No excuse for neglecting health
Professor Kerryn Phelps reveals her healthy steps in Ultimate Wellness: The Three-Step Plan. Photo: Jon Reid
Kerryn Phelps is like a sensible friend who knows you well enough to gently rebut your excuses for failing to do the right thing.
You should eat breakfast every morning before leaving the house, she suggests.
"I don't have time," you shoot back.
Well set the alarm a few minutes earlier, Professor Phelps replies calmly, adding that it takes just a few minutes to pour cereal and milk into a bowl, grab a piece of fruit and eat.
"You can save even more time by putting a bowl and spoon out on the kitchen bench the night before," she adds before you can think of another excuse.
In 30 years of general practice medicine, Phelps has heard almost all the excuses patients can make for neglecting their own health. And she'd been making a few excuses herself when, in 2003, she faced a health crisis that could have ended her life.
Phelps recalls in her new book, Ultimate Wellness: The Three-Step Plan, how the combined pressures of serving as federal president of the Australian Medical Association and managing a medical practice and family responsibilities saw her neglect her own health.
She worked up to 18 hours a day, exercised less than she had in the past and put on weight.
Already unwell with a cough, Phelps became breathless a few hours before she was due to board a flight to Canberra.
Phelps was admitted to a hospital intensive care unit suffering from a life-threatening pulmonary embolism – an adverse effect from a hormone treatment she had been prescribed.
She recounts: "Later I would be told that if I tried to get on to that plane to Canberra, I would likely not have survived to tell you this story, or to write this book.
"Even making it to hospital, I had just over 10 per cent chance of surviving, less of surviving without disability."
Months later, Phelps was still not her old self and worried that she would suffer from ill health for the rest of her life.
"I was convinced I was going to be permanently ill. I thought I would never be able to ski again and I grieved for the loss of my physical abilities."
But: "As tough as it was, deep down, I never really gave up."
A decade on Phelps is fit and healthy, and she wants her patients to be fit and healthy as well.
But Phelps's "patients" have long been a bigger group than the people who visit her Sydney city centre practice.
Since her days as a television presenter and period as AMA president, from 2000 to 2003, Phelps has long been giving health advice to people who will never meet her.
In Ultimate Wellness, Phelps sets out to help readers to create a "new normal of health and wellbeing".
In a telephone interview before she enjoys a lunch of raw vegetables, Phelps says she has no interest in peddling diet or exercise fads.
"In some respects it's actually a response to a lot of the crash diet books and health fads that come and go," she says.
"The reason they come and go is because they don't do what that last part of my book does, which is sustain.
"People get short-term results which is fine if all they're trying to do is reboot their lifestyle but if actually they're trying to do is get a long-term plan for living well, they're not going to do it with a fad."
Phelps's three steps towards "ultimate wellness" are to "audit", "reboot" and "sustain".
In other words, use a questionnaire in the book to have a good hard look at your health and lifestyle, make same changes and keep the changes going.
Not surprisingly, Phelps advises that readers to seek the advice of a good GP.
The book isn't just about diet and exercise: Phelps has a more holistic view of health that includes a person's relationships, connections to the broader community and spiritual development.
One of the target audiences for the book is people who suffer from chronic illnesses or have had significant health problems. But it is also for people who just want to feel healthier.
"I want people to actually think about what they're doing and think about what they can change, what's stopping them and how they can overcome those obstacles if they really do want the outcome," Phelps says.
The "outcome" for Phelps, is for people to enjoy health that, on a scale of one to 100, is as close to 100 as possible.
She feels grateful to personally be close to 100 most of the time.
"One hundred isn't an Olympic athlete. One hundred is as good as you can be for your age and circumstances. And I'd have to say most of the time I'm pretty close to 90 to 100," Phelps says.
"My minimum exercise requirement is walking for an hour every day. I do weight training several times a week, I do stand-up paddle several times a week for a couple of hours, I do kayaking, I look after my diet."
Phelps believes many people set the bar too low, or don't realise they could achieve a much healthier lifestyle.
"So many of the habits that people have are making them sick. A lot of what this book is about is how not to sabotage your own health."
Unlike some GPs, Phelps is comfortable with complementary treatments, such as acupuncture, traditional Chinese medicine and herbal medicine. In fact she used some complementary therapies herself and is a former president of the Australasian Integrative Medicine Association and has written a textbook on integrative medicine.
"There's been professional lessons that I've learnt, where patients didn't get better with standard medical treatment and I've had to look further and I listen to what my patients do. I've asked them what was working for them, I went to look for evidence."
But in the book, Phelps warns about the dangers of patients being ripped off by dodgy practitioners or suffering from adverse reactions from herbal supplements or medications.
Phelps says she would like to see greater regulation of naturopaths.
"There's national registration and Medicare recognition for chiropractors, osteopaths, dietitians, [traditional Chinese medicine] practitioners. The herbalists are almost the last man standing outside the tent. I think it would be really helpful if highly-qualified naturopaths were able to have a form or registration and professional accountability."
Phelps says that many Australians embark on short-term diets or exercise regimes in early-January before returning to old habits as children return to school and work commitments crank up.
She hopes that her book will help people make lifestyle changes that will benefit them for decades. But as sensible as it sounds, will we accept her advice?
Ultimate Wellness: The Three-Step Plan. Published by Pan Macmillan Australia. RRP $29.99.