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The Best You Now

Stacie Stukin is a West Hollywood-based freelance writer

A funny thing happened on the road to perfection. Suddenly, enjoying your exercise routine is more important than going for the burn. Meditation is edging out the shrink’s couch. And trying to turn back the clock is passe as a quiet revolution emphasizes that well-being is the key to quality of life and peace of mind.

“I like to call it ‘pro-aging’ or ‘successful aging,’” says Miriam Nelson, an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston. “There are still those who panic about getting older and get depressed with each passing year. Then there is another, growing group of people who are thinking about what they can do to be as vigorous as possible to reduce their incidence of age-related disease by eating well, exercising, managing stress and being happy and connected.”

“It’s a move to adapt to aging, to value it and honor what it means to grow old in this era of unprecedented longevity,” says Fernando Torres-Gil, director of the Center for Policy Research on Aging at UCLA. “People are . . . taking responsibility for their health without relying on quick fixes like pills or surgery.”

Integrative medicine proponents such as Andrew Weil have built businesses on books and beauty and health products. Medi-wellness spas, such as David Murdock’s California WellBeing Institute at the Four Seasons Hotel in Westlake Village, offer the best in medicine with alternative approaches to prevention.

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The following primer outlines some of the freshest approaches to looking and feeling your best now. And throughout this special health issue, you’ll meet people who are shaping and defining ideas about health--from pregnancy to prostate surgery, from the TV shows we watch to the cakes we bake--for a generation of Americans who are embracing every stage of life as “prime time.”

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Beauty

With all this talk of pro-aging, it’s hard to avoid the subject of cosmetic surgery. Although it’s a popular option for many, some simply don’t want a nip and tuck. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, the number of face-lifts declined 4% between 2005 and 2006. Beverly Hills plastic surgeons such as John Vartanian are noticing a shift. Vartanian says about 25% of his patients just want to improve what’s already there. “There’s a subpopulation who are maturing and who grew up with the option of cosmetic surgery,” he says. “But they don’t want an extreme look; they want to look natural.” Part of this is due to new options in the surgeon’s toolbox. In particular, nearly 9 million Americans opted for minimally invasive procedures in 2006. Those scalpel-free procedures leave no scars and require no downtime or hiding. People are resurfacing their skin with lasers, filling in fine lines and wrinkles with injectable material and using Botox to prevent lines and crevices. “I love those patients,” says Vartanian. “They have common sense, they don’t want to look freaky and I can make them happy.”

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Spirit

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the New England Journal of Medicine reported that 90% of Americans turned to religion to cope with the stress. Although that finding echoes many national surveys about the prevalence of religious participation among Americans, particularly those 65 and older, the medical scientific community is just beginning to understand how personal religious belief systems affect well-being and health. “In the last 10 years it’s become more and more evident that there is a positive relationship between religion and health,” says Harold G. Koenig, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University who has authored some of that research. Koenig says religious people are happier, more hopeful, recover more easily from illness and adapt better to changes that come with aging or challenging situations. Because religion, or any spiritual pursuit, promotes a positive attitude toward aging, there’s evidence that that attitude will, in fact, help you live longer.

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Mind

The National Centers for Complementary and Alternative Medicine estimates that more than 15 million Americans meditate regularly. “The best way to accept the stage of life you find yourself in is to do some self-investigation,” says Susan Smalley, a professor of psychiatry at the Semel Institute at UCLA. “That’s when you gain understanding, wisdom and ultimately happiness.” Film director David Lynch does it. So does Al Gore. Top-tier hospitals use it, as do Fortune 500 companies. It’s done in locker rooms and even in prisons. “Meditation helps your mind be healthier,” says Victoria Maizes, executive director of the University of Arizona’s Program in Integrative Medicine. “That, in turn, helps your body respond better to challenges.” Reams of scientific data prove it can help with chronic pain, arthritis, asthma, PMS, depression and other conditions. In 2005, a study at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston demonstrated that the brains of people who meditated six hours a week on average had thicker gray matter in the area responsible for decision-making, attention and sensory processing. Another recent study suggested that brain waves of meditators are more active in the area associated with happiness and optimism.

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Nutrition

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The one-size-fits-all approach to diet is giving way to a more personalized approach. “General guidelines don’t motivate people to change,” says David Heber, director of UCLA’s Center for Human Nutrition. “Personalized nutrition gets people to pay attention.” That’s why nutritionists are happy to see that fad diets are fading as research demonstrates that our genes have a lot to do with the way we should eat. Preliminary studies have shown, for example, that the amount of fat, protein and carbohydrates we choose to eat may be determined by our genes. Researchers have even identified a gene linked to heart disease. “The data we keep accumulating show the possibility is there,” says Jose Ordovas, director of the Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts. “But I would compare it to Windows 1.0. We’re not nearly at Windows Vista.” Still, some programs, including the Risk Factor Obesity Program at UCLA, take into account individual characteristics such as body fat, metabolism, blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as factors associated with heart disease, cancer and other chronic conditions. As Ordovas says, “It’s the fine-tuning that’s the difference between good and bad aging.”

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Fitness

The days of a structured exercise regimen have given way to “active living every day,” says Ruth Ann Carpenter, director of dissemination and advocacy at the Cooper Institute, a nonprofit fitness and health organization in Dallas. Although more than 60% of the U.S. adult population is considered sedentary, research shows that those who get the recommended 30 minutes of exercise per day--even if it’s by parking farther from their destination, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, walking the dog or gardening--get the same health benefits as someone who participates in a conventional fitness activity for the same amount of time. “A big part of a successful exercise plan is enjoyment,” explains Carpenter. That idea is just beginning to impact fitness trends. “There’s no longer a sense that people want a quick fix or need to look like Miss Universe,” says Carol Espel, national director of group fitness and Pilates for the Equinox Fitness clubs. “People don’t want to show up and dial in their workout. They want a skill, to learn a technique, to master something while using their brain.” Espel says getting a workout can be the healthy side effect, not the primary focus.

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