Back to Blog

Exploring Lifestyle Medicine

Back to Blog

March 11, 2021

Exploring Lifestyle Medicine

Jennifer Morency

picture Exploring Lifestyle Medicine

Perhaps a form of medicine that is not as regularly explored is the increasingly trending lifestyle medicine. Is this avenue overlooked during medical school or is it a term less often used yet its work often performed?

This form of medicine uses evidence-based lifestyle therapeutic interventions, where medical professionals adopt a very patient-centric approach to a person’s health. They focus on preventing, treating and reversing diseases by intrinsically changing unhealthy behaviors for positive ones.

The basics of lifestyle medicine are physical activity and nutrition. Of course, these are essential in any patient’s journey to health and are often tied to chronic conditions. According to the American College of Lifestyle Medicine’s (ACLM) website, lifestyle medicine focuses on six key areas to improve overall health:

  • Physical activity
  • Stress management
  • Healthy eating
  • Sleep
  • Relationships
  • Substance management

Members of the ACLM include physicians, medical professionals in training, physician assistants, nurses, registered dieticians, physical therapists, pharmacists, health coaches, health care executives, health insurance actuaries, and workplace wellness professionals.

Contrary to popular belief, lifestyle medicine is not a different scope of practice from conventional medicine, but rather a focus on changing habits as a first line of treatment. The organization behind lifestyle medicine believes that examining a patient’s behavior and lifestyle is as important as managing health through medications and procedures.

Lifestyle Medicine’s Role in Treating Chronic Conditions

The rise in chronic diseases in America is an ongoing struggle. Chronic diseases have become one of America’s leading cause of death and disability, with annual health care costs revolving around $3.8 trillion for the treatment and management of such chronic illnesses.

In fact, according to the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s (NCCDPHP) study, 3 in 5 Americans have at least one chronic disease and 2 in 5 have at least 2 or more chronic diseases. Some of these include:

  • Cancer
  • Chronic lung disease
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic kidney disease

Studies have shown that the key factors that contribute to these chronic conditions are tobacco use, lack of physical activity, poor nutrition and excessive alcohol consumption.

The growing healthcare spending on related illnesses is unsustainable for the U.S. economy and for many other countries as well. Such lifestyle choices have made type 2 diabetes an imminent pandemic, where 34.2 million Americans (1 in 10) have diabetes and over 88 million (1 in 3) have prediabetes.

That being said, it is important to note that over 80% of this healthcare spend goes towards the treatment of conditions linked to certain unfavorable lifestyle choices. Some common health conditions are on one end very costly but also preventable. These include heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, stroke and more.

Through lifestyle medicine and the various healthcare professionals that practice such an approach to medicine, patients aren’t treated for their symptoms, but rather the underlying causes of their disease. The evidence-based approach focuses on the causes of a patient’s illness, potentially decreasing the number of medicines and procedures needed and hence, decreasing healthcare costs.

Although not all chronic diseases can be treated through therapeutic interventions alone, shifting focus onto a patient’s lifestyle choices can help manage their health and decrease or even eliminate potential further damage. Concentrating on eating patterns, restorative sleep, stress management, avoidance of certain substances and emphasis on regular physical activity can significantly alter the course of a patient’s chronic condition, even before needing any medications.

According to an article published on the NCBI website, a primary care physician gave an example of a patient he treated through lifestyle medicine and the impact it had on her health:

“During our first visit, I helped Rosa assess her strengths and weaknesses, resources, preferences, and stage of change. Then, collectively, we came up with an action plan. She decided to attend our shared medical appointments (SMAs)—group visits to help overweight and obese patients with risk factors for cardiovascular disease make healthy lifestyle changes. During these visits, Rosa spoke with others who had similar health conditions, participated in health and wellness activities, and learned to set achievable goals […].

In addition to SMAs, Rosa learned about culturally appropriate, healthy foods from our dietician and safe exercise techniques from our physical therapist. Armed with the information and skills needed to make healthy lifestyle changes, Rosa felt empowered. She began exercising several times per week at a community gym. Her husband took charge of cooking meals and made healthy lunches for her to take to work. When her work schedule made it difficult for her to continue attending the SMAs, our medical assistant arranged for her to have a “buddy” who was also trying to lose weight. They held each other accountable and provided much-needed camaraderie on the road to health.

In 12 months’ time, Rosa’s hemoglobin A1c returned to normal and her weight stabilized at 15 pounds less than it had been at our initial visit. Her mood and blood pressure improved, so she was able to stop taking medications for both depression and hypertension.”

Coupled with concentrating on preventing, treating and sometimes reversing a patient’s chronic disease, lifestyle medicine professionals are truly putting preventive medicine into practice and holding patients accountable for their health. This translates into a healthier population that requires less medications and procedures, lowers healthcare spending and improves quality of life.