Remember when cigarette ads featured physicians smoking? Well, I don’t either; I’m not quite that old. But I do remember in the 1980s, numerous patients I encountered at medical school in North Carolina believed – in some cases based on doctors’ advice – that smoking was healthy because it exercised the lungs and soothed the throat. Moreover, we sold cigarettes in the hospital (this was North Carolina, after all), and many providers and staff smoked. People are influenced not only by what doctors and nurses say, but what they do, when it comes to advice on health behaviors. For example, one survey showed patients had less trust in health advice from overweight doctors than from those of normal weight. (Although another study showed that overweight patients were more confident in dietary advice from doctors who were also overweight. I guess we sometimes listen for confirmation rather than for understanding.) We can also influence our colleagues through our “shadow of leadership.”
If we want to promote our value of health, we can’t just talk about it. We need to model it. On the positive side, a Gallup survey shows that Wisconsinites are above the national average in terms of exercise and eating fresh produce, though granted the national average isn’t all that great. But there’s a lot more we as individuals can do, starting with small but meaningful steps:
1) Literally, take steps. Use the stairs. While I am admittedly a fanatic who acts like I have an anaphylactic response to elevators, even pledging to use stairs whenever you are going 2 floors or less would have a big impact. Each minute of walking up stairs burns about 7-8 calories (unless you’re eating a donut while you’re walking). And it frees up the elevators for patients and families who really need them.
2) As John Cleese once said, “You should eat more fresh fruit.” We are fortunate around here to have an abundance of farmer’s markets in the area – including one on the CHW campus later in the summer – where you can get locally grown produce, supporting not only your personal health but the health of the community.
3) Get out of the car. In US metro areas, nearly half of all car trips are less than 3 miles, and 28% are less than one mile. In fact, 2/3 of all trips less than a mile are made by automobile. I can’t imagine driving less than a mile. It’s easy to avoid the car if you live in a dense area like the east side of Milwaukee or Wauwatosa, but even if you live in the exurbs or the country, it’s likely that once you’ve driven to a destination for shopping, for example, you could get around more on foot while you’re there. To start, think of 1 or 2 times you get in the car each week that you might walk or bicycle instead. If you get really ambitious and start cycling everywhere, join the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin team for the National Bike Challenge.
4) Enter the cone of silence, at least email silence. Thanks to Henry Ford and various unions, the five-day work week has been standard in the US since the 1920s. At least until the 1990s. With the rise of computing and communications technology allowing constant accessibility, there has been a trend toward longer hours and seemingly continual connectivity. This, studies show, is bad for health as well as for productivity. In other countries, governments and large corporations are instituting restrictions on access to email during evenings and weekends. This is, I admit, easier said than done. But I try to set aside at least one day a week where I do not look at my work email. And I am trying to avoid sending email to others on the weekends, lest people feel I expect them to be looking at it and responding.
We don’t see doctors and nurses walking the halls of the hospital with a Chesterfield dangling from their lips anymore. That’s progress. Now let’s see more people taking the stairs, eating local produce, and relaxing on their days off. The first steps on the road to health can’t be taken in a car.