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9 tips for your health and the planet’s

Aside from pesticide usage and a few other issues, most of us haven’t worried much about the connections between health issues and the environment. For our health, we work on our waistlines and fret over our cholesterol levels. For the environment, we recycle and maybe drive a fuel-efficient car.

But because of accelerating climate change and the havoc it could wreak, it’s not so easy to send environmentalism off into its own separate compartment these days. In February 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said the evidence for global warming is “unequivocal.” Everything we do now can be measured for its effect on the environment — and greenhouse gas emissions in particular.

There’s a place for individual responsibility. So,  bringing personal and environmental health together, here are nine “green” health tips.

1. Walk or bike to work. Combining exercise and a commute builds exercise into your day, which means you don’t have to summon extra willpower, to say nothing of time, to go to the gym. If you live too far away, consider walking or biking to public transportation or driving only part of the way.

2. Go to bed early. Americans weigh more and are sleeping less. Epidemiologic studies have identified a correlation between short sleep and being overweight or obese. Meanwhile, all the lights, televisions, computers, microwave ovens, and music players that help keep us up at night use electricity, most of it generated by burning coal and natural gas. By turning in earlier, we’ll dial down our appetite for kilowatts and maybe food.

3. Turn down the heat and the air conditioning. When air temperatures are in the thermoneutral zone (TNZ) — which for humans with their clothes on tends to be in the mid-70s — our metabolisms don’t have to work so hard to maintain body temperature, and we burn fewer calories. We’re spending more time in our TNZs these days because of heating and — particularly — air conditioning. Some experts believe all that time in the comfort zone is contributing to the obesity epidemic. By adjusting your thermostat, you may keep your metabolism from getting lazy and also use less of another kind of energy.

4. Eat fish, but the right kind. Some fish species are contaminated with pollutants — mercury and PCBs are the main concern. Stocks of others have been dangerously depleted by too much fishing. Some groups are working to steer consumers to species that are in good supply. But making the right “eco-choice” does involve some homework — maybe a bit too much for many of us. Take swordfish. Once scarce, populations are almost fully recovered in the North Atlantic,  and the United States has strict rules for swordfish fishing in the Pacific, where fishing practices threaten endangered sea turtles. But foreign fleets don’t have to follow those rules, so not only would you need to know which ocean your swordfish came from to make an environmentally sensitive choice, you’d also need to know the origin of the fleet that caught it.

5. Switch to energy-saving light bulbs, but don’t throw them in the regular trash. Those curlicue compact fluorescent light bulbs that Home Depot wants you to buy are the real deal. They use two-thirds less energy than a regular incandescent bulb and last up to 10 times longer. But all fluorescent bulbs need mercury to work, and the compact versions contain about five milligrams of the metal. if you throw them out in the regular trash, that mercury may end up in the air or water, and, by climbing the food chain, in the fish on your plate. Call your town or city’s public works department to find out where you can dispose of fluorescent light bulbs safely.

6. Learn a lesson from palm oil and good intentions gone awry. As the tide turns against trans fat, food manufacturers are scrambling for substitutes. Palm oil has emerged as a candidate. In Europe, palm oil has also been touted as an environmentally friendly renewable “biofuel” alternative to fossil fuels like coal and gas. But to satisfy the growing demand for the tropical oil, huge tracts of Southeast Asian rainforest are being cut down and planted with palm trees. Farmers are also draining and burning huge swathes of peatlands, which help offset greenhouse emissions by soaking up carbon. Palm oil is an improvement over trans fat as far as personal health is concerned, but about half of the fat molecules in palm oil are saturated, and saturated fat increases cholesterol levels. The moral of the story is not to be dazzled by alternatives in either the environmental or personal health realms.

7. Eat local fruits and vegetables. Flying kiwis in from New Zealand and grapes up from Chile is an energy-intensive way to fulfill the fruit-and-vegetable imperative. It’s possible only if energy is cheap, and cheap energy in this fossil fuel–era of ours means tons of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. Global trade may entail high transportation costs, but it also organizes food production to occur where it’s most efficient. Besides, isn’t it wonderful to have fresh produce out of season? The reasonable middle ground is to give some preference to locally grown food.

8. Don’t take more medications than you need to. In most cases, our bodies use only a fraction of any drug we take. The rest gets excreted, but it doesn’t disappear once we’ve flushed. Scientists are still sorting out which drugs are causing significant harm and at what levels. But there’s already evidence that pharmaceuticals in waste water adversely effect aquatic ecosystems. All drugs have side effects, so for your own health, you should take medications that are necessary but no more. Now the environmental consequences may be another reason to be prudent in your pill intake.

9. Get behind the greening of hospitals and medical buildings. American hospitals are on a building spree that rivals the post–World War II boom. They’re getting more deluxe, with additional private rooms and more sophisticated technology. In some cases, hospitals are seizing the opportunity to build “greener” buildings, which have attributes that may also improve the health and well-being of patients. Building a hospital or nursing home with more natural light not only saves energy but may also enhance the mood of patients (and staff!) and keep them more oriented. We can encourage their construction by writing a letter (hospitals are very public relations conscious) and supporting policies and programs that encourage energy-efficient construction.

June 2007 update

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