For improvement, look in mirror, not to Washington

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Editor’s note: Portions of Greg Gregory’s guest column were omitted in the Jan. 6 edition of The Lancaster News. Here is the column in its entirety.

“Your life isn’t changed by the man that’s elected..” – Avett Brothers
Americans look with desperation to Washington to solve our problems. For many of us, however, our largest problem is in the mirror. For what we are doing to ourselves through lack of exercise and an atrocious diet presents a much greater threat to our well-being than an entrenched Congress.
Yes, escalating debt and health-care costs plague our country, but one of their main drivers is our largely self-induced poor physical condition. The combination of exploding rates of obesity, medical advancements and open-ended government health-care programs is like railroad cars linked together in a slow-motion train wreck.
Expanding life expectancies among expanding people is a new trend. Until recent times, many sedentary and overweight people quickly expired by age 55. Self-inflicted diabetes, heart disease and stroke caused little monetary cost to society then, but are treated at almost any expense now. This has contributed greatly to the skyrocketing cost of health insurance, Medicare and Medicaid. Health care now makes up 17 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) versus half that amount in other developed countries. That’s a drag on our global competitiveness.
Americans seem blissfully ignorant of this. With two-thirds of us overweight or obese, “Fat Albert” is no longer an anomaly, he is America. The more weight we pack on, the deeper in debt we become and the sicker we get. For example, the direct cost of Type 2 diabetes alone in the United States was $153 billion in 2007, with 80-90 percent of that expense resulting from obesity, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This cost is borne by the healthy and unhealthy alike, and is a factor in some family insurance plans now exceeding $1,000 per month.
Policy solutions for our hobbled economy are complex and require time. Solutions to self-induced poor health, however, are simple and immediate. The keys are balanced diet and exercise, not one or the other. Desire, running shoes and the will to cut back on unhealthy foods and sugary drinks are all that most any ambulatory person needs to get started.
Let’s begin with exercise. Each person begins every week with 168 hours. Healthy people devote at least four of those hours to moderate to vigorous exercise that elevates the heart rate for more than 30 minutes each day. People in poor physical condition don’t have 2-3 percent of their week to devote to exercise, but most do devote many multiples of that to online activities and watching TV.
When it comes to diet, the key is moderation. One can buy into every diet plan out there, but all will fail unless combined with exercise. Diets simply aren’t sustainable and are ultimately doomed by temptation. Like Oscar Wilde said, most of us can resist everything but temptation.
So instead of adopting another new diet, make small changes like cutting out empty calories from soft drinks and sweet tea. That alone can reduce caloric intake for many by 600 calories a day without making one hungry.
Next, substitute fresh fruit, vegetables and nuts for salty snacks and french fries.
It typically takes 30 days to form a habit. Commit to exercising for a month and it is likely to become something you crave. Convert to unsweetened tea for a month and you’ll wonder how you ever stomached that much sugar.
The average weight loss required to prevent or treat diabetes is only 7 percent. It can be done.
If you think this is too hard, however, what’s the alternative? A hobbled life with every step weighed down by excess pounds? Bankrupting one’s family over medical bills resulting simply from a lack of self-control? These things don’t seem very appealing, especially when the solution for most people is simple.
The cure for economic lean times isn’t just lean bodies, of course, but exercise is a great reliever of stress. Everyone is under greater stress due to the recession.
Another key to stress relief is to concentrate on what one can control. We control who represents us politically only once every two to four years, but every day presents an opportunity to control what we see in the mirror.
Let us begin there today to improve ourselves and our nation.