Blog | Monday, August 5, 2013

Revolutionary well-being advice from our ancient ancestors

Every time we turn on the television or read a magazine, we are faced with an onslaught of health advice. What we should be doing, what we shouldn't be doing--the latest new fads, workouts, and dietary recommendations. You could be forgiven for thinking that all of this information is new, since it's really only come to media attention in the last couple of decades.

But delve a little into the history books, and you will find that many of the core principles of the modern health and well-being movement are considerably older than expected. In fact, they were already known to ancient civilizations thousands of years ago, and widely proclaimed well before anyone had even heard the term evidence-based medicine!

1. Healthy diet.
The Indian practice of Ayurveda, starting around 2,500 B.C., specifically emphasized the importance of nutrition for vitality. Fruits, vegetables and spices such as turmeric, were endorsed as healthy foods that could act as natural cures for a variety of ailments. The Greeks raved about the wonderful benefits of olive oil, and Amazonian tribes believed in the healing properties of Acai berries. Other wholesome and nutritious foods such as wheat and grapes were also frequently acclaimed in biblical times.

2. Regular activity.
Chinese practices from 1,500 B.C. heavily promoted walking and stretching exercises. The word gymnasium, now shortened to "gym", was coined by the Greeks around 500 B.C. They understood the relationship between exercise and health, so much so that Athens built three huge public gymnasia to actively encourage regular work-outs. And staying on the subject of taking care of the body, the Egyptians advocated meticulous personal hygiene, even paying great attention to their teeth. The Romans later became obsessed with public health and sanitation, recognizing that it was essential for healthy living.

3. De-stressing.
It's easy to presume that only the fast-paced modern world is full of stress. Think you have it tough? In the old days, with the next deadly plague or war always just around the corner, there was certainly plenty to be worried about! The detrimental effects of high stress levels have long been known, with a number of different methods utilized to help with relaxation. One of the most famous, the meditation practice Yoga, originated in India almost 5,000 years ago. Ancient Chinese mindfulness techniques, such as Qigong, also remain very popular to this day.

4. Society.
The very earliest societies documented the value of strong family cohesion and structure as a crucial component of well-being. Furthermore, our ancestors knew the benefits of regular social interactions, doing their best to encourage them. The Greeks and Romans, for example, built large public meeting areas to regularly get people together. They also wrote about the significance of organized education as a key to their future survival.

5. Life goals.
We can perhaps draw the most inspiration when it comes to fulfilling aspirations and reaching our own personal goals. From stories about Confucius, to Robert the Bruce--historical texts are packed with anecdotes, parables and sayings that resonate just as strongly today as they did back then. Working hard, overcoming adversity, and being true to yourself have been the cornerstone of life advice for millennia. Carpe Diem, the Latin phrase compelling us to "seize the day," is one of the simplest yet also most powerful.

Nowadays, the World Health Organization defines health as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity". It therefore involves a combination of factors, including emotional as well as physical aspects. This balanced, holistic approach was practiced in some form or another by most of the great civilizations, and even quoted by individual thinkers such as Socrates. Remarkably, many of them also theorized on preventive medicine as a key to maintaining good health.

So as you can see, there's much to admire in the well-being teachings of our ancient ancestors, especially since they didn't have the benefit of modern scientific knowledge to guide their lifestyles. It's a sobering thought that all of the answers are not necessarily found in the latest multi-million dollar trial or journal research article.

Suneel Dhand, MD, ACP Member, is a practicing physician in Massachusetts. He has published numerous articles in clinical medicine, covering a wide range of specialty areas including; pulmonology, cardiology, endocrinology, hematology, and infectious disease. He has also authored chapters in the prestigious "5-Minute Clinical Consult" medical textbook. His other clinical interests include quality improvement, hospital safety, hospital utilization, and the use of technology in health care. This post originally appeared at his blog.