Everyone ages differently, but medical studies show that as early as 20, sensory abilities start to decline, and by the time you’re 35, the rest of the body’s systems are following suit. Bone mass, muscle strength, organ function, heart rate, and more fall prey to genetics, lifestyle, and the fiercest factor that’s totally unstoppable: time.
Yet people do possess the ability to live longer with a higher quality of life, if they commit to healthy change. Easy steps can help avoid disease and extend productive plateaus across the aging process. To achieve this, TOWN has put together a panel of health and fitness experts. Tapping into their innate ability to nurture and promote healing, it’s an all-female team focused on whole-body wellness and prevention. Each member has defined her career with new ideas and approaches to protect and transform the body. Whether you’re clinging to youth, or clinging to life, now is the time to engage and make change.
Look at those around you, at work, at home, at play. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that every other adult you see suffers from a chronic disease—autoimmune, thyroid and heart diseases, or diabetes, arthritis, stroke, and cancer. They’re all diseases Dr. Katherine Birchenough predicts, prevents, and treats as a functional medicine practitioner. “The origins of illness lurk undetected by most patients and their physicians for years before recognizable symptoms occur,” she explains. “We may just need to look deeper. Functional medicine uses many of the same tools as conventional medicine, but applies them in a different way, and includes complementary, integrative, and holistic wellness modalities to achieve the best results.”
From her Eastside office, she gives a tree analogy to compare conventional and functional medicine. Typically, when a patient is sick, a doctor will examine the symptoms (the leaves and branches) to form a treatment plan. A functional medicine doctor will dig (at the roots and trunk) to find an underlying cause, believing it can differ with each patient, so treatment should be individually tailored. Birchenough elaborates, “I can often identify imbalances and deficiencies in the body and correct them before a disease actually manifests. Functional medicine can also manage existing chronic illnesses more effectively by applying a personalized approach.”
Only after years in the emergency room did the U.S.C. School of Medicine graduate start studying functional medicine. “I believe in a proactive, multi-faceted approach to achieving
and maintaining health and the body’s remarkable ability to heal itself if given the opportunity,” she states. Birchenough heavily utilizes lab testing and explores every element of a patient’s life down to exposure to personal care products and cosmetics that may be toxic. The doctor operates like a medical detective, collecting clues and unearthing imbalances, to customize treatment regimens involving food, supplements, and activity plans, as well as stress management, sleep hygiene, and, when appropriate, traditional drug therapies. “My goal is to restore patients to good health. I give them the tools and knowledge to master their own health destiny by providing a deeper understanding of their individual strengths and susceptibilities.”
She does this with a network of cutting-edge wellness experts that include a colon hydrotherapist, a holistic chiropractor, nutritionists, exercise physiologists, acupuncturists, and open-minded, conventional medical practitioners. She says, “My goal is not to replace your primary care doctor, but to partner with him or her to take the best care of you.” Currently, a handful of doctors practice functional medicine in Greenville, believing the Upstate is ready for this new approach, which is used in New York, California, and Florida. They also believe it’s the best way to control sky-rocketing healthcare costs. Birchenough closes by saying, “It’s twenty- rst-century healthcare. Not only can it increase a person’s lifespan—it can increase a person’s quality of life, or health-span, and you can’t put a price tag on that.”
It’s a wicked reality. In your early 30s, right as your once-active lifestyle slows due to marriage, kids, and career, your metabolism slows down as well. After that, studies show that the rate the average person burns calories drops another 1 percent per year. Most people approach Marty Smith for help in their mid-50s, when they’re 15–20 pounds overweight. The physical trainer explains, “Everybody’s lives are so busy right now. People put things off and they think, ‘I’ll get to that.’” But they don’t.
Smith works with private clients at her home near Augusta Road. Before they break into a sweat, she breaks open their lifestyle. “When a woman jumping from luncheon to luncheon asks me how to lose weight and how to pull it together, I tell her she can’t go from lunch to dinner with six martinis,” she advises with a chuckle. “You’ve got to put your priorities in order.” Smith’s priorities include debunking exercise and food myths. “They want to believe in the fads, and they assume if they’re on a diet they’ll lose weight. That’s the hardest concept to get through: You have to eat to make your metabolism work. The older we get, our metabolism gets used to the way we live. If you don’t eat, you’re not fueling the fire to make the metabolism work.”
To maintain, she recommends 30–45 minutes of exercise three to four times a week. To lose weight, she steps it up with Pilates and interval training, free weights, resistance training, and balance and core exercises. She warns that the patience needed for weight loss contradicts the speed of weight gain. “You can gain five pounds in a week without blinking. If a middle-aged woman has a stress-filled month, and she’s not sleeping, not exercising, she can put on 10–12 pounds if she’s not paying attention.”
But Smith is excited about the motivation and accountability new technology brings to the task. “With a Fitbit you can look at your results on a daily basis. It gives you a daily print out of calories, steps taken, your heartbeat, sleep patterns. It’s reassurance, or a pat on the back, you’re doing a great job. And that’s important, too. People want to be praised for a job well done.”
A Stanford University study found Americans eat one out of five meals in their cars. That stat makes Greenville clinical dietician Vered Kantor slam on the brakes. “Eating is not just a physical activity to fuel our body,” the nutrition therapist and consultant passionately explains. “Food is a reflection of how we live our life. Food is a window to our soul. Food is primal and raw. A basic need to our existence.”
As a married mother with an active tween, Kantor knows the discipline it takes to dodge the drive-thru to grocery shop and cook. But she stresses the latter is vital to embracing health and wellness. “My approach is to look at a patient as a whole person,” she reveals. “Not just at the body and what they eat. I want to know the way they eat, how they connect with food. If you eat on the run, or while doing things on the computer, you are totally detached from that experience.”
Kantor cut her teeth doing research for Pfizer. The more she dove scientifically into content and calories, the more she discovered a spiritual element to dietary fulfillment. “There is so much more to food than we can ever realize. Food influences our emotions; it has the capacity to nourish us beyond the physical. With food we can connect, transform, give gratitude. With food there is a vital and live connection to the mind and our consciousness.”
She immersed herself into the psychology of eating and became a certified food and spirit practitioner. Today, she uses her unique skill set to go beyond basic nutritional council to help her clients accomplish permanent results and overall wellness. “We are shifting back and changing the paradigm,” she shares. “We’d lost the connection of eating with the seasons, whole foods, and organic. Our bodies recognize this food, as opposed to chemically-altered fare.”
Whether working with clients in clinics, cooking classes, or their homes, Kantor stresses that it’s not just the quality of what they eat, but how they’re eating. “Slow down. Eating mindfully empowers you, nourishing your body and mind. If you don’t eat mindfully, you’ll eat too much,” she warns. “Engage your senses. You have to engage your actions to feel fulfilled and satisfied. Eating is sensual. We’ve gotten away from that.”
Kantor uses a core philosophy that centers around a holistic, personalized approach with supplements and mind-body processing. She also warns against becoming too strict with food. “We can’t quit food, because it’s a part of us, and part of our survival for body and mind,” she closes. “We can’t detach from food. So, we’d better have a good relationship with it.”
[ WHOLE HEALTH // (above, left to right) Yoga instructor Kelly VanLeeuwen, dietician Vered Kantor, and physical trainer Marty Smith all practice different aspects of wellness, but they all agree on the roles mindfulness and persistence play in preserving life. ]
Many hit the yoga mat to “get the kinks out.” But those who enter Kelly VanLeeuwen’s studio at The Lofts, engage in a form of yoga that literally takes them mentally and physically to new heights. She teaches them how to fly. “I hear people say so many times, I can’t do this, or I can’t do that. That’s a really dangerous mindset.” She elaborates by adding, “People stop wondering what they are really capable of. It’s dangerous to put limitations on ourselves.”
After college, the former soccer player and runner discovered that physical, mental, and spiritual discipline was the perfect balm for body and soul. “Yoga trains your body to wind down, which
is so important,” she suggests. “I think we live in a constant state of low-grade stress, and our nervous system is worn out.” Her journey to learn yoga took her to Oregon, northern Thailand, and Texas. Along the way, she earned her wings and returned home to become Greenville’s first aerial yoga, aerial sling, and acroyoga (a practice that combines acrobatics with yoga) teacher. With fluid movements and flight, her classes draw a lot of folks who had quit exercising. “They were in a rut. They were bored. Workouts weren’t fun anymore. They forget they need that emotional and mental component to work out.”
Encouraging burned-out gym rats to swoop from the ceiling proved to be an easy sell. “Their curiosity wakes up when they see my students flying. Everyone wants to fly!” Joking that she’s probably the “black sheep” of yoga, VanLeeuwen encourages everyone to find an activity that produces a new perspective and mental edge. She instructs, “Other things can be your yoga. For two years, I sought out the things that scared the shit out of me and tried them. I felt alive!” She says that’s the secret. “We all have to move the body around; we all agree on that. Find a style of movement that intrigues you and keeps you coming back. That’s what’s important.”
She also grants permission to feel like a kid again, saying, “As adults, we don’t want to look foolish. We didn’t get where we are by trying something for one day. We’ve all gained a lot of experience through trial and error. Now, be humble enough to start at the beginning. Give yourself permission to be a beginner.”
VanLeeuwen’s message is simple: challenge yourself mentally and physically. “We know more about how our cars work than our body, and that’s sad. Fear is killing people. I’m not saying try an aerial class or you’re gonna die, but you have to examine the stories you tell yourself. Now get moving.” Namaste.