Dr. Travis Stork, one of the stars of the ABC talk show, The Doctors, is just the kind of health coach everyone could benefit from. We recently interviewed the ER physician about his involvement in an awareness campaign called the Asthma Express, encouraging asthma screening.
Spry: There are a billion health concerns out there you could focus on, so why asthma, and why now?
Travis Stork: A lot of people don’t understand asthma and don’t understand their triggers. As an emergency department physician, when I see people with asthma, it tends to be when they’re having severe, acute life-threatening asthma attacks. What’s great about this campaign is that is seeks to educate people about what asthma is and what triggers it, and it also highlights the fact that 60 percent of asthma sufferers have “allergic asthma,” which means their triggers are actually common allergens that could be lurking in anyone’s home—dust mites, pet dander, cockroaches, and so on. These things are so common that you might not understand why you’re experiencing shortness of breath or unexplained wheezing and coughs in your own home. This campaign is highlighting allergic asthma and trying to raise awareness about it.
Spry: The incidence of asthma seems to be growing. What groups seem to be most affected, and why do health experts think this is happening?
TS: It’s an illness that can be quite common in kids. Certainly, there’s conjecture as to why we’re seeing increasing rates of asthma in many cities across the country. Some of it does have to do with air quality. You have allergic and non-allergic triggers—non-allergic triggers can be anything from smoke to pollution to chemical irritants. The more we’re exposed to these things, the more we can expect to see people displaying asthmatic symptoms and being diagnosed. But that’s not a bad thing—if people have asthma, I’d rather they know it and be counted as part of the 1 in 12 that we suspect has asthma instead of going through life unable to breathe.
There’s also talk about why the rates of people suffering from allergies are going up in our country. Again, a lot of it is conjecture at this point. In places where kids play around in the dirt and don’t overly sanitize their lives, there is less incidence of asthma. We are meant to be exposed to things; our immune systems evolve over time. An allergy occurs when your body’s immune system views pollen as potentially harmful and your body creates an inflammatory response to it.
The reality is, you can’t always predict who will develop allergies. But we can do a pretty good job of treating the symptoms, and especially in the case of allergic asthma, you can get on a treatment plan that tampers down that inflammatory response that occurs in your lungs. It makes such a huge difference, not only in quality of life, but in your ability to avoid an acute asthmatic episode where you have to come to the ER and literally enter on death’s doorstep. The more we can avoid those situations, the better.
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Spry: You say that people make 200 decisions a day regarding their health. Can you explain what you mean by this?
TS: Instead of this being a debilitating thought, I want it to be an empowering one. When they wake up in the morning, a lot of people don’t think about flossing their teeth, flossing teeth regularly can prevent periodontal disease and can even increase how long you live. Or, if you leave the bathroom and neglect to apply sunscreen, you could be increasing your risk for skin cancer. Or you go downstairs and skip breakfast—people who skip breakfast are almost 4 times as likely to be obese. So when you go throughout your day, it’s the little choices that matter. As mundane as it may seem, do you take the three flights of stairs to your office, or do you take the elevator? When you’re at work, do you sit in your chair for 8 hours straight, or do you mix it up? Do you spend 15 minutes an hour on your feet? Are you choosing water or sugary beverages? These are the kind of decisions that don’t seem that important in isolation, but adding them up has more to do with how healthy you are than if you’re choosing to go to the gym every day. Even if you exercise at the gym an hour a day, every single day, it’s those additional 23 hours that matter the most—those simple decisions you make over the course of the day. If you’re one of those people who go to the gym every single day and you maybe can’t make it one day, know that you can make up for it. Every time you’re on the phone in the office, walk around—you might burn as many as 50 calories!
In a busy world, where we aren’t able to do as much as we’d like in terms of formal exercise or formal health decisions, it’s really empowering to know that you can do small things to make a big difference.
Spry: Between your work as a doctor and your TV show and writing books, how do you find time to exercise?
TS: Sometimes my only exercise occurs when I’m waiting for my plane, walking around the airport. Or, every time I’m working on a book or preparing for a show, I get on an exercise bike while I’m doing it. So sometimes my exercise is completely informal, but those little things do add up for me. Even if my only exercise for the day is reading through the next day’s shows on a stationary bike, my theory is that it’s better than nothing, and if nothing else it always keeps being healthy and active at the forefront of my mind.
Spry: One of the big questions we get from our audience is, “How can I stay motivated?” How do you motivate yourself to get through tough workouts or stick to your diet when faced with temptation?
TS: I tempt myself with the healthy stuff. If you’re constantly trying to do things for your health that seem counterproductive, you will likely fail in the end. If somebody tells you to eat Brussels sprouts every night but you hate Brussels sprouts, you’ll eventually stop eating them and start eating something incredibly unhealthy. For me personally, I try to find foods that are not only healthy, but that I also enjoy. That’s the important thing for people to figure out—what are the healthy things that you also enjoy? Focus on those. What are the activities you have fun with and enjoy? Focus on those. If everything in life feels like a sacrifice or work when it comes to your health, you’ll eventually fall off the wagon. For me, if I’m exercising, I want to have a smile on my face. Intensity is nice sometimes, but consistency is more important to me than anything else at this point. Consistently do active things that you enjoy—this has a lot more to do with health than dredging through some workout program that you hate.
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Spry: You mention tempting yourself with healthy foods. What is your favorite healthy meal?
TS: I’ll give you two examples of foods I love but try to make them in a healthy way. Take pizza. A deep-dish pizza with tons of refined-grain dough and poor toppings is really bad for you, but if you make a thin-crust, whole-wheat pizza and use it as a vegetable delivery system, you can take something that people tend to think of as unhealthy and make it really healthy.
A mainstay in my diet is also legumes. I’ll take a big bag of legumes—which are really inexpensive—and cook them up and put them in the fridge so they’re ready to go. One of my favorite dishes is black beans with brown rice, salsa and avocadoes—it makes a great snack or basis for a meal. There are a lot of really quick, easy ways to make a basic meal. You just have to choose your staples. Legumes are high in protein and high in fiber so they keep you full. Foods like that are the ones I focus on in my diet—foods that are healthy but that I also enjoy.
Spry: Do you have a quote or motto that really sums up your approach to healthy living?
TS: My big quote is, “Be the CEO of your own health.” This quote goes back to what we were talking about asthma before. It also holds true to your diet and how active you are. We live in a society where people think that they can just show up to the doctor once a year and that makes them healthy, but that’s not the case. Be the CEO of your own health. Take your health into your own hands as much as you can. Talk to your doctor and put together a plan to help you live the healthiest life possible. Coming from a doctor, I can tell you that nothing makes us happier than an engaged patient who is excited to work with us and become the healthiest they can be. If you take an active role in your health and educate yourself—if you learn how to weed out good information from misinformation—it’s really amazing the ways in which you can prolong your life and increase your own physical health and mental health.