Living the simple life usually means less stress, and one of the main benefits of less stress is a healthier, and dare we say, happier life.

I WRITE this article while enjoying the fresh air of Lahad Datu, the small, quiet town on the east coast of Sabah. I am here on an invitation to give a talk on how to stay young and healthy in several towns here, and am fortunate to learn a few things from the local people in return.

I have been to Sabah many times before, and have visited its capital Kota Kinabalu (KK), and several other towns. While KK is surely becoming the typical busy capital city, the towns of Sandakan and Tawau are still pleasant and free of traffic jams and other problems of big, crowded cities.

I remember the fresh breezes and the smiles of the people of Kundasang and Keningau, something not surprising since these are resort towns on the fertile highlands.

Lahad Datu is different. Although it sits right in the centre of the east coast, where the riches of the oil palm estates, timber industry and bounties of the sea offer limitless opportunities, it has managed to preserve its peaceful and healthy environment and lifestyle. It is the place to live if you want work or do business, and be healthy and happy as well.

The pursuit of happiness

Mrs Chan (not her real name) moved here from Kuala Lumpur (KL) just a few months ago, to follow her husband who had come earlier to set up his business. Her story may help those of you who find life in the bustling big city like KL too stressful, to consider moving out to smaller towns – if not for good, at least for a few days’ break.

While in KL, she had attended many stress-reduction or stress-management seminars and courses to help her cope with her hectic lifestyle and the hectic surroundings.

Living in a city like KL can be depressing even if you don’t work. All the hustle and bustle can drive you crazy, and many have succumbed emotionally or psychologically to the high cost and high pace of city-living.

But all those seminars, the spas and the movies, only managed to relieve her stress for a little while. Then the crazy city life and stressful routines set in and took its toll again. Her health deteriorated, and she was unhappy. Even having a steady job and a good pay couldn’t dampen her craving for a less stressful and happier life.

So when it was time for her to follow her husband, it was a relief. Although apprehensive as to what to expect in this small town, it wasn’t long before she realised that it was worth the trouble. According to her, after just two weeks in Lahad Datu, the unhealthy effects of the many years of stress that all the seminars and spas couldn’t remove were gone.

The air here is fresh because it is surrounded by forests, plantations, and the sea. When I alighted from the plane, I really savoured the clean, cool air as it had just rained lightly. I wish I could bring it back to KL in a bottle!

Although the signs of development are there – rows of new houses and shop-houses, and ongoing construction works, the people seem happy to maintain their relaxing lifestyle.

Life here is very low-key, and slow-pace. Sunrise is at 5am, so everyone is up early. And since there is no night-life, most go to bed by 9pm. There are very few entertainment outlets. It is said that couples here have many children because there is nothing else to do!

While those living in crowded homes in busy cities suffer from the lack of privacy and time for intimacy, the folks in Lahad Datu have plenty of both. The cost of living is low, and getting affordable accommodation is not a problem.

Getting errands done is also a breeze as the town is small. Previously, in KL, she wasted two to three hours daily (on working days) getting stuck in the perennial traffic jams together with thousands of other stressed-up KL folks. She is much happier now.

Killing ourselves to earn a living

Several years ago, I lost a friend who had died of a heart attack at 40. He was otherwise healthy, and was not known to have hypertension, or even high cholesterol.

He was working very hard though, having successfully established a chain of businesses. So his demise came as a shock to all of us. He left behind a distraught wife and a young child.

Even before this episode, I had lost another friend in his early 40s who collapsed and died while playing badminton. He was fit, lean, and was totally unexpected to succumb to a heart attack.

I am sure there are many similar stories – of men below 50 dying of unexpected heart attacks. Young women, however, rarely get heart attacks. They only need to worry when they are past menopause (the average age for menopause is 50 years).

I relate these stories to remind readers that many of us are killing ourselves slowly while trying to earn a living. If you are caught in a rut like Mrs Chan, then you are at risk of a sudden heart attack, as may have happened to my two friends.

Stress is very much an underestimated cause of disease. Although much has been said about its role, there is no accurate way to measure the stress level, and hence everything about it is guesswork. Stress is suspected to contribute to hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancers and other health problems.

Stress causes constriction of the coronary arteries and an increase in heart rate. Some of you may have actually experienced chest discomfort during extremely stressful situations.

Oestrogen in women makes the arteries more compliant, while smoking and fatty meals make the arteries less flexible, or may even constrict them.

There are many factors that contribute to a heart attack. In a young person where there is not yet much coronary occlusion due to atherosclerosis or clot-rupture, the killer event could be due to the sudden constriction of the coronary arteries. Often, this is stress-related.

Change your thinking, change your life

The mind-science experts always remind us that to change our lives for the better, we have to change our thinking first. They are right. If you are the typical city folk caught in the typical stressful routine, the way to improve your health and reduce your risk of getting caught like my late friends is to change your thinking and attitude first.

You must decide to make health a priority. There is no point in dying young because you neglect your health in trying to earn more and more to match your desired lifestyle. There is no point in wanting a lifestyle that requires you to work so hard that requires you to forsake your health.

Health itself is precious, and is worth preserving. In fact, your earning capacity will be severely restricted once your health deteriorates. Many discover this too late.

Even I am prompted to rethink my daily routine, because like Mrs Chan, I often spend about two hours a day on the roads, and even more when there are traffic jams (which is quite often in KL).

At the same time I lament that I don’t have enough time to do the one hour of daily exercise and gym-work that I hoped to do. In fact, finding 30 minutes daily for exercise is difficult because of the busy schedule. So 10 hours a week wasted on the road is valuable time lost, and if I can salvage that, I can still hope to have the six-pack abs that I have been yearning since 10 years ago.

Instead, my tummy is getting bigger because I have skipped the gym too often.

I am sure many of you share similar dilemmas. And meeting Mrs Chan has made me decide to change my thinking, my routine, and my life so that I can do adequate exercise and gym-work, which is top priority for anyone who wants to reduce stress and have optimum weight, normal blood pressure and a healthy heart.

Another time-thief is the Internet and the incessant e-mails that come with it. I don’t know yet how I am going to change my handling of this scourge of our modern hi-tech life, but I will have to find a solution. Being stuck at the computer for hours at the expense of physical activity and exercise has made many of us fat, sluggish, unhealthy and with a high risk of heart attack. This bad routine must be broken before it’s too late.


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