Stratford offers plenty of tools to help live a long and healthy life

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From healthy eating to ‘Forest Bathing,’ we can use the tools at hand to stay healthy

Millennials and Gen Z expect to live to 100. Before planning a 30 to 40-year retirement, let’s plan for a healthy longevity. The highest life expectancy and health expectancy in the world is in Ogimi Village, Okinawa, Japan. In Stratford, we can follow the lifestyle example of these centenarians.

As winter melts, we take out our summer clothes to see if they still fit. As spring approaches, we focus not merely on diet and exercise, but on relieving stress. When it comes to food and dieting, we’re always balancing a budget of accounts receivable and accounts payable. What about balancing stress? Every day we face a buffet of stressors to make a meal out of us, but how do we metabolize them? How do we digest our stress? 

In Stratford, our farmers’ markets give us access to the best local, seasonal produce – and at less cost than at the supermarket – whether at the year-round Saturday morning market in the Stratford Agriplex from 7 a.m. to noon, or at the Stratford Sunday Market in Market Square from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., mid-May through to the end of October.

We often look at exercise as a means to burn calories, but there’s another benefit: exercise helps eliminate by-products of stress by releasing endorphins. Exercise, yoga and meditation all quiet the mind and slow us down enough to reduce the bio-chemical effects of stress. 

One of the easiest things to do is to simply go for a walk in the woods for some “Forest Bathing.” This is a common Japanese practice in which conscious-breathing, combined with slow and deliberate walking, relaxes the heart rate, increases mental acuity, decreases levels of the stress-produced hormone cortisol, and increases immunoglobulin-A antibodies that enhance human immune functions.

Stratford has so many trails to escape and do this. 

  • Avon River (Stratford Loop), 3.5 km, 42 minutes
  • T.J. Dolan Trail, 3.4km, 44 minutes
  • Avon Trail: Line 37 to Rd 108, 1.6 km, 21 minutes
  • Stratford Side Trail, 8.5km, 1 hr 55 minutes
  • Avon Trail: line 29 Section, 3.2 km, 43 minutes
  • Avon Trail: Stratford to Wildwood Lake, 47.8km, 11hrs 27 mins

Breathing in the fresh air along these trails is like chicken soup for the soul, and gives us the time and clarity to balance our mental and emotional diets. High stress is like driving with a heavy foot. When you take your foot off the gas, and allow yourself to slow down, you can stay in better shape and last longer.

Okinawan women manage their stress well, and typically have high estrogen and testosterone levels as they age, low rates of dementia and osteoporosis, and clean arteries that contribute to low rates of heart disease. In fact, Okinawans have 80 percent fewer heart attacks than North Americans; and when they do suffer a heart attack, they are twice as likely to recover. They have 80 percent fewer cases of breast cancer and prostate cancer, and less than half the ovarian and colon cancer of North Americans. There are four aspects to enabling their healthy longevity: physical, mental, social and spiritual health.

Okinawan centenarians maintain a low glycemic diet that is both calorically low and nutritionally high. They eat low-fat, cholesterol-busting foods including unrefined complex carbohydrates, whole grains, legumes, fruits, high-fibre plants and vegetables. Over lunch in Ogimi Village, my hosts tell me, “There is no life without vegetables.” The U.S. National Cancer Institute recommends eating five vegetables per day. Okinawans eat seven.

Okinawans also consume 40 percent fewer calories than Westerners and practice a custom of hara hachi bu, which means eating until 80 percent full. Why? Because even though it takes no time at all for my stomach to tell my brain that I want that juicy steak, the time it takes my brain to tell my stomach that I’m already full is twenty-minutes. That time-lag is what gets us in trouble, and means that we should slow down. 

Additionally, the more calories we consume, the more calories we need to burn, and the more free radical molecules are created that attack our cells, damaging body tissue, thereby contributing to aging and disease. Does this mean we should eat less food? No. It means we should eat less “calorie-dense” food. According to medical anthropologist and gerontologist Dr. Craig Wilcox, this Okinawan practice of caloric restriction can prolong life and vitality.

Sustained-tension manifests itself in our bodies in the strangest ways – in our musculoskeletal, respiratory, endocrine, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and nervous systems. It’s not the stressors themselves that are harmful, but our reaction to them. Our nervous system manages our reaction to stress. It also regulates our digestion, and therefore impacts how well we digest and metabolize our food. 

Remember to breathe. Conscious breathing is essential. Are you a deep breather or shallow breather? How quickly do you breathe? Slow…down. Okinawans are not concerned with tension or urgency as much as with developing self-confidence and self will.

They place high value on behaviour, attitude and coping skills that lead to stress reduction; emphasizing positivity, laughter, optimism, flexibility and adaptability.

They focus on positive social connections for physical and psycho-spiritual well-being by maintaining (real) social support networks.

Their customs of sharing and mutual-helping encourage strong relationships within their community, as well as individual independence. For Okinawan cardiologist and geriatrician Dr. Makoto Suzuki, these “environmental factors are more important than hereditary factors” in affecting the strength and resiliency of the immune system.


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