Since early 2019, the Town’s Wellness Committee, co-chaired by Cindy Grant and Lord Mayor Betty Disero, and attended by seven community volunteers, has gathered ‘wellness’ evidence relevant to Niagara-
The result of this work is the January 2020 Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake Community Wellness Committee Report of Recommendations. The report is based on demographic and statistical information, information from Niagara Public Health and Niagara Region, reports from Brock University research centres, and a community wellness survey of 200 residents in NOTL.
The report recommendations cover wellness domains related to: communication; environment; community vitality (pedestrian and bicycle safety, transportation services); living standards (housing options); education (lifelong learning); and healthy community (lifelong physical activity, social connectedness, health services). One of the key recommendations in the report is the maintenance of “lifelong physical activity,” which outlines how NOTL should take action to respond to the mismatch between the town’s present environment, and our genes that are causing epidemics.
Human beings evolved in a world in which there was very little food, a lot of physical activity, plenty of danger, and few lived past 50 years. The genes that favoured the ability to survive without much food and maintain physical activity were favoured for millennia. In the past, the hunters and gatherers were at risk of not having enough food. With the introduction of farming and industrialization, food has become plentiful and a new type of danger has arrived — stress, combined with inactivity. In 2020, we are at risk from stress reactions as a result of difficult supervisors or angry clients across the table or on the phone. Unlike historic times, we cannot rely on the fight or flight response to guide us away from danger. When you cannot either fight or flee, the stress reaction causes inflammation.
The inflammation is not the red, tender inflammation that is an acute and healthy response to an infected cut, but a silent, long-term inflammation that affects many tissues, including the brain. Scientists now think that this type of inflammation is a cause of many health conditions. In the words of distinguished Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman, the problem is that we still have paleolithic caveman bodies in what he calls a “post-paleolithic world.”
In other words, there is a mismatch between our genetic makeup, and the environment in which we live. NOTL’s population is living longer, thanks to clean water, better care for women in pregnancy, and for children in the first few years of life. However, new health problems are emerging, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure. These problems result from an environment in which an increasing proportion of people sit over eight hours per day, often commuting under stress in a traffic jam, both before and after the day at their desk job. Paleolithic men and women had many problems, but obesity and type 2 diabetes were not among them. A paleolithic man’s blood pressure occasionally went sky high as part of the stress reaction when he had to chase down a large animal, but high blood pressure was temporary and lasted only as long as it was needed — until the end of the hunt.
The mismatch between our genes and the environment does not inevitably cause problems. As outlined in the newly released NOTL Community Wellness Committee report, we can adapt to the changed world in which we now live, either alone or working with others. The authors of the report have not assumed that readers would just close it and put the theory into practice the next day, but rather need support from a number of sources.
First, research shows that the support of friends, co-workers and family is of crucial importance. If they decide to change their behaviour with you, then change is more likely. Fortunately, employers and managers now understand that by encouraging healthy behaviour at work, with standing desks or 10 brisk minutes of lunch-time walking, they can not only help their employees improve their wellness and reduce their risk, but also increase work productivity — a nice bonus for the firm.
Second, there needs to be support from the community. Some may believe that community spirit has become non-existent, but this is not the case. It is more difficult for community spirit to grow strong when there is a high rate of movement in and out of the town. However, in NOTL, individuals have emerged who are able to persuade people to work together. One strategy is to work with interest groups in the community, such as breakfast clubs or sports clubs, and persuade them to put lifelong physical activity on their agenda, alongside their original mission. Internet-based communities are also developing quickly, where you can find people with similar interests online. Although not yet in NOTL, Parkrun is an excellent example of an organization of the internet age that is enabling people to improve their physical fitness and have fun.
Third, there are people working for health services in NOTL and other professionals who can give information. The general information is very simple and is included in the report but you may need to ask your physician about particular concerns.
There are very few reasons why someone with one or multiple long-term health problems should not follow all the advice outlined in the report. Modern drugs are wonderful for conditions like heart failure, type 1 diabetes and Parkinson’s Disease, but drug therapy alone is not what gives the most benefit. All the factors that affect physical fitness are also factors that affect disease. Based on the nature of the concern, it may not be just health service professionals who can provide support. Trainers working in gyms, fitness clubs and local wellness centres are also trained to support people with long-term health problems so there are plenty of people keen to help.
The Wellness Committee has made a series of excellent recommendations in its new report, including the promotion of life-long physical activity within the community. Personal and community support is needed to initiate change, and healthcare providers or fitness professionals can be consulted regarding specific concerns. This report is an excellent step toward responding to these factors linked with numerous diseases — physical inactivity and the stress of modern living.
Larry W. Chambers has authored 175 articles and books concerning disease prevention (e.g. dementia), quality improvement in long-term care homes and innovative approaches for continuing professional development. He is research director of the Niagara Regional Campus, School of Medicine, McMaster University. Eva Liu and Hanna Levy are medical students at the Niagara Regional Campus of the McMaster University School of Medicine. They are interesting in improving community wellness of frail older adults in NOTL by narrowing the fitness (physical and brain) gap, diversifying housing options for older adults, and increasing economic activity within the community that also increases ability of our minds to interact with people and ideas.