Friday 7 March 2008

If 'Napping' is the new 'Healthy', sign me up for a season ticket!

When I first met my good friend Angel, he was sitting on his sofa, sweating a bucketload.
"You okay there?"
"Oh yeh, I'm fine. Just been for a ten mile run and done a hundred press-ups."
"Wow! You healthy fit bastard! Where did you go on your run?"
"What do you mean? Oh, I see. yeh. No. I didn't go anywhere."
"So you didn't really go for a run?"
"Oh, I've been for a run alright. Don't need to leave the house to go for a ten mile run. Don't do exercise like that. Don't do outside. Does my head in, it does, brings back, well, on account of the PTSD, (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) see, after the Falklands and all that."
"Oh, oh, I see. Yeh, but -"
"Yeh, so I do it all on the sofa, lying down. Visualisation! Bloody great. This afternoon I gave myself a 40 kilo pack, up mountainous bog!"
At first it was hard to believe him, but by the time we had drunk a cup of tea together, I'd persuaded him in a manly way to lift his T-shirt so that I might see whether his muscles looked like he'd been working out.
Sure enough, they didn't.
They didn't look like he'd done an hour in the gym.
They rippled and twitched and sweated and looked like he'd just spent the day running up a soggy mountain carrying a small human in body weight.
And then done a hundred press ups.
Yoda and Angel are best friends, and together they then took me on a journey that opened my eyes to the power of mind and body.
Achieving results like Angel's requires much study and practice, but we are all fools if we fail to understand how much our minds can and do affect our bodies.
Most of us often make the cognitive leap that links stress to headaches and backaches, yet you would probably have reacted as I did, when presented with the notion that you could become incredibly fit, have the body of your dreams, by lying on the sofa with your eyes closed.
Where I come from, we call that having a nap. If 'Napping' has become the new 'Healthy', well hallelujah mumma, sign me up for a season ticket!
Happily, it doesn't stop there. Not only can we use our minds to make our physical forms look irresistible, but also, when we become unwell, our brains can be used as the best medicine available.
Doctors have for centuries dished out placebos (dummy pills) to patients who had nothing wrong with them, but according to The Observer's John Hind, things are changing: neither for better nor worse; just weirder.
New findings by Dr. John Hickner of the University of Chicago suggest that these days more doctors than ever are prescribing placebos, but for one singularly vital and very different reason.
They work better than the medicine.
John Hind explains how that bastion of the medical establishment, The Lancet, recently reported that "...anti-psychotic drugs traditionally used to treat aggressive behaviour in intellectually disabled patients prove successful in 58 percent of cases; placebos work in 79 per cent of cases."
I'm loving this. Here we are, confused humans simply trying to stay fit and healthy in mind body and spirit, pushed from pillar to post, from Aspirin to Acupuncture, Fish Oil fats to Feng Shui, chemotherapy to carrot juice. In our efforts to do the right thing, we dish out trust, belief and enthusiasm, yet what do we get back?
Either needles stuck in our arms and radiation burns, or tree bark fumes and foul fungal teas with essence of monkey love juice.
And all the while, the answer to our ailments, problems and unwanted flabby bits was lurking, right there, between our ears!
Not only did Dr. Hickner notice that the humble placebo is becoming a potential super drug of the future, with a reported effectiveness that is astounding, but also there exists the 'Nocebo', a mental state in which the patient has been made aware of all the dangers inherent in an operation or a procedure, and simply by knowing then becomes statistically much more likely to become afflicted by something going wrong.
To be honest, it comes as no great surprise to discover that placebos work so well, because even before my encounters with Angel and Yoda, I was well aware of the power of positive thought.
And, no, I've never read, nor have any intention of ever writing a Self-Help book encouraging you all to smile and lick geraniums. It's just that I spent 20 years hitching all over, and know how vital our brains are when it comes to keeping spirit and body together.
Happily, the beneficial ways of our brains go far beyond the nasty world of illness, and all the way to having fun.
Gotta love those Californian colleges for coming up with the best research. The boffins at Caltech went and attached wires to the prefrontal cortexes of volunteers, who then slurped down some wine.
When drinking two glasses of identical Vino Cheapo Plonko Collapso, their brains registered far more pleasure from the second glass, which they believed to be a more expensive wine. That's going to save me a fortune down the Off Licence!
There has been much research done on all of this 'Greater Placebo Effect' lately, but my personal favourite comes from the quintessential Ivy League bastion of Harvard University, where psychologist Ellen Langer studied the effect of telling a group of hotel chamber maids how, in the course of working a shift, their physical exertions formed more than was required by the government for an officially healthy lifestyle.
'Yippee!' they must have thought as one, 'I am healthy and doing more exercise than I need to! George Bush says so, ergo it must be true.'
And then, collectively, they each enjoyed a 10 per cent reduction in blood pressure and a much improved weight to waist/hip ratio, whatever that might be.
My point is, if we are to believe that placebos are so powerful whilst having no real power, then surely we need only believe we have taken them to become well; attain our physical goals; beautiful bodies; whatever we wish to be.
So come on. We have the power! We have the sofas! Close those eyes and let's get busy!

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