The sun rose yesterday in Washington, D.C. at 6:02 a.m. I made my routine morning run in the silence of dawn, passing the Lincoln Memorial and running along the still water of the Reflecting Pool. Like the giant sculpture of President Lincoln, I faced due east and watched as the sun rose over the horizon, melting the pockets of night time shadows, stirring the still sleeping birds into their morning chatter and waking the world with its advancing light. Henry Bacon and Daniel Chester French, the architects of the Lincoln Memorial, must have imagined the 16th president seated there, perfectly positioned to silently witness this spectacle of dawn morning after morning. The great emancipator should face the new day, seeing the sun just as it first breaks the eastern horizon and himself be perfectly in congruity with this majesty of the morning. Likewise the habit of rising early, pulling down the covers before the earliest hints of daylight and choosing this time and route for the daily run is particularly auspicious and seems somehow itself in accordance with the laws of nature. In Ecclesiastes we learn that for everything “…there is a season, and a time for every matter or purpose under heaven.” Propitious choices create wholeness in life, and wholeness underlies health.
Ancient texts including the Vedas and the Bible provide guidance in cultivating habits that promote robust health, greater happiness and longer life; recent advances in molecular biology have identified the apparent basis of aging itself, and a model of aging as a disease that can be both prevented and treated is emerging. This prompts an interest in developing daily habits and routines that over broad spans of time will protect and sustain the body and allow for the fulfillment of our deepest desires for a good, long and happy life. This is the daily litany.
The day begins the night before. A day of dynamic activity begins with a night of deep sleep. The ayurvedic tradition holds that one hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours of sleep after midnight. The intention for me is to be in bed with lights out by 8 p.m. A cool bedroom free of screens, computers, tablets and television is ideal.
From deep rest comes dynamic activity. Dawn is the time to arise. Morning is the time for activity, and exercise is best taken on an empty stomach. Cortisol and growth hormone levels are elevated in the morning, facilitating the burning of deposited fat as the energy source to support activity. Hunger then grows at noon. Calories are best taken when the sun is high in the sky and the flames of digestion are hot, facilitating complete digestion. Favor taking the large meal of the day between noon and two o’clock. As the sun sets in the west, the flames of digestion are fading; the evening meal is lighter and taken by six o’clock. Evening activities are light as the body settles and is ready for sleep by ten o’clock. Ben Franklin’s adage recommending early to bed and early to rise very much comports with these ancient rhythms. It was certainly our farming mantra during my early years of life.
There is endless discussion in the medical and popular literature about the ideal diet, and this likely reflects the reality that there is not a single diet perfectly suited for us all. Having said that, there are some basic rules of the road. Most of what we eat is predicated on what mother fed us. Cultivating new habits and making novel choices is well within our wheelhouse. When a spiritual leader from Nepal was recently touring in America, a stout gentleman from Pittsburgh stepped up to the microphone and asked if the wise man had any practical advice for him. “Yes,” the sage answered, “eat less.” Hippocrates wrote that “…those who are very fat are more apt to die quickly than those who are thin.”
In the remote past and as evolution proceeded, food was often scarce, and during periods of diminished calorie intake cellular adaptations developed to sustain active metabolism even in the midst of long periods of not feeding. Now with three meals a day, in between meal snacking and a surfeit of sugar and calories, those pathways lie dormant and unused, much to our detriment. How, then, to light this secret fire. Two practical approaches have been studied. One is the daily fast with feeding time limited to six hours a day. The other is intermittent fasting, with feeding five days a week and fasting with not greater than 400 calories per day for two days of the week. This is not a new idea. Luke 18:12 reads “I fast twice a week…”
A plant based diet with limited intake of red meat, pork, sausage and the like is favored in the daily litany. In the Book of Daniel, the prophet requests “…a vegetable diet and water to drink.” This is not a routine that for most of us is usual or customary. Fewer and wiser calories, adjustments in sleeping and rising times, and robust exercise agendas are part and parcel of this agenda. Getting out of our comfort zone, though, may have an upside we have not to date imagined. The emerging basic science and clinical research speaks powerfully to the prospect of markedly lowering the lifetime risk of cardiovascular disease, malignancy and dementia. Imagine a walk with your great-great granddaughter, not as a bent, broken and enfeebled version of yourself but instead still strong, steady, knowing. What a thrill for you and opportunity for her. Paul asserted that “…we are God’s masterpiece.” That is our inner secret.