My Genes Are Not the Boss of Me!

cancer cell

After I was diagnosed and treated for thyroid cancer seven years ago, I had a little freak out. On the one hand, I was reassured that if I was to have cancer, thyroid cancer is the kind to have. It’s relatively easy to treat and highly curable. Okay, that’s great. However, if I had cancer, doesn’t that mean at some point something went haywire at the cellular level? Why didn’t my healthy cells kick those cancer cells to the curb? If it happened once, isn’t it more likely to happen again, somewhere else like my lung, my breast, or my brain? I’ve been told it’s not, but hey, I’m not taking any chances.

My cancer diagnosis changed my attitude toward my body. That wake up call is the driving force behind my work as a health and wellness coach. I want others to understand that when it comes to the chronic diseases of the western world – heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and obesity — our health is largely up to us. I don’t know what caused my cancer, but I do know our genes are not the boss of us! The way in which we take care of our bodies can determine which genes are expressed. If our parents are obese, we probably have that propensity, but it’s only a factor in the equation. It’s not our fate.

My grandfather suffered a heart attack at age 40. It happened at a time when medicine was just making the connection between diet, exercise and cardiovascular health. I remember hearing that my grandmother – a wonderful cook – changed up some things in her kitchen, especially replacing butter with margarine. My grandfather lived another 30+ years, so her efforts obviously paid off. By the time their son, my father, was 40, he was dedicated to regular exercise and has always maintained a healthy weight. His actions were a direct response to what he feared his genes might have in store for him.

Angelina JolieIn the case of Angeline Jolie, who carries the BRCA1 gene and opted for a double mastectomy to diminish her chances of developing breast cancer, I sincerely hope she combined that decision with a commitment to a chronic disease-bashing lifestyle. Last interview I read, she was tucking into a juicy steak and red wine, so maybe not.

We tend to get stuck thinking our health is predetermined by fate, the quality of our healthcare, or our genes. Don’t forget that WE play the most pivotal role in determining our health. Food is medicine. Choose mindfully what you put into your body. Sleep balances your hormones and restores your willpower. Get plenty of it. Exercise boosts your immune system and promotes cell turnover. Make it a regular part of each day.

Safeguarding Your Health: Disease Prevention through Sleep, Food, Mood and ExerciseSounds so simple, doesn’t it? Sometimes we need to reinforce what we “know we should be doing” with some current information that can make this all come together to form a pretty darn compelling picture. The support of a group helps too. And we could all use some effective tools to help us figure out how to make these changes in a way that they will stick.

If you’re nodding your head to any of this, please check out my upcoming online workshop – Safeguarding Your Health: Disease Prevention through Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise. It starts in nine days, and has the tools, the group, the support, and the information. Please join me!


LIFT – an App to Track Habits

Technology is a beautiful thing, One of my favorite apps is called LIFT. Designed to help you “build better habits,” LIFT uses all the best tools of positive psychology to help you practice and solidify new habits or break the bad ones.


Like all good apps, LIFT is accessible via the web and/or your iPhone. It’s a coach, a support group, and a nudge-giver rolled into one.

First, you input the habit(s) you’d like to develop (or drop). The possibilities are limitless, but best to start small and build from there.

Second, you check in with LIFT each day to record your activity. Did you floss your teeth last night? Have you done those 50 sit-ups? Did you remember to call your mother? You have an option to editorialize on that day’s check in, e.g. “ran out of dental floss,” or “did 75 sit-ups!”

iphone shot2

LIFT tracks your progress, giving you a nice green check mark on the days you’ve marked off, and a bar graph gives you a broader picture of progress. My favorite feature is that your can set reminders for your iPhone. So if you can’t seem to remember to take that multivitamin every morning, LIFT will help you with that and reward you with the satisfaction of recording the deed.

Last but not least, the feature meant to really keep up your determination and enthusiasm is the social component to LIFT. You can connect your account to Facebook and Twitter (in the event your friends and followers care about your daily meditation.) Most users find it beneficial to join a group that shares a common goal and offer each other “props” for progress. On the flip side, you can opt out of all the social aspects and remain completely anonymous by using a pseudonym.

It’s highly customizable, but remember, it only really works if you are already determined to make that positive change. It simply reinforces that behavior through tracking, group support and visual feedback. If it truly takes three weeks to make or break a habit, give LIFT a try for 21 days, and see what happens.

Power of the Group – Exercise Together

SAMSUNGFor about six years now, I’ve been lucky to be part of a small group of women who regularly hike together (along with some yoga, cycling, etc.) We call ourselves OEBs, short for Obsessive Exercise Buddies. Okay, maybe “committed” would be a better word choice than “obsessive”…but the benefits are huge!

There are four of us, so even if two can’t make it, I still have a workout buddy. Together we try new things. None of us had cycled on anything but a cruiser a few years ago. Yoga was a bit of a stretch for one of us (pun intended). We’ve been there for each other, talking through problems up and down mountains, and we’ve had some doozies, from death of a spouse to breast cancer.

For anyone wanting to create a consistent and enjoyable exercise routine, joining a group or finding a workout partner with a similar fitness level and goals is going to practically ensure your success. I urge my coaching clients to find this type of support, but it’s not always easy, so here are some tips:

1) There are countless numbers of exercise groups out there that offer not only fitness but also a great social component. For hiking, check out local groups online. Mayo Clinic offers advice on How to Start a Walking Group. If you’re into cycling, almost any bike shop organizes regular group rides.

2) Classes are a great way to stay motivated. You meet new people, time flies by, you’re challenged well beyond your regular 30 minutes on the elliptical machine, and most gym offer a variety of cool classes.

3) Chances are you and your spouse or partner share some similar interests. Capitalize on those by gardening, biking, or taking early morning walks together. Even just sharing what kind of exercise you did that day is a positive way to give and receive support.

Fergus Closeup4) Dogs are the BEST accountability partners. Who can deny that face when he wants to go for his regular walk? Establish a pattern, and you can be sure that he’ll remind you when it’s time to go.

5) A friend in another city or country can also be your buddy. I know of a man who trades texts with his brother each day about their workouts. It’s not a contest (at least he says it’s not) but it’s a motivator as well as a nice way to connect.

6) Signing up for a 5K, participating in a bike race, or a charitable walk puts you in touch with others who have a common goal. Sign up with a friend and train together. A few months of that may make the difference in creating a positive habit of regular exercise.

It’s hard to overemphasize how enriching and helpful sharing your exercise routine can be. The physical benefits of exercise are well known, but adding a social component takes it up a notch. The PERMA theory of Well-Being created by Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman shows us how. Exercising with a buddy or a group touches each of the five elements proven to increase flourishing or happiness.

P – Positive emotion — the endorphin rush, and the satisfaction you feel when you’ve completed your workout along side your friend, or the feedback you get when you report your activity to your partner,

E – Engagement — being committed to and invested in regular exercise with others,

R – Relationships — meeting new people, deepening existing relationships, and growing together,

M – Meaning and Purpose — sharing goals and reaching them together,

A – Accomplishment – following through on your workout plans, making it happen, and getting it done.

P.S.  I had some interesting feedback on this post. One client said her exercise time is sort of sacred–a time to be alone with her thoughts. Another said it was just too hard to coordinate schedules, accommodate another person’s pace, and to be at the whim of someone else canceling at the last minute. She prefers to get it done alone. I want to acknowledge that side of the coin, and reiterate that you have to DO WHAT WORKS BEST FOR YOU! For more on that, you might enjoy a great post by one of my favorite bloggers at Move, Eat, Create – Why the Workout ‘Buddy System’ Isn’t For Everyone (And That’s Ok!)



Seligman, M. E. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press.