Crash Program in Anti-Aging

How much younger can you get in 40 days? Three women with common health problems added a total of 17 years to their lives by reinventing their diets, exercise routines and stress management techniques.

By Nancy Stedman
Rosa DaGraca after 40 days
Photograph: Sophie Olmsted

ROSA DAGRACA, 56
HER GOAL: Lower blood pressure, without medication
START: 140/90
FINISH: 128/70
YEARS YOUNGER:  3

A few months ago, ROSA DAGRACA looked like the poster woman for good health. The daughter of Portuguese immigrants, she grew up in Newark, New Jersey, eating a Mediterranean diet—plenty of fish, soups, beans, rice and olive oil—and as an adult she continued to make smart food choices. When the corporation she works for as a merchandising planner opened an on-site gym nine years ago, Rosa started exercising there every work-day at six AM. The svelte divorcée also walked or ran each Saturday and Sunday.

Yet when More first caught up with Rosa, she acknowledged a few health problems in her life, such as an abundance of stress. “I can get 200 e-mails a day at work,” she said. “On days like that, my heart starts racing. Sometimes I’ll notice that my fists are clenched when I’m driving.” Because there’s so much she wants to accomplish—this is a woman who worked two jobs for 12 years to put her son, Patrick, through school—she slept only five to six hours a night. And all that exercising? Turns out you can have too much of a good thing. (More on that later.)

Over the past six or seven years, Rosa’s blood pressure crept up to 144/90, with an occasional spike to 154/90 (120/80 is considered a healthy score). Because high blood pressure, aka hypertension, greatly increases the risks of kidney disease and stroke, among other concerns, her physician prescribed a medication to bring her numbers closer to normal. The drug caused no obvious side effects, but Rosa stopped using it; she wanted a more natural approach. Which is just what Roberta Lee, MD, medical director of the Continuum Center for Health & Healing in New York City, came up with when Rosa joined More’s  antiaging program.

STEP ONE: MANAGE STRESS BETTER
As a mind-body expert, Lee suspected that reducing Rosa’s stress level would also lower her blood pressure. Under the doctor’s direction, Rosa learned how to calm down on the job by visualizing her “happy place” (she imagined a beach) or leaving her desk and walking around the building. Lee also pre-scribed daily sessions on a biofeedback machine called Resperate. Not a cheap gizmo (it sells for $290 on amazon.com), the machine analyzes your breathing patterns and guides you, through aural and musical cues, into slowing down your breathing. Preliminary evidence suggests that using it daily for 15 min-utes can significantly lower blood pressure. Rosa ended up working with the machine four to five nights a week.

STEP TWO: A NEW DIET
Although Rosa already followed a low-fat diet, Health & Healing Center nutritionist Mary Beth Augustine switched her to a more stringent eating plan called DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which was developed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute specifically for patients with issues such as Rosa’s. (For tips and sample menus, go to nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/heart/hbp/dash/index.htm.)

High in plant-based foods (eight to 10 servings a day) and low in red meat, the diet is rich in nutrients that are associated with controlling blood pressure, especially potassium, calcium, magnesium and fiber. Processed and prepared foods, which tend to be high in sodium, are on the “do not eat” list. Re-search shows that within just two weeks, the DASH diet can lower blood pressure in hy-pertensive people by 11.4 points in the top (or systolic) number and 5.5 in the bottom (or diastolic) number.

But the DASH diet isn’t easy, and when Rosa first started it she said, “I’m taking it meal by meal.” The biggest challenge was cutting down on sodium. Because Rosa couldn’t stand the thought of cooking pasta without salt, she simply stopped eating it. The only starches she allowed herself were sweet potatoes and brown rice. When she got the munchies at night, she nibbled on some dark chocolate or a handful of pistachio nuts. “My mind-set has become very different,” Rosa said. “Before I reach for food, I think about my health.”
 
THE DAY EVERYTHING CLICKED
During the program, Rosa’s company nurse checked her blood pressure several times a week and reported no significant change. Yet Rosa felt much healthier. Jeff Young, the team’s exercise physiologist, had suspected she might be overexercising, and he cajoled her into taking a 10-day break. Rosa couldn’t even remember a time when she didn’t exercise every day, but agreed to give it a shot. By the time she started up again, she felt rested and stronger. Young also suggested Rosa log more sleep time, since shortfalls in slum-ber have been shown to increase blood pressure. She began turning in an hour or so earlier than usual and letting her-self sleep an hour later some mornings. Result? “I’m not so pooped all the time,” she said, “which makes it a little easier to get more accomplished.”

One night, about a week before the end of the Crash Program, Rosa settled in at home after a really stressful day. “I sat and read the papers, ate some dinner.” At one point, she noticed a new sensation. “I caught myself thinking, I’m really relaxed. Jeez, something is working.”

A few days later, Rosa’s blood pressure dropped to a healthy level—where it has remained. “I feel I have more control over my destiny now,” she said.

RENEE KINSELLA, 44
HER GOAL: Quit smoking
START: As much as a pack a day
FINISH: 0 cigarettes
YEARS YOUNGER:  8

RENEE KINSELLA grew up in a sleepy town in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, but once she left home, she was off and running: college in New York City, followed by marriage to an Irishman (Rory, now 48), stints in Dublin and London, a career in marketing back in the U.S., law school, then work as an attorney—and also three children (Finn, 11; Rory, nine; and Charlotte, four). After the third, Renee stayed home to take care of the kids full time. Her life was full of changes, but she knew she could count on one constant: her cigarettes.

And though she quit during her pregnancies, Renee always drifted back to smoking four to eight butts a day. “Throw in good friends and a bottle of ,wine, and it could go up to a pack,” she said. But the habit scared her. “At night I sometimes dream about the cancer cells in my lungs,” Renee said when she started the More program. “I would be incredibly grateful to stop smoking forever.” After 40 days, she was headed in that direction.

STEP ONE: CONQUER NICOTINE CRAVINGS
Lee ordered up a full arsenal of smoking-cessation tools for Renee: nicotine chewing gum (available over-the-counter) to satisfy some yearnings for the addictive chemical; the prescription antidepressant Wellbutrin (bupropion), which reduces nicotine cravings; an over-the-counter oral spray called Neuro-Science EndoTrex, which contains L-theanine, a relaxing amino acid found in green tea; and, to stave off irritability, SAM-e, a mild OTC mood-booster used in Europe.

The gum helped Renee temper severe cravings the week after she smoked her last cigarette, but she says she gave it up because it made her feel “a little sick.” She continued to take Wellbutrin and SAM-e and to carry around the calming spray—“my security blanket”—to use in the event of unexpected cravings.

STEP TWO: FILL THE CIGARETTE VACUUM
By her third week, Renee thought she had “passed the worst.” But Lee told her, “To really stop smoking, you need to find other things that are equally leasurable to fill your days.”

And so Renee embarked on a quest to discover new passions in her life. By the end of the 40 days, the scorecard read: quilting, no! guitar lessons, yes! Renee also found a once-a-week meeting for former smokers at a hospital near her apartment. “It’s really helpful to be in a supportive group of people who under-stand what it is like to crave a cigarette,” she said.

STEP THREE: BECOME AN EXERCISER
While Renee had always walked a lot, her smoking made it hard to see herself as a fitness person. But within a few days of getting off cigarettes, she began walking on her husband’s treadmill for 45 minutes almost every morning. She also started training twice a week with Jeff Young, the team’s exercise physiologist. Young, who says one of the benefits of exercising is that it helps ex-smokers redefine hemselves as healthy people, pushed Renee hard—and she responded. “I realized that I’m capable of doing much more than I thought I could. My name and ‘runner’ don’t go together—but Jeff has me jogging on the treadmill!” Renee said.

After 40 smoke-free days, Renee was stunned by her transformation. “I
can’t believe I’m not smoking!” she said.

ELISE SABATEL, 53
HER GOAL: Lose 50 pounds
START: 258 pounds
FINISH: 242 pounds
YEARS YOUNGER:  6

Growing up in the Bronx, “I was always the largest child in class,” ELISE SABATEL recalls. By her mid-thirties, she weighed in at over 200 pounds. “I’m a stress eater,” Elise told More. “My portion sizes are OK during the day, but at night I go for the cookies and cakes.”

A warm and compassionate woman who works as a school social worker, Elise admitted she often has trouble reaching out to others for support. She gives this example: About 18 years ago, after her daughter, Danielle, then 14, was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, Elise went to work every day and acted as if everything were normal. “People would ask me how I was, and I would say, ‘Fine.’ But I binged at home and gained 75 pounds.” (Her daughter, now 32, is fully recovered.)

A few months ago, Elise, who then weighed 258, decided it was time to take action. “I want to live a long life, and a healthy one,” she said. (Obesity is a serious risk factor for heart disease and diabetes.) Elise set herself an end goal of 200 pounds, and hoped More’s program would jump-start her efforts.

Then, right before the program started, Elise’s 73-year-old mother was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (a different kind of cancer than her daughter overcame). “I toyed with the idea of pulling out,” she said. “But then I thought, this is the perfect opportunity for me to learn how to manage stress.” With a gratifying career, a vibrant church community, a loving husband (Michael, 61), two grown-up children (her son, Gregory, is 22) and five grandchildren, Elise figured she would succeed because she was in a “good place.” She was right.

STEP ONE: DO WHAT WORKED BEFORE
By the time they reach their forties or fifties, many women are veteran dieters who know how they’ve succeeded in the past. In Elise’s case, Lee suggested she return to Weight Watchers, which had helped her lose 57 pounds two years earlier. Elise had liked the weekly meet-ings and found she could live with the well-rounded 1,600-calories-a-day meal plan.

Another key from the past: Elise had exercised at Lucille Roberts, a chain of women-only gyms. She settled on a routine of taking a 45-minute class followed by 15 to 20 minutes on a cardio machine, three times a week. To boost these weight loss methods, Lee prescribed the OTC supplement glucomannan, a soluble dietary fiber. Elise swallowed a capsule three times a day, 15 minutes before a meal, with a glass of water. “It gives me a sense of fullness,” she reported. Glucomannan is generally regarded as safe, but for some people (not Elise), it can produce unpleasant side effects, including hypoglycemia, according to Brent Bauer, MD, director of the Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic. Use it under a doctor’s supervision.  

STEP TWO: STAY FOCUSED
At the beginning of the program, Elise was excited but nervous. “I’m worried that I won’t have the fortitude to do this for 40 days,” she said. On top of her general concern, she soon realized she would have to spend the first 10 days of the program in Atlanta help-ing her mother cope with chemotherapy. In the end she got through the rough patch without binge eating, which in-creased her confidence. “In the past I would have gone for the sweets, but I pushed back the desire. Instead I ate a low-calorie snack,” she said.  

STEP THREE: MAKE LOVED ONES YOUR ALLIES
Food has always played an impor-tant part in Elise’s relationship with her husband, an excellent cook who pre-pares all the family meals. The problem is that Michael, now re-tired and weighing 298 pounds, smothered every dish in fat and oil.

But about halfway through the 40 days, Michael got with the program. “He decided I was not going to be the only person in the house losing weight. He joined a gym. He started making lower-calorie meals,” Elise said. Now they shop for groceries together and encourage each other to eat healthier food at restaurants.

By the end of 40 days, Elise had dropped 17 pounds, which put her more than a third of the way to reaching her ultimate goal of losing 50. “I feel better, I have more energy, and needless to say, I look fabulous!” Elise said. Why does she think she’ll reach—and stay at—her goal weight this time? She points to the supplements, the support of friends and family, and her newfound determination to succeed.
Additional reporting by GABRIELLE FRANK, DENISE MAHER and JOAN RAYMOND

OUR BLUE-RIBBON ANTI-AGING  TEAM
Roberta Lee, MD, vice chair, Department of Integrative Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center, Continuum Center for Health & Healing, in New York City, coordinated the 40-day program for our three participants. An integrative med-i-cine expert, Lee believes not just in treating a patient’s symptoms but also in improving her overall wellness. The participants’ first meetings with Lee lasted over an hour. The women were also advised by Jeff Young, an exercise physiologist and consultant to the center, and staff nutritionist Mary Beth Augustine, RD. To gauge the women’s progress, More partnered with the Principal Wellness Company, a Des Moines–based corporate wellness organization, which tested our guinea pigs before and after the program. For estimating each woman’s improved longevity, we enlisted Michael Roizen, MD, chief wellness officer and chairman of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute and coauthor, with Mehmet Oz, MD, of the best-selling You: Staying Young. Forty days, of course, is just the beginning for a wellness program. “Even more benefits will come as these women continue with their new lifestyles,” Roizen says.

First Published Wed, 2009-04-29 17:20

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