Could lifestyle medicine help you be healthier?

December 14, 2021 in Healthy Living  •  By Miles Varn, MD
Lifestyle medicine

You know what a healthy lifestyle looks like—healthy food choices, regular activity, and avoiding health harming habits like smoking, excess alcohol, and substance use disorder. What you might not know is that there are physicians and other healthcare providers who focus on preventing and treating health problems by using evidence-based therapeutic lifestyle interventions to prevent and treat chronic health problems like heart disease, diabetes, migraine, and high blood pressure. The goal is to treat the root causes of common chronic health problems to either prevent them from developing in the first place or to manage these health issues and their symptoms. The field is called lifestyle medicine.

On a fundamental level, lifestyle medicine encourages you to adopt healthy behaviors and many primary care physicians and providers recommend the same lifestyle changes for patients living with these chronic conditions. In general, lifestyle medicine centers on six pillars that encourage you to take an active role in improving your health and wellbeing by replacing unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones. The six pillars are:

  • Nutrition: Your diet should be focused on whole, mostly plant-based foods that are more nutrient dense like vegetables, fruit, beans, lentils, whole grains, and nuts and seeds.
  • Physical activity: Be active every day, striving for 30 minutes a day, and aim to sit less by taking regular movement breaks throughout your day.
  • Stress management: You may not be able to avoid stress, but you can manage it by learning and using coping strategies like breathing exercises, meditation, and exercise.
  • Restful sleep: Poor quality sleep can affect both your physical and mental health. By taking steps to get enough good quality sleep each night, like having a bedtime relaxation ritual and not using screens just before bed, you can improve your sleep and protect your health.
  • Avoiding substance misuse: Illegal drugs, smoking and vaping, and drinking too much alcohol can increase your risk of many serious health problems, including heart disease, some types of cancer, lung disease, and depression.
  • Nurturing relationships: The lockdowns at the beginning of the pandemic made the importance of positive, supportive relationships even clearer as social isolation led to increases in depression and anxiety, substance and alcohol misuse, weight gain, and other health problems. Building and maintaining good relationships and stepping away from negative ones is a key part of moving towards a healthier life.

Studies have shown the positive health effects of following these six pillars. One recent study published in Neurology followed nearly 50,000 women from the Nurses’ Health Study and nearly 30,000 men from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study to examine the effect of a diet high in flavonoid-containing fruits and vegetables on cognitive health. The study found an association between eating higher amount of these foods and a lower risk of cognitive decline with age. Another meta-analysis looked at the results of thousands of studies on the effect of exercise on insulin sensitivity in adults with type 2 diabetes. The researchers found that regular exercise improved blood glucose control and insulin sensitivity. And a study focused on nursing students found that stress management practices such as yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, breathing exercises, meditation, and guided imagery contributed to a decrease in depression and anxiety.

A health advisor can connect you with healthcare providers who focus on a lifestyle approach to preventing and treating health problems, as well as other specialists such as dietitians, integrative medicine practitioners, and trainers to help you build a strategy that works for you.

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