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An Up Side to Tough Times: Can $4 a Gallon Gasoline Improve Your Health?

Americans’ hearts grew stronger and healthier during those trying times between 1929 and 1945—and certainly not because of lower stress levels. If you are cringing as you pump gasoline at $4 a gallon into your car’s fuel tank, you might take solace in the fact that scarcity sometimes can be a blessing in disguise.  We can respond to some of the harsh economic realities we are facing today with the same frugal and industrious spirit as our ancestors, and can reap the health benefits as well.

        If you are cringing as you pump gasoline at $4 a gallon into your car’s fuel tank, you might take solace in the fact that scarcity sometimes can be a blessing in disguise. Heart disease deaths sky-rocketed for much of the 20th Century, except for the lean years that began with the Great Depression and ended with World War II. Curiously, Americans’ hearts grew stronger and healthier during those trying times between 1929 and 1945—and certainly not because of lower stress levels.

        Scientists studying this unexpected reprieve in the epidemic of heart disease came to the conclusion that it was the rationing of sugar, butter, meat, and gasoline that halted the march of coronary disease across the land. During that harsh economic era Americans typically ate less of most foods, especially meat and processed carbohydrates; but did eat more fish and vegetables. And because gasoline was limited, they restricted their driving habits, and instead used their bodies for locomotion.

         I recall my grandmother’s stories about life in the 1930s and 40s and how she relied on carrots, tomatoes, beans, and beets from her garden to help feed her family. For many years Dorothy, who lived to be 102, also walked one and one-half miles to her work each day, and home again at night because it was her only option.

           We can respond to some of the harsh economic realities we are facing today with the same frugal and industrious spirit as our ancestors, and can reap the health benefits as well. Do less driving and more walking. Try to walk for some local errands, or ride a bike to the store if you need just a few items. Plant a garden. The foods you grow yourself will make you stronger and healthier, even if they never make it to your plate.

Enjoy It or Lose It

             Much of aging comes down to losing our abilities to perceive the beauty in our world and fully participate in its adventures. The directive, “use it or lose it,” applies not just to your muscles and brain, but also to your heart, vision, hearing, balance, and to your senses of smell and taste, even of course to your sexual function. In a very real sense, you get what you settle for, so if you are finding it difficult to climb stairs, your body is telling you that you need to do more stair climbing to rebuild those muscles. It is not overuse, but lack of use, that erodes our sensory capabilities, physical strength, and mental clarity as the decades go by. In other words, people don’t wear out, they rust away. Dust off the cobwebs by getting outside and using your phenomenal capabilities to their fullest, and you will find yourself growing stronger, sharper, and more perceptive.

“The Nature-Deficit Disorder”

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” Rachel Carson

          Richard Louv, in his brilliant book, Last Child in the Woods, introduced the concept of nature-deficit disorder, which he described as the human suffering such as dulling of the senses, difficulties with mood, and higher rates of physical and mental illness caused by our diminished contact with nature. He contends that reconnecting with nature can remind us of how blessed we are to be alive, and can soothe, heal and reinvigorate us.

          Nature, unlike television, does not steal time, it magnifies it. To feel fully alive, we need fully activated senses and nothing tunes up your senses like getting out in nature. One of my patients told me recently, “When I am outside working in my garden, tending my flowers and vegetables, I feel like I might just live to be 100.” Indeed, the book, English Gardener, published over 300 years ago, urged the reader to “spend spare time in the garden, either digging, planting, or weeding; there is no better way to preserve your health.”

        Occasionally, I will wear my iPod when I am out running or walking, but I have learned that outdoor exercise leaves me much more relaxed and invigorated when I listen to the sounds of nature, whether it’s the wind rustling the leaves, or the birds singing to each other, or the crickets, or even the rain. There is something magical about just taking in the sky, the clouds, the sun, the fresh air, and the trees. When I am outside, I remind myself to not just look straight ahead, but look up at the sky, and look down at the grass. Feel the breeze on your face, the sun on your skin, the ground under your feet. These sensations in nature connect us to our ancestral home, our native environment. If you are near a stream, a lake, or an ocean, listen to the water flow, or watch the waves. Their power to mesmerize us lies deep within our genetic legacy. These were sources of life for our ancient ancestorsPsychology Articles, and they still have the power to bring us peace and happiness.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Dr. James O’Keefe is a practicing preventive cardiologist at Cardiovascular Consultants of the Saint Luke’s Mid-America Heart Institute located in Kansas City, MO.  He is actively involved with clinical research, has published over 200 peer-reviewed manuscripts, and is the lead author of several books including The Forever Young Diet & Lifestyle.



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