There are places in this world where heart disease is almost unknown--and Sanjay Gupta, MD, chief medical correspondent for CNN, has studied them carefully for clues to their success. They're not necessarily the societies with the most advanced medicine. In fact, Western medical care has barely made inroads among some of these people, including Papua New Guineans and Mexico's Tarahumara Indians. Their secret? They're not sedentary. Even more important, they eat whole foods. And they consume very little sugar--"pretty much once a year, when fruit ripens," Dr. Gupta says.
The 42-year-old Gupta has logged some serious hours exploring the science behind all this--not just for heart health, but for brain health and cancer reduction too. He has traveled to Okinawa to meet with 100-year-olds. He has personally tested the health benefits of meditation. And each step of the way, he has incorporated the lessons he has learned into his own lifestyle. The result? He's incredibly fit, especially for someone with such demands on his time--as a TV correspondent, a practicing neurosurgeon, the author of three books (including his new medical novel, Monday Mornings), and a husband and father of three girls, ages 7, 5, and 3. In his own words, here's how he does it--and how you can too.
1. Don't think of exercise as optional
"The president of CNN Worldwide is Jim Walton. If he says, 'I need to meet with you,' I'm going to meet with him. That's a huge priority for me. But my well-being and fitness are also huge priorities for me, so I give them the same degree of importance. If you have a busy day, the inclination is to let exercise fall off the radar, but the meeting with the boss will not. I treat exercise like a meeting with the boss."
2. Pump your heart to better your brain.
"Over the last 3 years, I've gotten involved in triathlons, which include swimming, biking, and running. Aerobic exercise increases cardiac output, meaning the heart's pumping capacity. But even more interesting is new research showing that patients with better cardiac output also have larger brains, with more neural growth factors and even some new cells. It's a brain that's more efficient."
3. Move it or lose it.
"Incorporating movement into your everyday life is probably even better for you than going to the gym. From an evolutionary standpoint, humans are designed to move, not to sit or lie down for 23 hours a day and exercise for one. For people with desk jobs, this can be tough. I've got a pull-up bar hanging above the door in my office. i don't do a lot of weights, but i do push-pull exercises--push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, using my own body weight--that i can do on the road when i travel. Strength training and isometrics seem to be particularly good for decreasing body mass index and increasing HDL.
"I also keep a jump rope in my office. One of our producers doesn't have a chair at his desk, so he stands. Other people sit on those big exercise balls.
"Something else we now do at both the office and the hospital is walking meetings. if we have to meet, we'll walk. i find the meetings are much more productive. i don't know why. Maybe it's because our brains are getting bigger simultaneously."
4. Get your kids in the act
"Before I started training for triathlons, I had to talk to my wife [lawyer Rebecca Gupta] about the fact that I might spend 4 hours on a Saturday morning exercising. That's potentially 4 hours away from our kids. So now we have jogging strollers. We have a Burley child trailer for the back of the bike, so I can take a kid and let her nap in the Burley. I'll take the older kids to the park, while I swim in the lake."
5. Stop eating before you're full.
"In Japan, I interviewed a woman who was 103 years old and still selling oranges. I asked her how she stayed young. She said she dated younger men, which I thought was funny. But there was a lot more to her story than that. Something I learned in Okinawa was the concept of hara hachi bu. You push the plate away when you're 80% full. It made sense to me from a neuroscience perspective, because it takes 15 to 20 minutes for your brain to register that you're in fact full."
6. Fall out of love with sugar.
"My wife and I do not keep sweets in the house. When our kids go to birthday parties, they scrape the frosting off the cake because it tastes too sweet to them. People think the problem with sugar is that it makes you fat. But it's not just inches around your waist. Sugar is a potential toxin. The liver becomes fatty, and it starts to release small, dense particles of LDL, which are the most damaging kind for blood vessels. There is also some interesting new data suggesting that a third of some common cancers, including breast and colon cancer, have insulin receptors on them, so you could be fueling indolent cancers. Ice cream is my weakness. But I've got to walk to get it--the store is more than a mile away. I'll walk there with the girls once a month."
7. Grow a garden.
"I will candidly tell you that as a medical student, I never had any nutritional training, which is crazy. Most of what I've learned has been on my own. And it's not only the science that's important, but learning how to make it work with my wife and kids. We're primarily vegetarian. We also have a little kitchen garden. The kids love that, and we feel it teaches them that food comes from the ground as opposed to a store.
"We don't keep meat at home, but we might order a small portion when we go out. Most steak houses have the petit fillet. Historically, people didn't eat meat that often. And when they did, it was after chasing a woolly mammoth."
8. Eat a rainbow diet.
"I made a list of the nutrients that people would like to get in a supplement and found I could get them all by eating seven colorful foods a day. I mix it up as much as possible between vegetables, fruits, and nuts: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, some brown. That gives me all the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants I need. So when it comes to supplements, I take omega-3 fatty acids, and that's all. I don't take a multivitamin. I don't take the 'broccoli in a pill.' By the way, broccoli and kale are powerhouses for protein, which I bring up only because people say, 'You're not eating meat--are you getting enough protein?'"
9. Don't skimp on sleep.
"Bill Clinton was famous for talking about how little sleep he got, and it was seen as a badge of honor. It was the same for us in the medical profession, until studies started showing that you're putting your heart at risk by not getting adequate sleep. You can increase your levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and this probably increases your blood pressure and makes your arteries stiffer and less elastic too. And the data on how much less effective you are at work the next day are pretty good."
10. Stop medicating, start meditating
"What's the saying, 'In God we trust--everyone else bring data'? I wanted to know that if I meditated, it would make a difference. I have a history of heart disease in my family. My father had bypass surgery in his early 50s. I'm not a very high-stress person. But Herbert Benson [MD, of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Massachusetts] took video of me when I meditated. He showed me the different muscles in my face and how they relaxed. He measured my blood pressure and heart rate, and they came down. The key for me was learning to clear my mind. Herbert taught me to focus on a specific word for 5 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of classic meditation--for a total of 15 minutes. It's pretty powerful. After I meditate, I feel great. The same thing that would have annoyed me 20 minutes earlier doesn't bother me at all 20 minutes later."
11. Schedule "you" time.
"I'm pretty busy. I do rounds in the hospital early in the morning. I do the morning shows on TV a lot. Every Monday I perform surgery. That actually seems pretty relaxing to me now, after doing it for 20 years. But I'm working on so many things simultaneously: documentaries, breaking news, publicity for my new book. One survival method for me is taking my calendar and putting Sanjay time' on it. I spend part of that period meditating, but I also spend part of it reflecting on things. I'll make lists of everything I'm supposed to do rather than trying to remember it all. Today there were two of these 30-minute periods on my calendar. I don't know if it makes me more efficient, but it makes me feel in control, so I feel better about things."
12. Grow younger--yes, you can!
"You want to live your life like an incandescent lightbulb--not a fluorescent bulb that flickers at the end, but one that burns brightly and then suddenly goes out. And I think diet and exercise as I've outlined really help.
"But the flip side of that is you can make yourself younger. Over the last 3 years, since I've been doing triathlons, I've gotten younger from a biological perspective. One way to measure biological age is to look at your telomeres--the little strands of genetic material at the end of chromosomes. They get shorter as you grow older. But we've recently learned that they can shorten at a slower rate or even stop shortening. I had my telomeres measured for a story I was working on 7 years ago, and I had them measured again last year. My telomeres were actually longer the second time."