Doctor, author and medical policymaker, Prof Kerryn Phelps shares strategies from her new health manual which encourages us to take stock and live our lives in our own best interests.
I’ve often thought about when I first became interested in health, but there was no single life changing moment. I was brought up on the Northern Beaches in Sydney by parents who were active in local sports clubs. We led a ?t, outdoor lifestyle full of beaches, boats and sur?ng in a pristine environment.
While related, there is a distinction between the terms health, wellness and wellbeing. Health is connected with an absence of disease, wellness incorporates all aspects of health management and is not just about the physical or spiritual individually. And wellbeing is a sense of how you feel as an individual.
My health wake-up call came from the negative effects of a hormonal preparation, not to be confused with Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT). HRT is a way of managing some symptoms of menopause which can’t be relieved any other way and there can be potential side effects. But rather than looking at just managing symptoms of menopause, we can try a more holistic way of planning for older life. That’s why I included such a comprehensive audit in my book.
My best job ever is my current career. My personality type means that I will put my heart and soul into whatever I’m doing at the time and love it. I have worked as a GP consistently for over 30 years. That means that there are days when I come home and I have changed someone’s life and I love it. As an author I also receive mail from readers who say, ‘You have changed my life’ and I love that too. And as a columnist, people say, ‘I saw that story on testicular cancer, had a test and I have just got the all clear’. Even working with government on policy is hard yakka, but very rewarding.
My public profile keeps my family quietly amused. I am used to it by now, but am not really ego-driven. You can’t do the job of a general practitioner and have a huge ego. Working in general practice leaves you very grounded. Patient-centred care is my philosophy, so I just stick to the issues.
Prioritising our health is the first step. If someone has raging toothache they ?x it. It’s important to see exercise as the thing you put ahead of all else, as part of your ultimate wellness strategy. This might mean breaking in to two 30-minute sessions per day if a one hour bout of exercise is impossible.
When someone is diagnosed with cancer or diabetes, it’s just amazing the way in which the crisis becomes a catalyst for change. Or maybe it’s a friend’s health crisis. Patients will say, ‘I want to be alive for my kids’. My own story of a health scare is in the very beginning of Ultimate Wellness as a demonstration that I’m not perfect – I face the same pressures and obstacles as everyone else.
When it comes to chronic or lifestyle diseases, there is no question that in 20 years society will not be able to afford to look after everyone in the same way. For the last 20 years or so, people have grown up with the idea they can do incredible damage to themselves – drink too much, eat too much, carry too much weight – and they think a pill or miracle cure will arrive in the nick of time. But it’s often too late to cure the insides of our arteries.
We need to talk right now to our ‘older’ adult, and start explaining to ‘them’ why we didn’t start exercising earlier. If I am speaking to a roomful of people, I often ask, ‘Put up your hand if there is not a single thing you can do today to improve your health.’ I never ever see a hand go up. So it all comes back to our own motivation.
I am most at home wherever my family is. Many things bring me joy, but most of all is a solid, trusting relationship. Knowing I have changed someone’s life and seeing my children grown up are incredibly rewarding. Last week I was out on the water with my youngest daughter, when a large pod of dolphins passed by. Such a moment in nature took me right back to my beachside upbringing. It’s really important to look to nature for inspiration.
Retirement is not even on my radar. I hope to be doing something – medical practice or writing – forever. But if people are planning to retire, then I think it is really important that they cultivate a sense of wellness and start this wellness planning early. This includes fostering connection with a social group and having something exciting to look forward to.
It’s never too soon to set good habits in place. You can start by changing one thing today. Success breeds success. You see it on people’s faces. ‘Oh my God’, they say, ‘I didn’t realise how much better I could feel’.
The interesting thing about retirement is that for many people with ‘big’ careers, there is no stepdown process. And for those who are retrenched or sacked out of the blue, the luxury of planning has been removed. One useful defence is to enjoy a life in things other than work.
I taught myself to surf and have the most fun when I am paddle-boarding. Music is also a great love as is anything physical or time spent with good friends. I’m a participant rather than a spectator.
If there was one single thing I could legislate for everyone, it would be a happy childhood, with nutrition, a quality education, safety and security and a loving home life guaranteed.
The single most important change we can all make to our health today is to start with a full health audit*. Take the time to take stock, reassess all your habits and ask yourself three important questions:
- Is the way I’m living my life in my own best interests?
- What can’t I change?
- What can I change?
I’m very human, but I don’t cheat. I trade off, instead. Friday at our place means a big family dinner when all bets are off. So it’s entirely possible I’ll enjoy two desserts. I can then use this special occasion as a reason not to stray from healthier activities during the week.
When it comes to same sex marriage, I’m an optimist. We’re seeing a rapid shift in the political landscape and public sentiment, so I do believe things will change. If not, we’re very patient. Jackie and I have been married in New York City twice. The ?rst was a religious ceremony in 1998, then in 2011 the laws had changed and so we were married at City Hall. Our next step is to have that marriage recognised in Australia.
Find out more
Ultimate Wellness: The 3 Step Plan
Pan Macmillan 2013
RRP $29.99 – Buy on Booktopia for $20.95
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