Dr. John Day wants you to live longer, and he thinks he knows how you can do this.
Day is a cardiologist and electrophysiologist, and he has an 11-foot paddle board strapped to the top of his car, eats salads for breakfast and writes books while walking on a treadmill.
He has traveled the world to study human longevity, and he’s developed a basic formula for it, but more about that later (hint: get off the internet and back slowly away from the Froot Loops and white bread).
Day specializes in arrhythmia — fast or irregular heartbeat. In recent years, he has developed a second career as a lecturer and advocate. He speaks about atrial fibrillation but also about the means to a longer, healthier life. He has lectured throughout Europe and Asia. He has spoken in China 25-30 times, and it would be many more if he didn’t limit his travel.
Besides the lectures, he also has developed a large public outreach program with a website, podcasts, a blog, a newsletter, a weekly TV segment on Ch. 2, and a book, which is scheduled to be released next summer). With more than 100,000 followers through these various forums, he offers advice on diet (including recipes), healthy lifestyles, exercise, weight loss and so forth.
Day’s passion for such matters began when he experienced a health crisis. At the outset of his career, he set out to find a cure or treatment for an arrhythmia known as atrial fibrillation, which affects 1 in 4 adults and is a leading cause of strokes and heart attacks.
He conducted considerable research on the subject, publishing more than 100 papers. He was intensely engaged in his craft, performing surgery, seeing patients and working long hours. Meanwhile, he exercised with equal intensity and determination, squeezing it in whenever he could, which usually meant in the dark of night.
Wearing a headlamp, he hiked, biked and skied in the mountains. One night he would hike to the top of a mountain in the dark and ski down; another night he would climb to the top of Alta in the dark.
“I thought as long as I’m exercising every day, I’m healthy,” he says.
But the long hours, the doughnuts and pop he consumed on the fly, and the stress took their toll in his mid-40s. His weight ballooned from 175 pounds to 205. His blood pressure and cholesterol were up, he had severe back, neck and knee pain, and he couldn’t sleep.
“Everyone pays a price,” he says. “It can come earlier or later, depending on your genes. I hit rock bottom in my mid-40s.”
He was so uncomfortable that he could no longer exercise, which was his one “release,” as he calls it. He began to dread his surgical duties because they required him to wear a heavy leaded suit that contributed to his orthopedic pain.
He tried everything. He took Ibuprofen to get through a day. He tried in vain to lose weight. He went gluten-free. Nothing worked.
He began looking for answers for himself and his patients through research and his travels to conferences around the world. He learned about a Chinese village called Bapan, nicknamed “Longevity Village.” Day took the first of three trips to Bapan in 2012 to see the village for himself and to conduct research, taking his wife Jane and their children with them and staying for weeks at a time.
“Almost half of the people had died before 18 from infectious diseases, but if they survive to adulthood they typically go on to live into their 90s or older,” he says.
There were 550 people at the time, and eight of them were between 105 and 110 years old. They were not on any medications; they had undergone no surgeries; they had no heart disease, diabetes or obesity. Day did a genetic study of the Bapan residents and discovered that they had the same predictors for cardiovascular disease and obesity as other cultures: “But it was their lifestyle that turned off these harmful genes,” he says.
Their lifestyle, he discovered, consisted of a plant-based diet – legumes, vegetables, fruit – with some fish. They steam cook their food, instead of frying it. The families live together, four or five generations, under one roof. They are physically active but not in the way we think of it. Instead of bursts of activity with an hourlong visit to the gym, they were doing hand farming and lots of walking, using all the muscle groups. They are frequently outside, which exposes them to vitamin D.
Isolated and cut off from the world, they don’t have access to salt, sugar, tobacco and processed foods. They lead slow, stress-free lives. They grew what they ate. There is no pollution. They respect their elders — the older they are, the more respect they are given, which contributes to what Day calls “healthful aging.” They interact with others face to face, not via electronic devices.
“They are a very happy, optimistic people,” says Day. “It’s a natural way of life.”
Day pauses a moment and then continues.
“My focus was atrial fibrillation. I was focused on medical procedures. But the frustrating thing was despite a lot of our research and our advances of understanding disease and procedures, in many cases (the disease) would recur. I had an epiphany. Medical science can only take you so far. You have to have a healthy lifestyle. Western medicine can bail you out of a tough situation, but if you want it to continue you have to change your lifestyle. AF is mostly caused by poor lifestyle. If lifestyle gets you into a bad position, then that’s what’s going to get you out of it.”
His basic lifestyle formula for living longer and healthier lives:
– Connect with people socially (but not electronically)
– Restorative sleep
– Managing stress
– Being physically active throughout the day, not just at the gym
– Eating real food
“The average lifespan in the U.S. is 78,” Day says. “But the average American is basically disabled the last 10 years of life. There are lots of pills and doctor visits. Where did the golden years go? We not only want to make life longer, but we want to have a higher quality of life.”
When he returned from his first trip to Bapan, Day was asked by colleagues to report his findings and impressions at various conferences. After hearing him speak, his colleagues encouraged him to write a book.
He wrote the book on the move, as his Bapan friends might do. He stacked an end table and a nightstand over the front end of a treadmill and wrote most of the book on his laptop while walking. He estimates he walked enough miles to take him from Los Angeles to New York. “The Longevity Plan” will be released next summer by HarperCollins.
While in Bapan, Day saw people working in the fields in their 80s and 90s while he was “almost crippled” in his 40s. When he returned home, he used himself as a guinea pig to test the theories he developed in Bapan. As much as possible, he tried to incorporate the Bapan lifestyle in his life. He began eating locally grown, unprocessed foods, including salads and legumes, at all meals while consuming meat sparingly. A typical breakfast is salad, nut butter on Ezekiel bread and fruit from a farmers market.
He has built grow boxes in his front yard for a future vegetable garden. He also became physically active throughout the day, right down to performing surgery from a standing position instead of sitting, and taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
Day, now 49, is healthy again. The weight came off gradually over the course of a year (he’s back down to a rail-thin 175 pounds). The aches and pains disappeared. He was able to resume exercise. He recently ran a marathon. He skis. He keeps a paddle board strapped to his car and when he has a hole in his schedule he drives to the Jordan River and does laps.
He runs and bikes mountain trails. He skis — cross country and alpine — about 100 days a year, even if it’s just to make one run before dashing off to work. Sometimes that means hiking to the top of a ski hill because the resorts are closed by the time he gets off work. He begins skiing before the resorts open in the winter, hiking up to the top with his “rock skis” and skiing/scraping his way to the bottom. He continues to ski in the summer after the resorts have closed, finally quitting in July.
“Every day I’m not seeing patients I’m climbing a mountain year round with family,” he says.
Day uses himself to prove another point. He had his genes analyzed. He learned that he had one copy of the Alzheimer’s gene and a copy of the diabetes gene, and two copies of the fat gene.
“It’s the luck of the draw, the cards I’ve been dealt,” he says. “It just shows you can reprogram your genes. Genes are like seeds. You have to have the right environment for good genes or bad genes to grow. You can suppress the bad genes you were dealt. DNA is not your destiny. You can deactivate them with a healthy lifestyle. I am living proof. A healthy lifestyle trumps genes in most cases.”
There is one thing he hasn’t changed. He still works long hours. He remains an earnest, driven doctor. He is as passionate about medicine as he is skiing. He claims he was still in grade school when he determined that he wanted to be a cardiologist and a surgeon. At Alta High, he was a good student, served as a student body officer and competed for the school’s basketball, track and tennis teams. His plans to be a surgeon were almost derailed between his sophomore and junior years. During a mountain climbing accident, he severed three fingers on his left hand. Doctors reattached the digits, but only the middle finger survived, albeit with a fused joint; he lost about half of the ring and pinkie fingers.
“It’s something I still struggle with,” he says. “You never fully get over it. You make the best with what you have. I wish it had gone a different way.”
He went on to make the school’s basketball team anyway and continued his aspirations to become a surgeon. After serving a Chinese-speaking LDS Church mission in New York, he took an undergrad degree in Chinese at BYU and studied medicine at Johns Hopkins University. He served a residency in internal medicine and completed a cardiology fellowship at Stanford and then joined the faculty at the University of Utah. Two and a half years later, he was recruited by Intermountain Healthcare to start an atrial fibrillation program. He sees patients and performs surgery. And, of course, in his free time he exercises and advocates a healthier lifestyle for the public.
“Seeing others reverse chronic medical problems and completely turn their health around is what keeps me going,” says Day. “So often people believe there isn’t anything they can do about their genes. It is almost as if taking medications and living with chronic medical conditions are just part of the aging process Regardless of their genes, studies show that most people can enjoy good health to age 90 with the right lifestyle choices.”
Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: [email protected]