In STRONG HEART, SHARP MIND: The 6-Step Brain-Body Balance Program that Reverses Heart Disease and Helps Prevent Alzheimer’s, Dr. Marwan Sabbagh and Joseph C. Piscatella offer practical lifestyle advice that can improve heart and brain health and help prevent Alzheimer’s.
Read an excerpt from STRONG HEART, SHARP MIND below.
Once in a while, an anecdote says it all. One of my favorites is the one about two salespeople who were sent to the outback of Australia to sell shoes. The salesman emails back to his company, “No potential for sales here. The people don’t wear shoes.” The second sales rep looks at things differently. His email? “Wonderful potential here. The people don’t wear shoes.”
The moral of the story: If you view your health as if there are no possibilities for improvement, well, then there are no possibilities. But if you can see those prospects, if you can see hope, if you can see lights at the end of tunnels—you can achieve whatever you envision. Either way, what your mind sees will be right.
Be Open to Change
Change can be hard. Dealing with the unfamiliar and sometimes uncomfortable can arouse fear and breed resistance. Doing things differently takes thought and effort and forces many people out of their comfort zone— the self-image that says, “I am what I am, and I can’t change.” When faced with a new way of living, reasons not to change are easily found, such as “I know I should eat a high-fiber cereal for breakfast, but my friends meet for coffee and doughnuts every morning and I like being there.”
Receptiveness to change is a product of perspective and attitude, an understanding that doing things differently may break a comfortable pattern of life but can result in growth and improvement. A closed attitude, on the other hand, acts as a barrier and prevents the implementation of healthy lifestyle changes. Self-imposed barriers restrict the possible, limit expectations, and impair the ability to change for the better. People have to overcome them in order to see themselves as individuals who can live a healthy lifestyle.
I’ll use a famous analogy from the sports world: Why did it take until 1954 before the four-minute mile mark was broken? Perhaps it was because no one before Roger Bannister believed it could be done. And once he did it, others realized they could do it. Just forty-six days after Bannister broke the four-minute barrier that had stood for decades, an Australian runner did it again. A year later, several milers broke four minutes in the same race. Today, over 1,400 sub four-minute miles recorded, and the world mark is below 3:45. Certainly, technique, train- ing methods, and equipment have improved. But human evolution hasn’t changed in sixty-seven years. Once Bannister showed it could be done, everyone knew it was possible for a human to do it again.
This also holds true in making healthy lifestyle changes. If people are locked into the way they’ve always lived (“I am what I am”), their comfort zone becomes a psychological rut . . . and any attempt to change is met with constant struggle. At best, temporary results are achieved. But if life- style change is approached with an open, “can-do” attitude, the chances for long-term success are greatly improved.
Self-responsibility means acknowledging that we alone are responsible for our lifestyle choices and, to a great extent, our heart and brain health. It’s easy to blame other people, outside circumstances, or the fact that you are busy as the reasons you’re not exercising, not getting enough sleep, not eating right. Other people and our environment do impact our lifestyle, of course, but ultimately, they are not responsible for our decisions and actions. What we do to and for our bodies is a personal responsibility.
This was driven home to me soon after my surgery during a visit with my cardiologist. I had done some research on diet and heart disease, and now, I was ready to take action.
“My diet is a problem, isn’t it?” I asked. “Yes, it is,” he replied. “Your cholesterol and triglycerides are too high, and you need to lose a few pounds.”
“What are we going to do about it?” I inquired. He looked at me and put up his hands. “Darned if I know,” he said. “I’m a doctor and I understand disease. If you have another blockage, come back and see me. But you’re talking about health, not disease. And frankly, health is not my field.”
I was stung by his comments and was so angry that I could hardly speak. But after I thought about it, I realized that he was right. While he could help by providing resources, or directing me to a cardiac rehabilitation program, or recommending a registered dietitian, what he could not do was make these positive lifestyle changes for me. He knew I had come to his office looking for a pill or a prescription—a quick fix for my problem. His message, though shocking at first, moved me to a fundamental understanding of who was responsible for the way I lived. It was my heart, my life, my diet—and ultimately, my health. The decisions and actions also had to be mine.
That message was reinforced the following week when I attended a healthy-eating class as part of the hospital’s cardiac rehabilitation program. Of the twelve male bypass patients who had been invited, I was the only one who showed up. The other eleven sent their wives! Granted, this was the late 1970s, when gender roles were different. But still, these men did not see themselves as being responsible for what they ate. Instead, they saddled their wives with that responsibility. No one can assume responsibility for another’s health. Not only is it unfair; it doesn’t work.
Everyday life is filled with events that can knock any of us down. We all react to adversity a little bit differently. One person can be devastated by losing a job, while another takes a deep breath and moves on. One person simply collapses under the weight of his troubles, while his neighbor actively looks for a way to get through them and even thrive. That’s the resilient and persistent person I want to focus on—the individual who, whatever comes his way, manages to keep control of his thoughts, feelings, focus, and actions. That’s the person who, when knocked down, bounces back.
Early on in my small-step journey to a healthy lifestyle, I learned that failure was not found in falling down. True failure is not getting back up again. It’s not about missing a workout, staying up late one night to watch a movie and failing to get adequate sleep, or eating a donut. It’s about not exercising for a week because you “don’t feel like it.”
In short, it’s about quitting.
Here is a favorite story of mine: A sales manager is firing up his people. “Did the Wright brothers quit?” “No!” they responded. “Did Rocky quit?” “No!” they shouted. “Did Thorndike McKester quit?” There was a long, confused silence. Then a salesperson shouted from the audience, “Who in the world is Thorndike McKester? Nobody’s ever heard of him.” The sales manager shouted back, “Of course you haven’t—that’s because he quit!”
Hang in There!
Persevering means stopping not when you are tired but when the task is done. As diplomat and advisor to three U.S. presidents, Robert Strauss once remarked, “It’s a little like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you are tired. You quit when the gorilla is tired.”
The capacity to persevere is also known as grit, defined as firmness of mind and spirit. It is the ability to dig deep and do whatever it takes to achieve your worthy goals. Sometimes in order to demonstrate true grit, you have to be creative as well as persistent. When Bernie and I were first married, we lived in Tacoma, Washington, but I worked in Chicago. So for a few months, I commuted on weekends until Bernie could join me.
She applied to be a substitute teacher in an elementary school in Chicago and was told by a somewhat curt secretary, “No positions are open. We’ll call you if it changes.” She went back a half dozen times and always received the same response.
One day, she was home and baked an apple pie. She and I each had a piece at dinner. The following day, hav- ing applied yet again and been rejected again, she was so depressed that she ate the whole pie! That did it. It was as if her persistence switch turned on. She marched down to the office and said to the secretary, “You are going to see me here every day of your life. I know you have openings and I’m well qualified to substitute. I’ll be here until it happens.” An hour later, she was signed up to substitute the following day.
Persistence had gotten her the position, but now she had a pie problem. She did not want her new husband—me—to know that she’d eaten the entire pie. So she baked a new one, ate two pieces, and put the rest on the table for dinner. I gave her props for true grit, but I never learned about her creativity until our twentieth anniversary, when she told me the whole story!
Extracted from STRONG HEART, SHARP MIND: The 6-Step Brain-Body Balance Program that Reverses Heart Disease and Helps Prevent Alzheimer’s by Joseph C. Piscatella; Marwan Noel Sabbagh M.D., published by Humanix Books. Text © Joseph C. Piscatella and Marwan Noel Sabbagh M.D., 2022.