Nutrition; Prevention

Lifestyle Medicine: How it could save your life

People who practice healthy daily habits, such as regular exercise, are less likely to develop a chronic disease.

It’s 2 p.m. and you’re tired. You drink a caffeinated soda for a boost of energy, but it fades quickly. By dinnertime, you’re too exhausted or busy to cook, so you hit the drive-thru. And the restful evening you desperately need is cut short because you are driving your kids to their activities and worrying about everything else you didn’t get done.

We all have days like this. But if chaos becomes routine, our health pays the price – often without us even realizing it.

Studies continuously show that the way we live is linked to our risk of chronic disease. For example, data show that behavior changes could prevent 80% of heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes, and 40% of cancer diagnoses.

What’s especially troubling is how early chronic conditions are developing. An in-depth review of mortality in the United States found that unhealthy behaviors, such as substance abuse and lack of exercise, are decreasing life expectancy in adults ages 25-44.

I’m not sharing these statistics to scare you. Quite the opposite: Research shows that committing to healthy lifestyle changes can reduce – and often reverse – the burden of chronic illness. A physician who helps you focus on the six pillars of a healthy lifestyle can help you set reasonable goals to make incremental, impactful, and lasting changes.

Lifestyle Medicine shifts the focus of treatment from symptoms to causes. Doctors certified and trained in the tenets of Lifestyle Medicine can help you adopt healthier behaviors that lower the risk of developing chronic conditions such as:

UT Southwestern is eager to be your source for accurate, manageable advice that can help you take control of your future health. Beginning today, my colleagues and I will provide regular articles on UTSW’s MedBlog devoted to Lifestyle Medicine, which addresses the root causes of chronic diseases and can prevent, treat, and even reverse them.

Getting enough restful sleep and managing your stress levels are often-overlooked aspects of a healthy lifestyle.

6 pillars of Lifestyle Medicine

The American College of Lifestyle Medicine has established six key areas that impact everyone’s overall health and goals:

1. Nutrition: We’ve all heard it: “You are what you eat.” And eating mostly plant-based foods, such as fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, is the foundation of a healthy diet.

2. Exercise: Regularly engaging in physical activity, which can include walking, gardening, sports, running, and strength training, is also a vital part of your overall health.

3. Stress management: Stress is unavoidable, especially these days, and it can affect every aspect of your health. But you can learn healthy techniques to manage it.

4. Substance abuse: Reducing or eliminating the use of addictive substances, such as tobacco, alcohol, and drugs, is particularly important in lowering your risk of cancer and heart disease.

5. Sleep: The amount and quality of sleep you get affects your immune system, but your need for restful sleep is often overlooked. Diet changes and other behaviors can improve sleep health.

6. Relationships: Positive social connections are beneficial for mental and physical health. The pandemic has taken a significant toll on our mental health and contributed to an overall sense of isolation.

A team-based approach is the key to success. At UT Southwestern, primary care providers collaborate with specialists and other health professionals who work within each of these six pillars to ensure patients receive personalized, comprehensive care.

Related reading: The art and science of tackling obesity

Focus on controllable factors

While Lifestyle Medicine emphasizes individual decision-making, practitioners understand that many patients’ choices are influenced by factors outside of their control, from health policies to socioeconomic status.

Focusing on what you can control, regardless of circumstances, can be empowering. And small changes can make a big difference. For example, I’ve helped patients learn how to fit healthy food choices into a tight budget, plan healthy meals that can be made quickly, and practice mindfulness techniques to lower anxiety levels caused by a stressful job they can’t afford to lose.

Modifying your eating habits isn't necessarily easy, but it will pay off in the long run.

If your health is suffering for reasons beyond your control, talk with your doctor. They can connect you with resources to address these issues and provide evidence-based guidance that will help you optimize your health in practical, sustainable ways.

Related reading: 4 studies that defy conventional thinking about race, weight loss, and heart health

It can be easy to get used to living a certain way and hard to acknowledge that some of our favorite habits – such as drinking three or four sodas a day – may be doing more harm than good. But to realize the impact, you must make the change.

When I talk with patients about their lifestyle, we also discuss their personal goals and priorities. If multiple behaviors need to be modified, I don’t recommend changing everything at once. Instead, we decide together which ones are easiest to start with and work from there.

Evidence-based expertise

As a primary care provider focused on internal medicine, I’m also one of several UT Southwestern physicians certified in Lifestyle Medicine by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. The certification means I have a solid understanding of the evidence that shows lifestyle directly affects your health.

UT Southwestern internal medicine physicians Dr. Jaclyn Albin, center, and Dr. Bethany Agusala, right, share real-world strategies for making lasting and healthy lifestyle choices in 2022. They joined Dr. John Warner, Executive Vice President for Health System Affairs at UTSW, for the Dec. 30, 2021, episode of "What to Know."

My colleagues and I wanted to start this regular Lifestyle Medicine blog to help patients understand some of the everyday factors that affect their health. We look forward to exploring topics such as:

  • Diet trends: the benefits and drawbacks of different fad diets
  • The power of plant-based diets to lower cholesterol
  • Lifestyle Medicine’s impact on mental health – particularly in pediatric populations
  • The long-term effects of eating too many processed foods
  • How interrupted sleep patterns affect your physical and mental health

We also know that even the healthiest person can develop a chronic condition. Lifestyle changes do not guarantee a disease-free life, and any person or product claiming otherwise is not to be trusted. The strategies we recommend when helping patients reach their goals are helpful, impactful – and truthful.

UT Southwestern providers work together to create customized care plans that can help patients reach their goals. This allows patients to get all the support they need within one system, from specialists who have quick access to their medical history. No matter which habits you want to make – or break – we’re here to help make your progress easier and more successful.

To discuss healthy lifestyle habits with a Lifestyle Medicine doctor, call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online.