One Solution to Make the US Healthier – a Healthy, Active Life for All

By Louis Ignarro, PhD.
April 6, 2015, 2:00 PM

It’s National Public Health Week, a time for us to reflect on how we can make healthier individual choices and better choices as a nation.

“During the first full week of April each year, American Public Health Association brings together communities across the United States to observe National Public Health Week as a time to recognize the contributions of public health and highlight issues that are important to improving our nation.”

Despite the fact that the United States spends more on health care than other comparable countries, we have grown to become one of the unhealthiest nations on the planet.  Obesity and type 2 diabetes have reached epidemic proportions and since the two are closely linked, the term “diabesity” has been used to relay the message that obesity leads to type 2 diabetes.  Diabesity, however, is just the beginning as it naturally leads to the development and progression of cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of morbidity and untimely death in the U.S.  Diabesity and cardiovascular disease are lifestyle diseases, which means that we can avoid and prevent such conditions.  In other words, we are in control of our own destiny.  During National Public Health Week 2015, the public health community is rallying around a goal of making the U.S. the Healthiest Nation in One Generation- by 2030.  We can do this!

The Creeping Ascendance of Cardiovascular Disease
Contrary to popular belief, cardiovascular disease is not something that suddenly arises at an older age.  Obesity often begins in pre-teenage years and continues into the second decade of life.  Unless measures are taken to reverse this trend, diabetes and cardiovascular disease will almost certainly be the consequence.

Cardiovascular disease encompasses many conditions including hypertension, heart attack and heart failure.  All of this can and will evolve from many years of obesity.  Personally, I find this to be so sad because I believe it is avoidable and preventable.

What is a Healthy Diet and How Can It Boost Nitric Oxide?
People who consume a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables can help lower their risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.  The problem is most people do not eat enough fruits and vegetables each day.  Only 1 in 4 adults eat the recommended amount.  Avoid most packaged foods because of the high content of salt, saturated fats and chemical preservatives.  Avoid sugar-containing soft drinks.  Long-term consumption of large amounts of sugars can cause obesity and type 2 diabetes.  Avoid frequent consumption of foods containing saturated fats such as fatty beef, pork, and even the fatty portions of chicken.

Did you know that fruits and vegetables produce antioxidants for the purpose of protection from oxygen radicals triggered by the UV radiation from the sun?  In turn, humans eat fruits and vegetables to protect ourselves from damaging oxygen radicals. Another interesting fact to remember is that antioxidant molecules have a distinct, dark color, and you can easily see that color in the fruits and vegetables.  For example, consider blueberries, blackberries, pomegranate, beets, kale, spinach, and many others.

A healthy diet means healthy nutrition.  Consuming fish, lean meats, soy protein, fresh fruits and vegetables, and fiber constitutes a healthy diet.  Fish and fish oils contain omega-3 fatty acids, which are heart healthy and, in addition, provide additional benefits to your joints, brain and vision.  Soy protein is one of the best proteins that you can eat because of the absence of saturated fats.  Protein is made up of amino acids, which are required for life.  Your body requires consumption of certain amino acids from protein in order to produce nitric oxide – a unique signaling molecule that I discovered in the cardiovascular system.  Omega–3 fatty acids facilitate the production of nitric oxide.  Fresh fruits and vegetables contain powerful antioxidants that boost nitric oxide levels by protecting the nitric oxide from destruction by surrounding oxygen radical molecules.  Our bodies cannot produce sufficient quantities of antioxidants and, therefore, we must obtain them from ingested fruits and vegetables.

Embracing a Healthy Active Life; A Simple Solution to a Devastating Health Problem
There are proven valuable health benefits of physical activity and exercise.  The serious problem in the U.S. is that we are facing what we now call an “inactivity epidemic”, with dangerous consequences and tremendous costs.  According to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity is the leading cause of death, followed by high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and tobacco use.  Physical inactivity costs the U.S. health care system about 102 billion dollars a year. Research shows that a low level of physical activity exposes individuals to a greater risk of dying than does smoking, obesity, hypertension, or high cholesterol, and for older men, regular physical activity can decrease the risk of death by 40%.  Active individuals in their 80s have a lower risk of death than inactive individuals in their 60s.  Many research studies have shown the remarkable health benefits of regular physical activity.  The U.S. Federal Physical Activity Guidelines and many studies show that 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity physical activity or exercise is required to achieve these health benefits.  This amounts to only 20 or 25 minutes per day.  I maintain that no one is too busy to achieve this goal.

Exercising regularly can markedly boost nitric oxide production.  When you exercise at moderate strength, your heart rate increases and your heart pumps more blood through your arteries.  The associated force of blood flowing alongside the arterial wall stimulates more nitric oxide production from your endothelial cells, which form the inner lining of your arteries.  The harder you exercise, the more nitric oxide you produce.  Nitric oxide is a vasodilator (widens the arteries) and allows for increased blood flow to your muscles during exercise.  That same nitric oxide also gives you long-term protection from cardiovascular disease.  Physical activity can lower the risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer.  In older adults, physical activity can lower the risk of falls and improve cognitive function.  In children and adolescents, physical activity can improve muscular fitness, bone health and heart health.  Therefore, you should exercise regularly throughout your life.  Look at it this way – “exercise is medicine.”

How To Make the US the Healthiest Nation by 2030
If we are going to make an effort to make the U.S. the healthiest nation on the planet by 2030, we all have to work together. I truly believe that we can make this happen.  The approach we need to take is very simple, and very achievable.  But we have to want to do it.  We have to want to change our unhealthy lifestyles to healthy lifestyles.  We have to eat healthy foods and we have to exercise regularly.  It’s that simple.  Family members can talk and work together to eat a healthy balanced diet every single day, and then share this activity with their neighbors and friends.  Friends can engage in physical activity as groups, thereby making exercise more fun, more productive and more frequent.

I have spent my entire 40+ year career searching for the magic molecule that can save us from the morbidity and untimely death of cardiovascular disease, and I found it.  I did my part and now I am asking you to do yours.  Let’s all work together to boost the production of this molecule, nitric oxide, by embarking on a healthy, active lifestyle.  Nothing would please me more than to witness a reversal of the trend showing that cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S.  Such an approach would enable us to make the U.S. one of the healthiest nations by 2030.


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