How We Heal

Why sensible fitness and nutrition helps you heal before and after back and neck surgery.


Fitness and nutrition and their effect on the overall patient are not regular classes for medical students, but they should be. Retrospectively, after 30 years of medical practice as a neurosurgeon treating disorders of the spine, I find that these topics are absolutely vital to bring about the best possible patient outcomes.


Some patients who see me at my practice in Beverly Hills, CA, are a little surprised how integrated fitness and nutrition are to my total treatment programs. Where some physicians talk about these areas distantly, I take a very personal approach. I am a back-surgery patient. I’ve had many of the procedures I prescribe for my patients and I have engaged deep fitness and nutrition plans as part of the total treatment plan. My own experiences, both before and after surgical treatment, comport with the experiences of many of my patients. As one of my patients told me a while back, “This stuff really works!”


Just as a side note, most medical schools, and their students are focused on passing exams. When I was a medical student, I spent very little time working out or focusing on the foods I ate, let alone understanding the impact that muscle atrophy and poor nutrition has on the spine and generally the whole body. Little surprise then that as new medical doctors begin their work as physicians, they’re really left on their own to design a holistic treatment program that includes fitness and nutrition.


If there are any “secrets” to healing, the best ones focus on keeping our fat weight down and our muscle weight up. We eat to support the work out – period. I have posted various ideas about fitness and nutrition plans in other previous posts. But these generalities are not intended as a plan per se. A “plan” that works for you is built around your specific individual needs; goals that you and your doctor agree are attainable and will work for you. Therefore – there is no such thing as a template that will work well for everyone.


That’s why I believe that fad fitness and diet plans fail for 60% of the people who buy them: because they do not have goals, or (worse yet) they do not take into account the condition of their bodies. The consensus of many of the many fitness and nutrition professionals I have consulted agree on one point: ‘fad’ programs are potentially more harmful. So, we definitely do not want to see such programs as having any part of a treatment plan for your spine.


Remember the goal – we want to encourage healing. To do that, we must increase the body’s ability to stave off infections and enhance the natural biological healing ability.
I think the application of fitness to a medical program is more acceptable to people because of the prevalence of physical therapy – especially in the treatment for back and neck pain. Fitness goes hand-in-hand with treatment because we’re focused on what muscle and bone should be doing. Or in the case of chronic spine pain, what our muscles and bones should NOT be doing. There are guidelines: some activity may produce pain, and this is acceptable. But we do not want to increase the injury. This is how a therapeutic treatment plan will take your medical condition into consideration.


But to get the most from the fitness plan, we need a way to fuel it. Most professional nutritionists who work with me have some ground rules that do apply to most people. We avoid multi-ingredient foods (think bread and cereals) and dairy. It may sound over-the-top, but we mostly want to avoid ingredients like yeast, sugar, ​and gluten and lactose even if they are not a problem for you. And we must increase our intake of water – up to 64 ounces (about 8 cups) per day. It sounds like a lot, but I do it, and so do many of my patients.


On a personal note: if ever there was a “fad diet” that I wish would take hold, it would be increasing our daily intake for water. Many of my dedicated patients confirm what I personally experienced in terms of weight loss, but increasing water intake also makes workouts more productive. This is plain water, too, with no additives. Try it for a week, and you’ll be hooked.


That’s a nice segue back to fitness. As we supply our body with better nutrients that encourage tissue building (vital for healing), we find that muscle-building activities are more productive. And, although I said there are no templates, I have three-pointers that I give to all my patients when they engage their fitness and nutrition portions of their treatment plan:


1. Be Patient – give the plan time to be effective.
2. Be Consistent – fulltime and attentive to the plan.
3. Be Persistent – focus on what you need to do to succeed.


This is what it takes to be greater than better.

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