a plan will give you a random pile of rubble. With A Vision, you can build a monument.

Creating A Vision for your health does not mean dreaming the impossible dream (for instance, I will never be tall, blond, or likely to live to 110). It is a realistic picture of how you want to live the rest of your life based on your values, family history, and what you want to become. There is never an age or time when it is too late to make real changes in your lifestyle and health. A Vision will motivate, inspire, and direct your path.

Take some time and ask yourself the following questions:

  1. When was the last time I really noticed myself?
  2. Is health something I value? Really?
  3. What does “health” mean to you? Independence? Weight management? No pills? Unlimited activity?
  4. Am I happy with my current health, weight, activity level?
  5. Do I devote time to maintaining my body?
  6. What did my last health success look like?
  7. When was the last time I was fit?
  8. Are you happy? When was the last time you were truly happy?
  9. How was your parent’s health? Often this sets the tone for your life.
  10. Do you believe you can change your health?  What will it take?

Now that you are thinking about it, write an umbrella statement about what you would like your future health to look like. Maybe it is as simple as, “I want to decrease the number of pills I take a day and increase my daily exercise,” or perhaps, “I want to be in the best physical, mental, and emotional shape of my life.” 

Next, be more specific. Create a list of action points for making your statement real then rewrite it. For instance, “I want to minimize my blood pressure medication by exercising 30 minutes per day and limiting my salt intake while I lose 10 pounds.” This vision casting is a great way to begin talking to your doctor about your goals for a healthier future.

Action

The next step in building a strategic plan for your health is taking Action for your body! In my new book, Dr. Vonda Wright’s Guide to THRIVE, I give you a six month day-by-day exercise plan to take Action. Check it out if you want a path to exercise success. 

You can’t, however, know where you are going unless you know your starting point.
I’m going to set you up for success with a few tips you can start right in your home and doctor’s office.

  1. Know your body:  Go stand in front of a mirror.  What physical traits do you like the most?  What traits would you like to work on?  Write down your priorities.
  2. Know you numbers:  What happens on the outside of your body says a lot about what is going on inside.  Write down these numbers and keep them with you.  Update them periodically.
         a. Height
         b. Weight
         c. Waist measurement (ideally for healthy  
             women <35 | men <40)
         d. Hip measurement
         e. Waist/Hip ratio (ideal is <0.8, the closer
             to 1.0, the higher your health risk)
         f. Resting heart rate (taken first thing in  
             the morning)
         g. Total Cholesterol ( Triglycerides | LDL | HDL)
         h. Fasting blood glucose
         i. Blood pressure
         j. Percent body fat
  3. Connect with your Doctor:  Every adult should establish a relationship with a primary care physician, ideally before getting sick!
  4. Chart your progress with my Fitness and Nutrition (F.A.N.) Club: an amazing interactive online tool that uses the above health numbers  you just gathered, to provide you with an individualized health profile. This is not a generic set of instructions but is all about you specifically. By answering the 78 health assessment questions online, the F.A.N. Club will tell you what diseases you are at risk for and give you specific tips for minimizing your risks.  This is a great tool for starting or continuing a dialogue with your doctor.
  5. Play the 500 rule: Many people are interested in nutrition because they want to lose weight. Nutrition is a complex subject but weight loss is really just a numbers game. To lose a pound a week you must take in 3500 kcal less than you burn or in other words burn 3500kcal more than you take in. Breaking that down daily means worrying about a mere 500kcal per day. Eating 500kcal less can be as simple as skipping the salad dressing at lunch today (100kcal per tablespoon), drinking a simple cup of coffee instead of the supercharged fancy coffee ensemble (average 350kcal), or going without your morning OJ to a tune of 50kcal per oz (almost 500kcal per glass!). From the exercise side, you can get rid of approximately 500 kcal by walking up stairs, running, rowing, cycling, or swimming for an hour.

Taking Action to be healthier means getting to know yourself and making small changes at the start.  Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is your monument to health.

Attitude

You have written A Vision, taken some Action and now it is time to prepare your Attitude—aka build a better brain. I like to think of attitude as how our brain thinks and how we feel (bliss). Interestingly, the connection between our body, brain, and bliss is not only figurative but also literal! Many exciting studies now show us that the common thread that connects our body, our brains, and our bliss is actually physical activity—exercise! 

It’s no wonder at all that exercise strengthens the brain’s ability to learn. Even at a cellular level we are wired for mobility. Chronic intense activity increases capillary development in the brain, enabling oxygen, glucose, and a spectrum of growth hormones access to the brain. In addition, our bodies respond to the physical stress of exercise as if we were trying to escape danger—the old flight or fight mechanism.  When we get our blood pumping, under real stress or stress induced by running in the park, we release norepinephrine, or adrenaline. Adrenaline acts on the brain to sharpen our attention, increase our arousal, and motivate us to assimilate new information, or learn. At the same time, serotonin is released to calm the brain’s nerves so you can think straight. This puts our brains in a prime environment for learning. 

Not only is exercise the wonder tool for connecting body, brains, and bliss in the short term, but since the early 1990s neuroscientists have known that exercise increases the release of a neurotrophin, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF fertilizes existing neurons leading to function better and stimulation of growth of new nerve cells for long-term brain health. In mice, a single episode of intense exercise promotes production of BDNF by 200%.

We maximize the benefits of exercise on thinking ability by combining physical exertion with an activity that challenges our brains, thus requiring it to make complex neural connection in order to play. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic found that when people in their 80s had participated in moderate exercise during their middle age years, they were 39% less likely to develop dementia—all this from just a little run in the park.

This brain building is not just for adults! Studies have found that the brains of active children have more developed centers for cognitive function than those of sedentary kids. Beckman and Kramer of the University of Illinois used MRI’s to look at the brains of these two groups and found the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for reasoning and thinking) was 12% bigger in the active kids. This translated into improved memory and information integration.

John Ratey, in his excellent book Spark, sums it up nicely, “The research consistently shows that the more fit you are, the more resilient your brain becomes and the better it functions both cognitively and psychologically. Get your body in shape and your mind will follow.”

So, how do you build a better brain?  Here are my top five tips:

  1. Step away from the couch daily for at least 30 minutes of brisk to intense exercise. This builds your body, your brain, and your bliss.
  2. Memorize new lyrics while you exercise to maximize your brain benefit
  3. Eavesdrop on yourself: unload your brain to make room for new learning by making lists of what you have to do today, next week, and next month.
  4. De-stress by taking a long deep breath in through your nose and exhale out through your mouth.  This breath releases a chemical called nitric oxide from your airways, which then relaxes your blood vessels and lowers your blood pressure.
  5. Rewire your brain by setting up a reward for exercising.  This way your brain will begin associating incredibly healthy habits with pleasure (instead of work) and it will give you something to look forward to.

Achieve

Even in the short time you have been reading this article you have taken positive steps towards strategically planning your health by actually thinking about it in concrete terms. Keep thinking! As Vincent Van Gogh once said, “Great things are seldom done by impulse but instead by a series of small things brought together.”

Everyday you carryout your strategic plan I want you to plan a small reward. You’re brain really will be rewired  Set up daily reminders of your plan and stay accountable by telling people close to you what you are doing. Every few weeks re-evaluate your vision statement and make concrete adjustments based on your progress.

Nothing is more important than your health. You plan everything else in your life. You deserve the time it takes to make a strategic plan!