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Help your health. Be optimistic

The podcaster said the three words matter-of-factly, but they weren’t matter of fact to me. In fact, I had always assumed the opposite.

Still, the words stayed with me.

A few days later when the early-morning ache in my hips intensified as I put on cycling socks, I felt depressed and like skipping the ride forced inside by bad weather. I said the three words repeatedly in response.

“Mood follows action. Mood follows action. Mood follows action.”

As I increased the effort a bit early in the warmup, I experienced soreness in my quads, a not-so-surprising byproduct of yesterday’s ride. So I said those same three words - “Mood follows action, mood follows action, mood follows action” - over and over again, but that didn’t end the discomfort.

It did, however, end the warmup.

I shifted to the biggest gear, pictured the climb that leads to Blue Mountain Resort, and pedaled as if I were trying to break away from the bunch in a race. Going that hard without a thorough warmup is not the smartest thing for anybody to do, let alone a 60 year-old who claims to be “The Fitness Master,” but this time it worked.

When I crested the mental climb 10 minutes later, I realized that the intensity had invigorated my legs, so much so that I rode for another 65 minutes just as hard - at a heart rate between 90 and 100 percent of my maximum. Before ending the ride, I did another 60 minutes at training pace while doing some form work.

More importantly, I dismounted the bike “loving life.”

And kept loving it all day, even as I scoured the toilet bowl, took a toothbrush to the grout between shower tiles, and scrubbed the floor hours later.

I tell this story not so you know that my bathroom looks really good when I feel the same, but to present proof of the power of the mind to those who rolled their eyes when they read today’s title. While I am far from a Pollyanna, I can’t deny what happened.

I started believing the words I kept saying over and over and transformed a foul mood and tired legs into a red-letter day.

You too can add crimson to your calendar - but without riding a bike and repeating a phrase. The conscious decision to put an optimistic spin on whatever comes your way has been shown in the past to lessen the odds of developing heart disease, losing lung function, and dying prematurely.

More recently, researchers at Northwestern University in Chicago analyzed the results of two memory performance tests administered about 10 years apart and three general mood tests on the almost 1,000 middle-aged and older U.S. adults who took them.

In the press release about the study published in the October 2020 issue of Psychological Science, Claudia Haase, an associate professor at Northwestern University, said, “Our findings showed that memory declined with age.” While that’s not exactly stop-the-presses stuff, Emily Hittner, Haase’s co-author and PhD graduate of Northwestern, provided some.

She explained that the subjects found to have higher levels of “positive affect” (what you and I call optimism) tended to have far less cognitive decline. In other words, the optimists’ brains functioned better than the pessimists’ brains as they aged.

In a study published in September of 2019 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences incorporating data on more than 70,000 U.S. adults from two prior studies, researchers found optimists also live longer, 11 to 15 percent longer on average.

In addition, “the general expectation that good things will happen, or the belief that the future will be favorable because one can control important outcomes” increased the odds of living to be at least 85 - “independent of socioeconomic status, health conditions, depression, social integration, and health behaviors (e.g. smoking, diet, and alcohol use).” The plain English implication of this: You can be indigent, a loner, a smoker, a lover of junk food or booze - or even a number of these things known to lower life span - yet simply by staying optimistic, you diminish their effects and increase your odds of living longer.

While that’s quite an incentive to alter your attitude, it’s also quite a chore for someone who’s always preferred the harsh glare of reality to wearing rose-colored glasses.

If that’s you, don’t feel you have to fake optimism. Instead, find something that fills you with purpose. It’s harder to be pessimistic when you’re filled with purpose.

And easier to be healthy.

Research performed at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine published in the December 2019 issue of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found a significant association between believing you have a purpose in life and better physical and mental health. Conversely, those still searching for it tended to have compromised cognitive functioning and mental health.