Proverbs are short "sayings" that state a basic truth, express stereotypes, or offer advice for good living.
There's the proverbial stereotype about kids imitating their parents: "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Here's some keen insight into the discontent at the heart of human nature: "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence." Another proverb teaches the importance of taking care of problems, "A stitch in time saves nine."
Some of the oldest proverbs involve health and medicine.
Thousands of years ago, for instance, holy books like the Bible anticipated modern scientific studies that show that mental attitude affects health. "A cheerful heart does good like medicine, but a broken spirit makes one sick (Proverbs 17:22)." Novelist John Steinbeck offered a pithier version, "A sad soul can kill you quicker than a germ."
People are still coining proverbs, of course. Some that become very popular and have a big health impact emerge from odd places and spread misleading or dangerous ideas. Health clubs, for instance, have given new muscle to "No pain, no gain," various forms of which date back to the 1700s.
That saying is nonsense, and a lot of New Year's resolutions are being broken right about now as a result. People who vowed to start exercising often overdo it during the first few weeks. They wind up with injuries, or muscles and joints so sore that breaking the resolution is easy.
The best way of gaining strength, endurance, and flexibility is to start slow and progress slowly, avoiding painful damage to muscles and joints.
One expert believes that medical proverbs have such a powerful impact on behavior that they should go through clinical trials for safety and effectiveness - just like drugs. In a report in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Dr. Bernard Choi cited a need for medical proverbs that capsulize latest research findings about staying healthy.
"People often remember proverbs, although they may not remember tables of data on calories or metabolic rates," Dr. Choi explained. He is a University of Toronto professor who studies how to move medical knowledge from journals and textbooks into the everyday lives of people.
"Maybe we have the responsibility to create new health proverbs based on clinical trials, rather than observations that have not been verified," he said. Dr. Choi calls for new health proverbs about not smoking, using alcohol in moderation, eating a balanced diet, and getting exercise.
Dr. Choi has written a few suggestions. To discourage smoking for example, try: "The more you smoke, the more you croak." Here is one to encourage exercise, "Seven days without exercise make a weak." Brightly colored vegetables - especially reds, greens, and yellows - are especially healthy. Maybe this proverb would encourage people, "A tricolor meal is a good deal."
It may not be John Steinbeck or the Book of Proverbs. But the point is clear: A proverb a day may help keep the doctor away.