Fit to practice: Wellness is not the absence of illness


Check out the latest offering from Veterinary Economics' Personal Wellness Editor.

Editor's note: Meet your new virtual trainer: Dr. Ernie Ward, Veterinary Economics Personal Wellness Editor and owner of Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C. He’ll help you start off each month right with this new healthy lifestyle blog for veterinarians and team members. Dr. Ward will cover all kinds of health and wellness issues, such as managing a busy practice life, eating healthier, getting fit, and more. Look for his new blog posts on the first Monday of each month.

Wellness is not the absence of illness.

The first time I told my wife this I expected her to give me her standard look that essentially says, "Oh boy. I’d better settle in for an hour of Ernie drivel." (After being together for 25 years, I know the look well.) Only she didn’t. She said something I rarely hear: "Go on."

I told her that being healthy shouldn’t be defined in terms of being sick. Yet that’s exactly how we measure health. That’s just plain wrong—and has probably caused many chronic diseases to go unnoticed and undiagnosed for tens of millions of people. And I think it’s limiting our nation’s productivity, innovation, and future.

I went on to explain that we’re imposing artificial limiters on what we can achieve. For example, just because I’m not in a hospital bed doesn’t mean I’m functioning at my optimal level. In fact, I’d argue, the vast majority of people are performing just above the illness threshold: healthy enough to conduct daily duties but nowhere near what they’re capable of. The real danger and impact of this long-term, one-step-away-from-the-ER lifestyle is subdued productivity, anemic relationships, and atrophied ambitions. I’m convinced that my generation is in real danger of being lost. And then something nearly as miraculous as a Star magazine cover without a Kardashian occurred. My wife agreed. And I hope you do, too. Join me on this journey as I explore being better than well.

I became dissatisfied with the status quo and standard definitions of health and happiness many years ago. I’ve never been particularly good at following rules and typically viewed them as obstacles. At times that credo has created quite a bit of drama in my life, but it’s also opened some incredible pathways I’d never have discovered if I’d followed the herd. My goal with this blog on is to share how I’ve managed to stay enthusiastic about a profession that tends to swallow its young and spit out hollowed-out half-humans in five years flat. Okay, maybe that metaphor is a bit extreme, but you get the picture. Burnout is a serious problem in our line of work. If I can help even one colleague avoid that fate, then my mission is complete.

I also want to explore the thorny issues that come with being an eco-sensitive and financially frugal citizen, romantic husband, doting parent, competitive athlete, veterinarian, and business owner. Relationships with the important people in our lives are a vital part of success. But how can we juggle it all? Should we even try? Are we alien visitors because otherwise we would’ve noticed that we’re just too frickin’ busy to care anymore? (That’s what burnout sounds like. I know because I’ve been pretty close. And that’s when I threw the old playbook away. I do like sci-fi, though.)

So back to this whole "better than well" concept. Here's my fear: many Americans are slogging through life weighed down by poor diet, lack of aerobic exercise and stress relief, and tension at work and home and they don’t even notice it anymore! Their normal has been redefined so many times that what I do appears extreme. Yet I’m looking in the mirror and seeing a regular person with all the same challenges, struggles, and pain-in-the-rump employees and clients as you. Maybe even more. The difference I’ve found is that when I live a healthy lifestyle, the little things don’t send me into hyperdrive. My wife and kids are my top priorities and, sure, we have bad days just like everybody else, but they don’t get us down (at least not for long). We’re cool like that.

So what’s the most important decision you make each day regarding your health? What you eat. What’s the most important decision you make each day regarding how you feel? What you eat. What’s the most important decision you make that determines how long you’ll live? What you eat. What’s the thing you spend the least amount of time thinking about each day? What you eat. And that’s where we’ll start our transformation. But first, try this little experiment: Start your day off right by going to bed one hour earlier the night before and set your alarm for an hour earlier the next morning.

  • No TV in bed.
  • No scary novels.
  • No snacking.
  • No caffeine three hours before you retire.
  • No starchy foods or sugars at dinner. (Think low-glycemic foods—if you can’t imagine dinner without them, e-mail me and we’ll cover it in a later column.)
  • Turn out the lights, talk, and connect with your significant other.
  • Relax your mind. Achieving a restful night’s sleep is learned just as many other behaviors.

When your alarm goes off the next morning, slip on your walking clothes and shoes (bonus points for having them by your bed). Go for a brisk thirty-minute walk and reflect on how wonderful your life truly is. You’re a veterinarian, living your life’s dream with a wonderful future. You want tough? You want hard? Visit East Africa for a day or two and then come talk to me. We’ve got a wonderful life.

When you return from your walk, greet everyone you see that day with a smile—start with your family. If you have kids, shouldn’t the first thing they see each morning be your warm and smiling face? Too many times all they get is a yell to hurry up. They deserve better. Everyone does.

Start your day with a fruit-and-vegetable smoothie. Nothing energizes me better than a wholesome and nutritious breakfast. Plus, it’s a great way to your get kids (and you) to eat their veggies. Skip the java (I hear you screaming through the computer) and substitute green tea if you must. You just fired your neurons and reset your neurotransmitters with a brisk walk, so you shouldn’t need anything more. My goal is to help you start each day without the use of drugs. Caffeine is a drug. Use it wisely (and sparingly). (I can still hear you shouting.)

If the first four hours of your day are happier, more relaxed, and you feel a little more energized, consider it a success. Remember, we’ve still got another twenty hours to work on so if it all goes pear-shaped from there don’t blame me.

Consider this an intro into what I’m trying to do here. No veterinary medical advice and certainly no world news—just a dash of business talk. Musings on the future of veterinary medicine? Abso-freaking-lutely. We’re heading toward Utopia or Dystopia. Destination yet to be determined. Ethics? Most certainly. Recipes? Exercise tips? Parenting advice? You bet. Politics? Maybe. Some of the politicians just make it too easy to slam on. In short, “Fit to Practice” is a peek inside my journey toward finding peace, happiness, balance, and meaning in a busy veterinarian’s life. Or maybe just a busy life. We’ll see. I hope you’ll join me.

Have a topic you’d like Dr. Ernie Ward to cover in his next blog? E-mail your ideas to [email protected].

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