Eat, Move, Sleep: How Small Choices Lead to Big Changes by Tom Rath reveals what he learned after he received devastating news as a teenager. Here is his story,

At age 16, I was playing basketball with friends when I noticed something wrong with my vision. There was a black circle in the middle of my visual field. I assumed it would go away. Instead, it got progressively worse. I finally told my mom, who immediately took me to an eye doctor. That black spot turned out to be a large tumor on the back of my left eye. The doctor said it might lead to blindness. As if that was not enough, I needed to get a blood test to rule out other medical problems. A few weeks later, my mom and I went back to the doctor’s office for the results. The doctor told us I had a rare genetic disorder called Von Hippel-Lindau (VHL). While VHL typically runs in families, my condition was a new mutation that affects just one in every 4,400,000 people. This mutation essentially shuts off a powerful tumor suppressor gene and leads to rampant cancerous growth throughout the body.

While the thought of losing my eyesight was tough, these longer-term issues were even more daunting. That conversation with the doctor forced me to wrestle with much larger questions about my life. Would people treat me differently if they knew about my illness? Was there any chance I would get married and have kids? Perhaps most importantly, I wondered if there was any way I could live a long and healthy life.

Doctors tried everything to save my eyesight, from freezing the tumors to cooking them with a laser. But the sight in my eye never returned. Once I got over this loss, I turned my attention to learning everything I could about the other manifestations of this rare disease.

I have had annual exams and scans for 20 years now and currently have small tumors in my kidneys, adrenal glands, pancreas, spine, and brain. Every year, I “watch and wait” to find out if any of these tumors are large enough to require surgery. In most cases, they are not. Waiting around for active tumors to grow may sound nerve-racking. It could be, if I dwelled on the genetic condition that is beyond my control. Instead, I use these annual exams to stay focused on what I can do to decrease the odds of my cancers growing and spreading. As each year goes by, I learn more about how I can eat, move, and sleep to improve my chances of living a long and healthy life. Then I apply what I learn to make better choices. I act as if my life depends on each decision. Because it does.

Do we live with the recognition that our lives depends upon each decision? This book is practical in nature  with each chapter containing research-based findings on eating, moving, and sleeping, with three summary ideas and how you can apply them in your life. Here is a sampling of quotations from the book (be advised that these may result in some life-style changes or at least make you feel guilty):

What I learned from all this research influences my countless daily decisions. Every bite of food either increases or decreases my odds of spending a few more years with my wife and two young children.

Half an hour of exercise in the morning makes for better interactions all day. Then a sound night of sleep gives me energy to tackle the next day. I am a more active parent, a better spouse, and more engaged in my work when I eat, move, and sleep well.

Take, for example, these four largely preventable diseases: cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease. Combined, they kill nearly 9 in 10 people. Researchers have estimated that 90 percent of us could live to age 90 with some simple lifestyle choices.

If you eat, move, and sleep well today, you will have more energy tomorrow. You will treat your friends and family better. You will achieve more at work and give more to your community. It all starts with making decisions like tomorrow depends on it.

This could explain why a majority of Americans are trying to lose weight, yet two-thirds are overweight or obese.

The notion that it’s okay to eat everything in moderation is just an excuse to eat whatever you want.

On average, we now spend more time sitting down (9.3 hours) than sleeping in a given day. The human body is not built for this, and the obesity and diabetes it contributes to is a major public health problem. Watching your diet and exercising 30 minutes a day will not be enough to offset many hours of sitting.

One less hour of sleep does not equal an extra hour of achievement or enjoyment. The exact opposite occurs. When you lose an hour of sleep, it decreases your well-being, productivity, health, and ability to think.

Sitting is the most underrated health threat of modern times. This subtle epidemic is eroding our health. On a global level, inactivity now kills more people than smoking.

Sitting more than six hours a day greatly increases your risk of an early death. No matter how much you exercise, eat well, avoid smoking, or add other healthy habits, excessive sitting will cause problems. Every hour you spend on your rear end — in a car, watching television, attending a meeting, or at your computer — saps your energy and ruins your health.

Sugar is a toxin. It fuels diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and cancer. At the current dose we consume, more than 150 pounds per person every year, sugar and its derivatives kill more people than cocaine, heroin, or any other controlled substance around.

The more sugar you consume, the greater the levels of inflammation in your body. This leads you to age faster, inside and out. There is simply no good reason to consume any added sugars beyond what you get from whole fruits and vegetables.

A mere 20 minutes of moderate activity could significantly improve your mood for the next 12 hours.

Instead of treating morning exercise as something that will drain your energy, as it often does the first few days until you establish a routine, remember that it will eventually give you additional energy. In addition to looking and feeling better, research suggests you will have extra brainpower and creative thought following periods of vigorous activity. Working out in the morning will also keep the 12-hour mood boost from going to waste.

It is well-established that exercise reduces your risk of cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, and depression. Activity also slows aging. There is no shortage of reasons to move more today.

Sleep less, achieve less. It’s really that simple. According to a study from Harvard Medical School, lack of sleep costs the American economy $63 billion a year in lost productivity alone.

According to one scientist who has studied this extensively, four hours of sleep loss produces as much impairment as a six-pack of beer. A whole night of sleep loss is equivalent to a staggering blood alcohol level of 0.19 percent. That’s double most legal limits.

Many foods are better off in the trash than in your stomach.

According to one expert, eating two pieces of whole wheat bread increases your blood sugar more than eating two tablespoons of pure sugar. This triggers the release of insulin and eventually leads to the growth of extra abdominal fat.

Until I did the math, I did not realize that a traditional 11-inch plate has nearly double the surface area (95 square inches) of an 8-inch plate (50 square inches).

As sleep researcher Brad Cardinal put it, “The scientific evidence is encouraging as regular physical activity may serve as a non-pharmaceutical alternative to improve sleep.”

Don’t confuse organic with healthy. An “organic” label on a product simply means it was grown naturally, free of pesticides, fertilizers, solvents, and chemical additives.

A friend once tried to convince me a dish was healthy because it was made with “organic brown sugar.” Less damaging? Possibly. Healthy? No. Organic or not, sugar has a wide range of negative effects and is not good for your health.

Data show that people who spend more than four hours a day watching video are more than twice as likely to have a major cardiac event that kills them or puts them in the hospital, compared with those who spend less than two hours a day on screen-based entertainment. More than four hours of daily television time increases the risk of death from all causes by 48 percent. Even if you are in good general health and exercise regularly, anything beyond two hours of screen time per day is still bad for your health.

An Australian study of more than 12,000 adults estimated that every single hour spent watching television after the age of 25 decreased the viewer’s life expectancy by 22 minutes. For comparison, each cigarette smoked reduces life expectancy by 11 minutes, according to the study’s authors.

They found that a person who watches six hours of television a day is likely to live about five fewer years than someone who watches no television. Consistent with other findings, these results apply even for people who exercise.

But if every hour of television is going to cut 22 minutes off your life, at least be selective about what you watch.

Dried fruits can be even worse than juice. While the dried form of your favorite fruit may be convenient, you get almost all of the sugar and none of the nutrition.

An interesting finding from recent research is that the way you deal with stress can be more important than the stressor itself.

So the next time something causes you undue stress, remember that your reaction matters more than the stressful event itself.

As Dr. Ian Stephen put it, “Most people think the best way to improve skin color is to get a suntan, but our research shows that eating lots of fruits and vegetables is actually more effective.”

Outdoor activity gives you a little extra kick. A series of studies revealed that exercising in a natural environment yields more benefit than indoor workouts.

As one of the Stanford researchers explained, it often takes more than individual willpower to change behavior, “Whether it’s smoking or alcohol use or physical inactivity, social support helps prevent against relapse … a light touch can have lasting effect.” This study and many others suggest that almost anyone, even someone you don’t know well, can help hold you accountable.

Half of all men and one-third of all women in America will be diagnosed with cancer. Even if you are not formally diagnosed, you probably have microscopic cancer cells in your body that are too small to see on an MRI or CT scan.

What you eat can greatly reduce the risk of cancers growing and spreading. Diet and physical activity have been shown to reduce recurrences of cancer and to extend survival.

Maintaining a lean body weight is a good place to start to curb cancerous growth. According to recent studies, obesity acts as a “bona fide tumor promoter.” Obesity creates a chronic inflammatory state that makes it easier for cancer to grow and spread throughout the body.

Epidemiological studies suggest that obese people have about a 50 percent increase in their risk for all cancers. For specific types of cancer, such as liver cancer, the risk for people who are obese goes up by as much as 450 percent. It appears that maintaining a normal weight may be one of the best things you can do to minimize your long-term risk of cancer.

While no diet alone will prevent or cure cancer, you can absolutely decrease the odds of cancer by eating the right foods. If you feed your body well, you may starve cancer in the process.

In the words of medical researcher Alex Clark, who studies the effect of exercise on heart function, “Exercise is a wonder drug that hasn’t been bottled.”

Exercise could be as effective as medication for treating everything from depression to migraines. Friends of mine who have battled depression swear regular activity is one of their best defenses. Added activity can also help you use fewer over-the-counter pain medications by decreasing inflammation.

After studying more than 15,000 people across continents, this study determined that about 90 percent of the risk associated with a heart attack is within your control.

The most influential choices you make for your health occur in the grocery store. Once you put something in your cart, good or bad, it is likely to end up in your stomach.

As scientists learn more, it appears exercise can “speed the removal of garbage from inside our body’s cells.”

Of all common foods available in the world today, no single food has amassed a body of research about its health benefits that rivals broccoli. It is a rich source of antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber. Research suggests it has powerful anticancer activity and heart benefits, could guard against arthritis and asthma, and helps protect our eyesight and boost our immune system.

A study on this topic suggests that swapping this hour of television for sleep could result in a loss of more than 14 pounds over a year.

Each ounce you consume is either a net positive or a net negative by the time it runs through your body. You don’t get healthier by simply trying to eat better in general. You improve your health on a bite-by-bite basis.

The better you sleep, the better you eat. Science has shown that good sleep increases your production of the digestive hormone leptin, which keeps you from eating too much. Sound sleep also decreases the digestive hormone ghrelin, which boosts appetite.

Eat right. Move more. Sleep better. When you do these three things in combination, you will see how the overall benefit is greater than the sum of the parts.

Eating the right foods provides energy for your workout and improves the quality of your sleep. In turn, a sound night of sleep makes you more likely to eat right the next day. This is why the real magic lies at the intersection between eating, moving, and sleeping. If you can do all three well, it will improve your daily energy and your odds of living a long, healthy life.

It is important that we eat, move, and sleep as if our lives depends on it – because it does.


Associate Pastor – Discipleship.  The Church at LifePark

Professor of Discipleship, Columbia International University

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