Dr. Kerry D. Olsen from Mayo Clinic on Healthy Habits

How to keep healthy during COVID-19?

COVID -19 situation offers a unique opportunity to take care of your employees, especially by raising awareness of preventive steps they can take to stay healthy during this pandemic. To understand what are the components of healthy living and how to start including them in our every day we talked with dr. Kerry Olsen, M.D., one of the best doctors in America and the creator of the 12 Habits of Highly Healthy People program. A leading expert in the field of preventive health dr. Olsen is also a named professor at the Mayo Clinic Rochester, Minnesota, the Joseph I and Barbara Ashkins Professor in Surgery. He is the past chair of the Division of Head and Neck Surgery in the Department of Otolaryngology at Mayo Clinic and former medical director for ten years of the Mayo Clinic Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center.

How do you see the current situation – do you think it gave us a lesson?

I think there are several messages. We found out how more and more complex it is to achieve healthy living and the importance of healthy living but from the standpoint of individuals, organizations and employees, and the community. The COVID-19 crisis has really put that in the forefront, when we now know much more about the behavior of that virus, we know more about the people who are at risk and what we need to do to prevent it. And I continually hear both at my practice at Mayo Clinic, talking to other people that the biggest question that people ask is: What can I do to stay healthy? and What can I do so that I don’t get sick and What can I do to improve my immune system? I hear that constantly at my practice as a head and neck surgeon where patients would come all the time and say: I had this cancer, what can I do to reduce my chances of it coming back and what can I do so I won’t get another one? We hear the same thing now with the COVID-19 crisis. People want to know what they can do to improve their health. Employees want to know what they can do for their work environment to make sure that they are safe at work. And individuals have been living in an environment of great fear and isolation. These things have taken a tremendous toll on people’s health. That’s why the biggest thing I have been a proponent of for a long time and many people who know this about me know that the whole issue of healthy living has to be done on a broad base nature. There is not one thing or one program that is gonna work for everybody or every corporation and company. That’s where I find the real benefits of 24alife that it can offer multiple programs. The one program I am obviously happy about is the 12 Habits of Highly Healthy people program. But I think that if we look at what’s important, I think it is important to look at how do we reduce core morbidities, how can we improve people’s immune system and what do we do about social isolation, loneliness, and stress.

Living a healthy life is a process, it is not a one-day thing, what can we do in the current situation to improve the immune system and to start living healthier?

There are multiple things and I could talk for hours on what people can do to improve their immune system. If we look at the multitude of programs that have tried to address healthy living, they almost always focus on three things – maintaining exercise, diet to reduce weight, and trying to reduce stress. All those things are important. But I also have found out in the studies we have done about people’s health that I can tell you that for some healthiest people that would be having a good night’s sleep, lots of friends and maintaining an active environment. So how do we know really what is healthy? And I think that as we look at that we have to say that there is a multitude of things that contribute. To improve your immune system there are many. When we started the program of 12 Habits we actually started out with asking ourselves what can we do to improve people’s health and well-being. And clearly, I would say there are 5 things I would focus on to improve people’s immune system. The first thing is to be physically active. I am a big proponent of physical activity. But it is not as simple as just saying this will improve your immune system. If somebody is going out for a casual walk they are probably not doing anything to improve their immune system. You have to do something based on the frequency, intensity, and duration. You have to do something to move a little bit more than just slow walking to benefit your immune system. Another thing that is very important is trying to do things in green space in nature. We find that the more you can do outdoors in greenspace and nature also helps to improve your immune system. And then there is the bad side of it if you do too much it can actually jeopardize your immune system. So sometimes people who are marathon runners afterward their immune function is not good right away. So there is this balance that one has to do. So I keep telling people to strive for variety, try to do things outdoor, get your heart rate up a little bit, and try to do it frequently. When you do some physical activity your immune system benefits but only for some 3 – 4 hours. So you have to do something almost every day or every other day to really make a difference.

But it is never too late to start?

Absolutely! If you could bottle the effects of physical activity you would have the most powerful pill to prevent disease, to help existing disease, to make people feel better. It is the best thing you could do to make people feel better.

People currently have a lot of fears. Do you think these fears are a big enough motivator to change our behavior?

There is a lot of fear right now, a lot of social isolation, which leads to a lot of times to loneliness. And we found out over time right now that as a health risk loneliness is equivalent to smoking, obesity, or sitting and not being active. So these are things we have to address as a society, individuals, and corporations. I think that as we looked at the 12 Habits program that was really designed to try and look at small changes that could be done over time that would make the biggest impact. And the things that we feel help the most with stress, loneliness or fear, isolation are focusing on quieting your mind. Just spending every day quietly alone is such an amazingly positive thing. I was fortunate to have a wife who is a reiki master and she is the one who got me to appreciate spending every morning for 20 minutes in meditation, prayer, spirituality, whatever you find beneficial. For me, this was really important. Another thing we have to get people to reach out more to others. Family and friends are extremely important and that is one thing that when you’ll be on your deathbed you’ll realize you much rather have spent more time with people who meant something to you or were close to you. We can ask people to reach out, contact people they haven’t seen or visit people, or in this stage when you cant or you have to wear masks there are plenty of ways to help somebody else. Helping somebody drives us to have meaning in our lives, a purpose that is very important. Joy, laughter, love, these things are extremely important and we know that laughter is one of those things that helps your immune system. We know that people who have fun in life, take care of themselves, have a purpose, their immune system is actually better. My favorite habit and one that I think is really important in social isolation is the concept of every month try to find something new. To work on your mind, to work on your body, to work on your connections with other people, to try and join a group to read something different, to improve yourself. These things are so important and help you to move out of that area of loneliness and isolation. The last two that are incredibly important are gratitude and forgiveness. The more we can focus on what we are grateful for and have a positive outlook on life, the more we realize in these times of fear that we can make forgiveness a major part as well and try to forgive those who harmed us or forgive ourselves for what we’ve done. This really brings tremendous health benefits.

You designed the 12 Habits of Highly Healthy People program with research behind every habit, do you think this is even more important in these times where we can doubt what is true and what not?

We really looked at what would be the simple things that would help people to benefit their well-being. And that’s where we came up with two things, habit research that shows you have to do something at least for thirty or sixty days before it becomes a part of your life. And we designed the program to see what is the best chance to have through a wide variety of challenges and goals to reach those habits. But the hardest thing was to select between the many different things that affect well-being and to come down to 12, which would make the biggest difference in people’s overall health. It is very much scientifically based and you can look at any of the 12 habits and find a scientific rationale for why they make somebody a better employee, more productive, have less absenteeism, improved presenteeism, why they are more innovative, more engaged, why is there less burnout. You can look at it from a health point in terms of preventing disease and mitigating existing diseases. You can look at it from a community perspective in terms of how the response will be when we go into the COVID-19 pandemic. So I think there is no question that the scientific basis is there and we think that if people can follow this not only will they look good, live better, feel great but they are going to stay healthy.

This program was first implemented for Mayo Clinic employees. Can you share some numbers or feedback?

What is really important is that this was shared by the leadership of the organization. It is also important to have visual reminders of the program for the engagement of the employees. And watercooler talks, having people talking about it on a daily basis is helpful too. We found that when we offer these programs, that the number of people who said that it made a difference in their life was around 60%. The number of those who would want to continue doing it was 80%. We think that one of the unique things about the 12 Habits program is that we’re talking about a program that is designed to engage people, not over a month but over a year and also has applicability to everyone regardless of their stage of life or where they are.

Would you recommend a decision-maker to implement such a program in organizations?

I think the best thing one can do is to have a wide variety of programs applicable to the employees. Different things are going to affect people differently. That’s why I’ve been such a fan of the 24alife program because you have the Mayo Clinic Diet, Mayo Clinic Resilient Mind, the 12 Habits of Highly Healthy People, and Mayo Clinic Daily Healthy Tips. I think with this variety you are going to have the highest chance to see the benefit for the employee and the person.

Why do you think it is important to start implementing a healthy lifestyle in organizations?

From an employer standpoint, if you want to have engaged, active employees, who are innovative and do not miss a lot of work and reduce your healthcare costs, having an employee well-being program is extremely important. There is no question, if your employees are healthy and not missing as much work, they will be better employees. From an individual standpoint, it’s key, people have a wide variety of things they want to do with healthy living. Some want to live longer, some want to be more active, some want to prevent disease. But there is no question if you look at all the diseases we fight, if people practice healthy living about 75% of all healthcare costs would disappear. 75% is based upon healthy living decisions. People don’t make the right decisions. They smoke, they drink, they don’t exercise, they sit, they eat wrong, they don’t sleep well, the list goes on and on. That translates into poor health in terms of employees and in terms of tremendous healthcare costs for society and for employers. I think these are real elements that can lead to people’s happiness and productivity, a positive outlook on life. I can’t think of anything more important than the people in doing the right decisions. I’m a physician, I’m a surgeon, everything I do in medicine counts only for 10% of somebody’s health. 40% is based on healthy living decisions, the rest is genetics and the environment. But the one thing we can all do something about is healthy living decisions. Programs and apps and different approaches to things that can make the biggest difference.

Eva Kovač

Eva Kovac is a performance psychologist working in the field of talent management, organizational psychology, and performance psychology. She is educated as a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, a medical hypnotherapist. Eva has rich global experiences working with international organizations on employee well-being programs and professional athletes, teams, managers, and talents. Eva is also a guest speaker at many international conferences on psychology-related topics. Stress managment facilitator for Apollo Hospitals, Tata Motors, Tata Consultancy Services, NSIC, AIMA, Roseate Hotels and many others.