Many years ago, I remember sitting next to my father in my parents’ living room. We had just finished watching a triumphant episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. As a full-time grad student, I wasn’t able to watch as regularly as my father who had retired shortly after his heart attack and quintuple bypass. As the credits were rolling, my dad – who delights in everything that his only daughter does – looked at me with smiling eyes and said, “One day, you’re going to be just like Oprah.”
I paused and reflected. “You know, I don’t want to be Oprah. I want to be the best possible Lipi Roy.” My father looked at me, initially caught a little off-guard, but beaming with pride, said, “Of course. Why not?”
Looking back, I don’t know *what* possessed my 24-year-old, unemployed, living-with-my-parents self to utter those words. Blasphemy! Especially today, as a doctor who’s merging her passion for medicine with media, trying to develop a medical-themed television show while navigating the behemoth that is the entertainment industry…I would KILL to be media mogul, Oprah!!
The reality is that the 66-year-old TV host and producer has always encouraged each of us to follow our own path. In fact, the purpose of Oprah’s 2020 Vision: Your Life in Focus Tour is to inspire us to find the “highest and truest expression of ourselves.”
When I recently attended the event at The Forum in Los Angeles, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sure, I’d seen many ads, Instagram posts and YouTube videos featuring famous celebrity guests, from Michelle Obama and Tina Fey to Lady Gaga and Amy Schumer. I always admired Oprah’s power to inspire, so I knew that positive messaging would be a prominent theme, as illustrated by her mantra for the tour: “I can. I will. Watch me.” And with WW (formerly Weight Watchers) as the tour partner, I assumed that wellness would be a key player.
When we see her life now – private jets, celebrity friends, multimillion-dollar estates – we forget that her early life resembled nothing close to lavish opulence. While she’s not the only person to extract success out of humble beginnings, Oprah is far from the typical rags-to-riches story. She continues to learn, share, make mistakes, be vulnerable, improve and again, share. But most of all, she *inspires* at an unparalleled level. I think this is why she has obtained such a loyal – and growing – following. Remember, her wildly popular show ended back in 2011. On paper, no possible algorithm would have predicted Oprah Winfrey success: poor, black, female, overweight, average-looking… In what universe is this a recipe for incomparable global impact and wealth??
As a doctor who’s devoted her career to building trust with, motivating and helping her marginalized patients navigate complex and confusing health care, social service and criminal justice systems, I was undoubtedly intrigued by Oprah’s “campaign for wellness.” By the end of the event, I was actually surprised at how many facets of the 2020 Vision Tour were similar to what health care professionals do (or at least, should do). Let me share a few insights.
Let’s Get Physical
The day started with an energetic movement led by Daybreaker, a morning dance community. Before I knew it, 13,000+ of us were jumping and stretching. The afternoon also opened with a postprandial energy boost in the form of KINRGY, a high-energy dance routine created by dancer and television personality, Julianne Hough. Celebrity guest, Jennifer Lopez, started her career as a dancer. When asked about her exercise regimen: “daily…but an hour at most.” Too many other tasks!
I liked that these activities disrupted the 8-hour monotony of sitting. From a health standpoint, the science is clear. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), physical activity can improve brain health (improved cognition, decreased depression and anxiety) and decrease the risk of chronic diseases (diabetes, stroke, several cancers).
In addition to dance, Oprah’s event included other artistic forms. When she wasn’t speaking, music always played on the speakers. One of the day’s harmonious highlights was a moving rendition of “Take Me to the King,” by Grammy-winning gospel singer, Tamela Mann, who also lost 50 lbs using WW.
Harvard Health reported a correlation between music and improved cardiovascular function, memory, mood and athletic performance. Music entered my life as a little girl. At age 7, I begged my parents to buy me a piano. Two decades of Bach, Chopin and Simon and Garfunkel filled my heart with not only joy but much-needed stress relief. As a medical resident working 80-100 hours/week, I’d come home from the hospital, utterly exhausted. I’d glance at my piano and tell myself, ‘Okay, just 15 minutes.’ Next thing I knew, 2.5 hours passed by. A restful sleep was my reward.
Excerpts from literature and poetry also permeated the day including uplifting words from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “At the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you.”
In a remarkable moment of sublime serenity, Jesse Israel, founder of The Big Quiet, led a 5-minute mass meditation for 13,000+ strangers. With sound bowls chiming in the background, we closed our eyes and focused on our breath. “It’s okay if the mind wanders,” reassured Israel. Mindful practice has been associated with numerous health benefits. Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness-based stress reduction technique can reduce pain, stress and addiction while improving sleep, memory and mood. Not only do I practice 1-2 minutes of deep breathing with my patients in clinic but I also meditate for 20 minutes every morning. It’s transformed the way I handle tension and perceive the world.
At the end of the guided meditation, Israel infused the crowd with this uplifting message: “You deserve quiet. You are worthy of rest.” I couldn’t agree more.
Nutrition and Weight
“I’ve been on SO many diets – the banana-weenie diet, the military diet. And SO many cleanses. My colon is SO cleansed!” Throughout her career, Oprah has been very public about her weight struggles. She showed a video clip of her debut on The Tonight Show where guest-host Joan Rivers unexpectedly asked, “How’d you put on the weight?” The future media mogul replied, “I ate a lot.” But like a pitbull with a chew toy, Rivers didn’t let go. “You shouldn’t let that happen to you. You’re single. You must lose the weight.”
In another moment of raw honesty and vulnerability, the world’s first female black billionaire shared her shock at being publicly shamed during her first national television appearance. She was blindsided. But motivated. Oprah slimmed down to a svelte 142 lbs … only to gain all of it back and an additional 26 lbs in three years.
As a former Clinical Nutrition instructor at Harvard Medical School who’s cared for many overweight and obese patients and family members, this issue resonates strongly with me. Poor eating habits have been associated with nearly every chronic illness—heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancers. But shame is NOT the solution. In fact, it is harmful. Shame is associated with humiliation, low self-worth and a fear of abandonment. “Death by emotional starvation,” according to psychoanalyst, Gerhart Piers.
Let’s teach people about plant-based meals, home-cooking and understanding nutrition labels. While fad diets are rarely associated with long-term weight loss, I share advice passed down to me: you can eat anything you’d like – as long as you cook it yourself. Remember, the important numbers aren’t the ones on the scale but rather your blood pressure, cholesterol, HbA1c (diagnostic test for diabetes) and kidney function. More importantly, let’s address the underlying reasons people overeat.
“I spent 50 years concerned about my size,” Oprah shared. “Then I realized, how *dare* I not celebrate every fiber of my body?” The actor and philanthropist added: “It wasn’t about weight. It was about fear.” Fear of not being liked, fear of losing her show, fear of not being invited back to The Tonight Show.
Storytelling and Gratitude
After a whirlwind day of emotions, music and writing, Oprah managed to close the event by actually kicking it up a notch. She shared a poignant, deeply personal account of her last moments with her terminally ill mother, Vernita Lee. “We had a complicated relationship,” said the founder of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls. “I couldn’t think of anything to say.” Surprising, given what she did for a living: “I felt like a hypocrite.” Even if I was as gifted a writer as Maya Angelou – whom Winfrey referenced frequently – my words would not do Oprah’s entire narrative justice. But I will tell you this: Ms. Oprah Winfrey is a MASTER STORYTELLER. This is why she is globally revered.
In light of the current drug overdose and suicide crises – both of which are highly stigmatized – I believe storytelling is the KEY (along with science.) Storytelling is as old as time, and has the capacity to connect and heal. Nearly 75% of U.S. medical schools offer narrative medicine courses, and Literature and Medicine is a leading journal in this field.
Gratitude also plays a critical role in Oprah’s life. She’s had a gratitude journal since 1992 and writes in it nightly. “I’m grateful I’m breathing, grateful to see, to walk.” Talking about gratitude isn’t enough. “Writing it down makes a difference. Writing brings the *clarity.*”
For her phenomenal success in music, fashion and business, Jennifer Lopez expressed gratitude to her family and support system. She’s happy now because of “therapy, prayer and spending time with people who are older and more experienced.” The international superstar added, “Their wisdom guides me.”
Science certainly supports both women. The practice of gratitude can improve immune function, lower blood pressure, encourage acts of generosity and promote happiness. Like Oprah, I have a gratitude journal on my nightstand. I’ll be honest – I write in it only 1-2 times per week. But now, I’ll be expressing my gratitude every night.
Ultimately, I believe that Oprah’s event conspired to build a sense of *connection.* She’s leveraging her global brand to build communities of wellness. Through my clinical work with society’s most vulnerable and neglected (homeless, incarcerated, mentally ill, abused women, etc.), I learned that connection is *everything.* A common saying in my line of work: ‘The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s CONNECTION.’ Resilience is key, too. Early in the show, Oprah’s heels caught the bottom of her pants and she fell, followed by the collective gasp of the entire Forum. But in classic Oprah fashion, the media giant got up, to a roaring round of applause, and continued her speech. Capitalizing on the irony of the moment – she was talking about wellness and balance – she looked up and said, “Jesus, you funny!”
Today, two decades after my bold declaration to my father, I remain in awe of Oprah’s achievements including her vision for each of us to live our best life. Through her inspiration – and the support of countless role models in my life – I am genuinely proud of who I am and all that I have and will continue to accomplish. A life worth living is rarely without obstacle. Persevering and excelling are the true marks of courage and tenacity. Yes, Oprah: We can. We will. Watch us.