We hear a lot about the positive power of lifestyle changes, but few people know there is an actual field of medicine devoted to Lifestyle Medicine. According to the American College of Lifestyle Medicine (ACLM), this field uses six kinds of healthy behavior – a whole-food, predominantly plant-based diet, regular physical activity, restorative sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substances, and positive social connections – to treat and prevent chronic conditions like heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and multiple types of cancer. In fact, most health-related problems we suffer from can be improved or reversed with lifestyle changes within one of these categories.
Let’s break these down to better understand each behavior and the specific recommendations:
- Nutrition Behaviors. The modern American diet has changed significantly over the last 100 years and, while data from nutrition studies can be difficult to interpret, the ACLM’s recommendations are based only on very large, high-quality studies. Above all, the ACLM recommends a diet consisting of whole, unprocessed foods, including a variety of minimally processed vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. ACLM also strongly suggests avoiding processed foods that are commonly found as prepackaged foods, since consuming them in large quantities over years can have a very negative impact on health. The ACLM essentially recommends a return to a normal human nutrition pattern. Critically though, the ACLM does not recommend consuming meat, dairy, eggs, or oils of any kind. That is not an accident, as there is no evidence that eating a diet rich in these foods leads to a longer life. In fact, studies show that there is no health benefit from consuming any of these foods, eating too much animal protein and oils has been shown to increase risk for various diseases. Chief among these, red meat intake is associated with increased cardiovascular disease. The only notable exception to this recommendation to avoid animal protein is for fish, which is a great source of Omega-3 fatty acids that can help fend off Alzheimer’s disease and support heart health. Still, overall, the ACLM’s recommendations are clear: We should eat a whole food, plant-based diet and avoid processed fatty foods and animal protein.
- Physical Activity. The benefits of regular exercise are considerable. Exercise has a powerful impact on mood, sleep, digestion, and cardiovascular health, and in general the more muscle you have, the longer you’ll be able to remain independent. Excercise even reduces wrinkles! The current guidelines are for most Americans to get 150 minutes per week of a combination of aerobic and resistance (weight bearing) exercise. For those working to lose weight or maintain weight loss, it’s 260-300 minutes per week. While that sounds like a lot, it averages only about 42 minutes per day. To meet this goal, you can break down your exercise sessions into several intervals (as short as just 10 minutes!) throughout the day. There’s no need to be intimidated, either. Walking is a great place to start if you haven’t been very active lately, so consider joining our Walk with a Doc program or walking 10 minutes a few times per day for starters. Exercise can cause some temporary soreness, but you should not be alarmed unless you have sharp or severe pain. If that happens, stop and see your physician, as something is not right.
- Restorative Sleep. As the name suggests, not all sleep is created equal. Just because you’re unconscious doesn’t mean you’re getting quality sleep. How can you know if sleep is restorative? How you feel when you wake up is a big indicator – do you feel refreshed and ready to start a new day, or are you tired and sluggish when you wake up? The goal for adults here is generally 6-7 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night, but some people feel they need more like 8 hours to feel fully refreshed. Listen to your own body, and be sure to get help from your primary care doctor if you sleep walk, snore, or fall asleep throughout the day.
- Stress Management. The ACLM recommends a healthy commitment to stress management, sometimes called “self-care” or “mindfulness,” which involves engaging in activities that help you reduce or handle stress in a responsible way. This might be as simple as politely saying no to taking on new responsibilities that make you feel overwhelmed or stretched too thin to take care of your own physical or emotional well-being, or it could mean learning to deal with stressors in a productive way. It’s also possible to see the stress as a healthy challenge. A certain amount of stress in life is necessary and unavoidable, so in addition to practicing self-care though activities like meditation, yoga, or exercise, the ACLM also recommends getting professional mental and financial counseling, as all of these can make a big difference in both the amount of stress in our lives and our ability to handle it in a healthy way.
- Avoiding Harmful Behaviors. Not surprisingly, the ACLM also recommends avoiding some unhealthy behaviors altogether. Most of these no-no activities are well known: smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and illicit drug use are a few. But some are less ovious, such as avoiding unprotected sex, not wearing a seatbelt, avoiding indoor use of propane heaters, and not having smoke detectors in your home. These simple safety strategies can significantly reduce illness and injury, both for us as individuals and as a society.
- Positive Social Connections. Having healthy relationships is another big indicator for longevity and vitality. In fact, studies show that people who have close connections in their community enjoy improved longevity and reduced depression and anxiety. Of course, not all social connections are positive. For example, internet social sites can be highly anxiety-provoking for some people and can often make matters worse – so consider working toward two hours of “happy” social time with your own friends, colleagues, and family per week.
Making these kinds of behavior changes does not have to be difficult. Establishing SMART goals is a good place to start. Write out your goal and be sure it meets these criteria: It should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant (i.e., it will change your health), and Time-based (in a short time frame).
As the old saying goes: How do you climb a mountain? One step at a time. So go get started!
Sourced By: Healthwise
Reviewed By: Capital Health Plan Physicians Group
Posted: January 4, 2024