Lifestyle Medicine: Tapping into The Profound, Health-Promoting Power of Daily Habits by Lisa McGonigal, MD, MPH

We are at an inflection point in American healthcare. Today 60% of American adults live with at least one chronic medical condition, with 40% struggling with two or more such diagnoses. Rates of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and metabolic syndrome are at an all-time high and continue to rise. More than half of all Americans take prescription medicines—four, on average—and most of these drugs come with an array of side effects and a steep price tag. In fact, 30% of those who take a prescription medication say their out-of-pocket costs have increased dramatically over the past few years, with many responding to the price hike by not filling the prescription, forgoing other recommended medical treatments, cutting back on groceries, or even seeking a second job to help cover the costs.

Skyrocketing costs are not limited to medications—the U.S. spends more overall than any country worldwide when it comes to healthcare, yet we have little to show for this investment, ranking last among comparably high-income countries on access to care, equity, life expectancy, and preventable mortality.

There’s a better way. A new comprehensive analysis by the American College of Lifestyle Medicine estimates that 90% of all U.S. healthcare dollars are spent treating what are largely preventable diseases. The analysis reports that despite the pervasive and longstanding belief that chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease are largely the inevitable outcome of our genetic predispositions, there is growing evidence that the genes responsible for these conditions can effectively be modified by our behaviors. That is, small, daily choices and habits—what we eat, how often we move, whether and how much we smoke or drink—can “turn on”—or off—the genes that determine whether we fall victim to a particular disease. In fact, data show that behavior change could prevent 80% of all coronary heart disease, strokes, and type 2 diabetes, and 40% of cancers.

Tapping into this profound, health-promoting power of daily habits is the essence of “Lifestyle Medicine.” Lifestyle Medicine is a wellness-based approach to care that addresses the root causes of chronic disease using evidence-based lifestyle interventions focusing on the six key behavior changes that have been consistently identified as having the greatest impact on overall health, longevity, and quality of life: adoption of a whole-food plant-predominant eating pattern, regular physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substance use, and positive social connection.

While all physicians can practice Lifestyle Medicine by incorporating lifestyle counseling into their usual practice of medicine, certified Lifestyle Medicine practitioners are specifically trained to fully support individuals in the primary educational, behavioral, and cognitive interventions required to identify personal risk factors for chronic disease and support long-term behavior change and healing. Lifestyle Medicine clinicians possess a deep understanding of the lifestyle-related contributors to disease and a specialized health behavior-change skill set that includes tools such as motivational interviewing, positive psychology, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral therapy. Lifestyle Medicine specialists also structure their practice to allow for significantly more time with patients than is possible in other specialties, allowing for the development of a fuller, broader understanding of an individual’s core lifestyle patterns and health-related risks. Dedicated Lifestyle Medicine practitioners thus often work collaboratively with patients’ existing “conventional” providers to empower individuals to take better control of their own health by implementing potent but sustainable behaviors to prevent and treat—and often reverse—chronic disease.

360 Thrive is offering one-on-one in-person and virtual Lifestyle Medicine visits with Dr. McGonigal, a board-certified Preventive and Lifestyle Medicine physician. You can also join 360 Thrive as we explore the tenets of Lifestyle Medicine in the upcoming months through a variety of webinars, cooking classes, and blog posts hosted by Dr. McGonigal.

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