While sipping a cup of fresh mint tea at a local coffee shop yesterday I listened to my friend Julie rant about the unfairness of life and how it doesnt pay to adhere to a healthy lifestyle. The husband of another friend of hers had just been diagnosed with a life shattering leukemia. How could it happen? she asked. He was the healthiest person she knew. He ate healthy. He worked out every day. He didnt smoke. He didnt drink too much. He didnt do drugs, practice risky sexual behavior, or leave his helmet at home when he rode his motorcycle.
Still. The guy was 48 and dying.
Her conclusion was that it doesnt matter how you live your life. We all die. You might as well enjoy it while you can. Light up. Binge drink. Eat crap because it tastes good. Have blatant disregard for the effects of whatever it is youre doing to your body and your health.
Her anguish was palpable. And its a sentiment Ive heard many times. Yep, we all die. No question about that. No matter how healthy you live your life, it will end. Even if you do absolutely everything right the curtain will still come down and youll take your last breath.
But when you die is a matter beating of the odds, not one of absolute certainty. A woman who primarily eats plants within the guidelines of the Mediterranean diet, doesnt smoke, exercises with at least a brisk 30-minute walk every day, and keeps her body mass index (BMI) below 25 severely reduces her chances of sudden cardiac death which accounts for more than half of all heart disease deaths. In other words, your first clue you might have heart disease is when you drop dead, especially in women. The proportion of sudden death from a heart attack that can be attributed to smoking, inactivity, being overweight, and having a poor diet is 81%. The majority of women who suddenly drop dead arent living a healthy lifestyle.
But its the majority, not ALL. You can live perfect and still have sudden cardiac death. Odds are that you wont though.
Similarly, a German study looked at the same four components of a healthy lifestyle and found the likelihood of having a heart attack, developing cancer, or suffering a stroke (the three leading causes of death in the US) increased progressively as people chose to be sedentary, eat poorly, gain too much weight, or to smoke. Those who chose to eat a Mediterranean diet, not smoke, exercise at least 30-minutes a day, and keep their weight down decreased their chances of having a heart attack by 81%, developing cancer by 36%, and having a stroke by 50%.
There are no guarantees. We are complicated creatures with a plethora of genetic, personality, and environmental factors influencing our chances to live and die at every moment. I choose to stack the deck in my favor by living healthy. I enjoy living healthy. Chances are that Ill live longer because of it, but more important to me is quality rather than quantity. Eating lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains and moving my body every day with Yoga and a brisk walk in the fresh air lightens my mood, relieves my stress, decreases the aches and pains in my muscles and joints, and drastically improves my quality of living.
If I develop leukemia tomorrow I wont feel my healthy lifestyle has been a burden or a failure. It might not be a perfect recipe for immortality, but its a good one for a better life and a decreased chance of a premature death. The rest of the chance part requires grace and surrender, the yogic niyama of Isvara Pranidhana.
I think of the serenity prayer asking for peaceful acceptance of the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference. We are responsible for ourselves and our paths, but theres some stuff thats simply out of our hands. Within a yogic lifestyle, practicing Isvara Pranidhana means being grateful for what we have been given and surrendering to the higher order of the Universe that bends and twists our fate, sometimes in ways that seem unfair and which we cannot understand.
Chiuve, S. E., Fung, T. T., Rexrode, K. M., Spiegelman, D., Manson, J. E., Stampfer, M. J., Albert, C. M. Adherence to a Low-Risk, Healthy Lifestyle and Risk of Sudden Cardiac Death Among Women. JAMA 2011 Jul 6;306(1):62-9.