Forty years ago, I launched a personal quest to establish a new lifestyle for myself, one that placed my health at the top of my agenda, both mentally and physically. Jettisoning a myriad of bad habits entrenched over many years of a deluded destiny about what was important in my life, including over-indulgence in eating in expensive and famous restaurants, working too hard to achieve some distorted notion of success and having no exercise because walking anywhere wasted valuable time I could be working, led to slovenly, sluttish routines that only depressed me and made me unhealthy. Overweight, constantly tired, smoking far too much and sometimes drinking too much and with no time to enjoy other interests, I made real changes in my life that I still adhere to now as an instinctive way of life. The positive health spin-offs were, and are, incalculable.

Understanding that some afflictions were beyond my control, nonetheless I recognised in my mid-twenties that good health was mostly in my own hands, even managing stress, which attracted media attention as a possible cause of cancer among other incurable illnesses. How I lived my life became of paramount importance and over a couple of years, I rediscovered the use of my two feet, shed copious kilos, learned to work smarter not harder with more time to enjoy other interests such as attending the theatre, movies, concerts and just indulging in a drink in a pub with a stranger to converse about whatever. I taught myself to play darts, cook creatively, how to fashion my clothes inexpensively to accommodate my own sense of style and more significantly, became my own ‘judge’ about success, image and health.

Reading diverse scientific pundits pontificating about various health regimens, I borrowed and stole from several of them, adapting them to suit my needs and budget. Far more energetic and with an enhanced emotional serenity, I took no medications except for my asthma and occasional antibiotics for severe bronchitis. I felt healthy and alive.

In this 21st century, I now peruse a plethora of articles about people’s attempts to get healthy, reducing sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, junk food and exercising on a regular basis and even more significantly, trying to attain a work/life balance. Work has always been intrinsic to my life itself, not a distinct aspect but an important part of a holistic approach to life that ensured as far as possible, my work was intellectually stimulating, challenging and offered opportunities to learn, develop and improve my skills. At the same time, I also tried to ensure my health remained good, never regaining the weight I lost, continuing to walk and finding time to pursue other interests, money permitting.

Last week, an article in The Sunday Age reported the outcome of an ANU study of 55 people across four employment sectors finding that time needed for health and wellbeing was being displaced by working time and time recovering from work. The study also revealed that most workers had insufficient time to carry out the four protective health activities, eating well, restorative sleep, physical activity and social connection. The report was produced by National Health and Medical Research Council senior and research fellows, with research fellow Dr Lara Corr saying: “What we’re really arguing is that you can’t really look at work and life so separately when work is effectively taking all your quality time”.

Certainly, I feel vindicated by her understanding that you can’t look at work and life as ‘separate’ entities but she missed, or wasn’t asked perhaps, or the study didn’t explore, the nature and essence of the work undertaken and the interviewees’ attitudes to that work. That is, did they enjoy it? Was it intellectually stimulating? Challenging? Or was it simply an essential economic necessity of life? Moreover, how organised and disciplined were they? Balancing a lifestyle of work (and it was only roughly more than 40 hours a week so it’s not as if it was work 24/7) with other important things such as eating well and sleeping demands planning and organising your time accordingly. Managing being busy takes careful coordination and an understanding about how to look after your health and well being with a minimum of time and fuss.

On a personal level, even in my 50s when I was still working full-time, I found the time and energy to cook well and prepare healthy meals, albeit only for myself mostly, but I have always been organised, ordered and learned to manage my time decades before. Simultaneously, I didn’t enjoy my work which was often a sad and negative experience with my work colleagues, but economic necessity gave me no other option. What I had already learned was to focus on the positives about the job and fortunately there were some, ignore the unpleasantness of some of the people in the workplace and ensure I ate healthily; vegetables, fish, some meat and fruit as well as sleeping as I needed. It worked. Although I only worked 38-hours, five days a week, it was my positive perspective and the ‘healthy’ routines I followed which enabled me to thwart succumbing to the more insidious stress of frustration, boredom and resentment.

During the years as I aged, other health issues appeared unexpectedly, due to genetic inheritance or lifestyle I cannot determine precisely, such as higher blood pressure (a well-documented side-effect to using HRT which I did), cholesterol and glucose levels. Both my older sisters experienced the same problems as did my father before he died, but my oldest sister was a doctor who had never smoked, drunk excessively or been overweight. Prescription drugs were now on my agenda. Moreover, a colonoscopy showed I had developed diverticulitis so started taking Metamucil on a daily basis to ensure regular bowel movements. Mostly they worked but occasionally, I needed to take Coloxyl, too. Severely short-sighted since I was seven and always needing glasses since then, I also found I inherited glaucoma, needing nightly and morning drops to stabilise the pressure in my eyes.

These of course helped keep my health at least reasonably stable, but over the past twelve months, I’ve made more big changes in my diet and lifestyle that have had unexpected positive health benefits, both mentally and physically. Firstly, I befriended a man five years younger than me who was interested in health, medical issues and the culinary arts. Suggesting I start steaming vegetables using ghee, a rich butter type food that soldiers used during wartime as it was a stamina and health boost, I experimented with this process on my own, adding about six different vegetables in small amounts and sprinkling them with garlic powder and granules, lemon pepper, a pinch of salt, a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a teaspoon of pesto and then adding natural yoghurt before placing them in the microwave for just three minutes, long enough for them to cook but without losing their crispness and flavour. Sometimes I even added a few drops of lite cooking cream. Varying the vegetables over the months and the meat, fish or salmon I ate them with, and cooking them in extra virgin olive oil instead of ordinary oil, I also played with different spices and flavourings so the vegetables always tasted ‘delicious’ and I thoroughly enjoyed devouring them, savouring a whole new range of taste sensations. At the same time, I curbed my alcoholic intake even more to reduce my sugar consumption, imbibing just two half-glasses of wine a day as well as only occasionally eating a TimTam instead of as a nightly habit with my cup of tea after dinner. Instead I ate half a cinnamon donut warmed up in the microwave, some solace for my need for a sugar hit. My fruit ingestion also increased, making apples, peaches and prunes in a compote mix cooked in about 14 minutes in the microwave, adding a small amount of vanilla essence, a teaspoon of sugar, some orange juice and cinnamon spice for flavour, eating this concoction with lite vanilla ice cream.

What’s transpired over this past year is my glucose fasting reading has reduced dramatically to 5.1 which I have never seen it as low as since I started undertaking annual blood tests about 12 years ago. Indeed, at worst it was at a dangerous level of 6.4 about seven years ago whereby my GP had me take a 4 hour glucose test which thankfully returned a ‘normal’ result. However it was a warning that despite being thin, I could easily develop diabetes, possibly something genetic as my middle sister had diabetes even though we were physical opposites as she was obese and ate very unhealthily. Careful with my sugar intake ever since the 6.4 reading, receiving the 5.1 result was a greatly unexpected but really pleasing result. Additionally, while I was taking statins to stabilise my cholesterol over about seven years, the reading hovered around 5.5-9 over these years, but six months ago it dropped to 4.7 and just now, it was 4.9. My good cholesterol was higher than my bad.

I am now enjoying two positive effects on my health due I proclaim to my change of diet, increasing my vegetables, fruit and reducing my sugar. Moreover, I sleep better and although tired due to stress of lack of money living on a pension, I feel better, too. The other unforseen positive is that for the past three years I’ve smoked more marijuana than ever before in my life and it’s helped reduce the glaucoma pressure in my eyes so I don’t need as many drops. Telling my eye specialist that I have been smoking marijuana which I had read on the internet was beneficial for glaucoma, he told me they have known this for more than 20 years. Yet, no one writes about it or discusses it in the media. Now the Victorian Government has passed a law for cannaboid oil to be used in the treatment of epilepsy, but no one has mentioned its other medical positives. Yet.

Additionally, for the past six months my blood pressure has been the best it’s been on a consistent basis for years and I’m unsure as to whether it’s partly due to my diet change, the marijuana or maybe both. Moreover, my new diet has also assisted my bowel movements enabling me to discard the Metamucil and Coloxyl for over two months.

The old adage ‘you are what you eat’ seems so valid for me but I also believe that my improved physical health is not just about diet and exercise (I walk briskly at least 30-40 minutes day) but my mental attitude. It is also an old adage that almost everything emanates from our minds encompassing the what, why and how of what we put in our mouths and consequently, our diseases and illness.

Ageing is of course inevitable, affecting not just our physical well-being, but also our mental capacity and it’s been well documented that mental stimulation and applying one’s mind to difficult and confronting tasks could be a positive antidote to Alzheimer’s and dementia. Moreover, I believe that while our bodies become more vulnerable to arthritis and various ailments as we age, what we eat can also help prevent these conditions from crippling our lifestyle. A Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) is also recommended as doing wonders for our health.

Maintaining a PMA is not always easy but over the past forty years I’ve introduced various strategies in my life to ensure I stay positive most of the time. Listening to music, dancing on my own at home or just thinking positively and consciously switching off the negative impulses works brilliantly for me. Writing and engaging my time in what I enjoy and sharing my time with some good people on my wavelength has the most beneficial therapeutic effect.

I’m fortunate that I no longer need to find a job and can manage on a pension but I still write, occasionally sell an article and have my own time to work, play and rest when I want. Both my physical and mental health is enhanced for those reasons too but I believe my lifestyle of voting 1 for my health beats all other candidates. And by the way, I still smoke nicotine; albeit less than half of what my addiction once craved!

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