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A healthy dose of vanity is good for us all

Once scorned as an affliction of the overly self-involved, vanity is lately being embraced as a novel kind of positive reinforcement to encourage healthier lifestyles. Researchers are finding that healthy versions of vanity can help us adapt and adhere to better diets, more rigorous skin-care routines and regular exercise – the kinds of preventive health measures that may have a lasting impact on one’s life span.

Vanity itself is getting a conceptual makeover, as some in the medical community are making the idea of attractiveness almost inseparable from health. As part of its three-year-old Healthy Living Program, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, operates a spa where men and women can get manicures, massages, facials and fillers, along with sclerotherapy for varicose veins and executive physicals with prescriptions for weight loss, nutrition, stress-reduction and fitness regimens.

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“We discussed if the program should have a very strict version of health,” says Dr Donald Hensrud, medical director of the Healthy Living Program. Hensrud and colleagues concluded that cosmetic procedures such as injectables and chemical peels are a valid component of wellness. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to look better and feel better,” he says.

This change in attitude among doctors gives patients new incentives and has helped fund research into the side benefits of some practices initially intended solely for cosmetic improvement. And studies have demonstrated how vanity can be a motivator. Research published in the American Journal of Public Health has shown that sustained behaviour change was often linked to “appearance-based interventions” – that is, showing how sun exposure, a poor diet and smoking ruin one’s looks.

“It’s too bad vanity has taken on a negative connotation,” says Los Angeles dermatologist Dr Jessica Wu, who embraces its power in her practice. She prescribes diets that not only improve skin, but also help lower the risk of diabetes and heart disease. “When you talk about diet, [my patients] seem to be more successful when there is a promise of better appearance,” she says.

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Such moves are helping health and appearance merge into a united concept of wellness, a step towards broader acceptance of cosmetic procedures, particularly when they have secondary health benefits. Those double perks may, in the end, motivate more of us to swap out the cake and cocktails in favour of yoghurt and yoga.

Here are some of the most promising ways that vanity and health intersect:

Laser peels may help prevent skin cancer.

Laser and chemical peels are intended to remove a superficial layer of skin, thus erasing fine lines and wrinkles. But the treatment can have a bonus benefit – reducing your future risk of skin cancer. “It can take care of precancerous lesions that could develop into cancerous lesions,” says Dr Lisa Ishii, a facial plastic and reconstructive surgeon at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Botox treats pain as well as wrinkles.

Recent research has led some plastic surgeons to explore alternative uses for Botox, the muscle paralytic and injectable. It prevents muscles in the head from contracting, which can be the source of migraines and tension headaches. “A lot of patients who suffer from headaches find they have fewer and less-intense headaches when they are treated with Botox,” says Dr Ishii. “I have patients who come to see me, and their No. 1 concern is their headaches. They just enjoy the benefit of having a smooth forehead.”

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Toning muscles may keep diabetes at bay.

Getting that trim gym body may make you credible in stretchy bike shorts, but it might also help you prevent or even improve type 2 diabetes. “The more muscle and less fat you have, the healthier it is,” says Dr Hensrud. “More muscle increases our metabolic rate and also lowers blood glucose values – as does exercise. Exercise makes our muscles act like a sponge to soak up the glucose.” Experts say that between 70 and 95 per cent of people with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese, putting them at greater risk for other serious conditions such as stroke, heart attack and kidney disease.

Watching your waistline can help break bad habits.

“How our fat is distributed has health effects,” says Dr Hensrud. Accordingly, having a spare tyre or pot belly can be a strong indicator of heart disease. Belly fat is linked to high blood sugar, high blood pressure and troublesome fats called triglycerides. Lifestyle has an enormous impact on the waistline. “Alcohol and smoking contribute to weight gain around the middle,” says Dr Hensrud. The cure? Resistance training – the kind that tones and builds muscle mass, resulting in the body shapes considered attractive by many people.

A youthful appearance is a sugar-free one.

Added sugars and refined grains not only make blood sugar spike, they also can make you look old before your time, says Dr Wu. Her book, Feed Your Face, has become an oft-cited nutrition reference for those in the image industries, partly because it details research and the impact of specific nutrients on skin health. According to Dr Wu, the glucose in sugar “eats away at your skin’s collagen and elastin in a process called glycation”. As a secondary benefit to a skin-focused diet with lower sugar, some of her patients lose unwanted weight, reduce cholesterol, soothe digestive issues or shed the need for medication. Her results aren’t unusual.

A full head of hair can bring surprising health benefits for men.

Sold under the brand names Propecia and Proscar, the drug finasteride treats male pattern baldness. “It doesn’t make hair grow, but it slows the loss,” says Dr Ishii of the drug. Under its medical name, finasteride has also been a treatment for an enlarged prostate gland. Long-term studies found that through shrinking the prostate, doctors can more accurately identify cancers and potentially decrease the need for unnecessary prostate surgery.

The goal of being healthier is a noble idea, but sometimes a weak motivator.

“You can say it’s good for your insides, but you can’t see your insides. You can’t show off your low cholesterol to other people,” says Dr Wu. But there is something to show for that hard work at the gym: “you can show off a flatter tummy.”

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