5 Lifestyle Changes That Can Save Your Life

5 Lifestyle Changes That Can Save Your Life

Follow these tips to reduce your risk of chronic conditions.

Sometimes a healthy lifestyle—one that includes a good diet and plenty of exercise—is the best medicine. A 2012 study of more than 8,300 people, published in Preventive Medicine, found that the risk of death dropped by 56 percent for nonsmokers compared to smokers, 47 percent for people who were physically active and 26 percent for people who ate a healthy diet.

According to a report from the Gallup-Sharecare State of American Well-Being series, many people have trouble adopting or sustaining healthy behaviors even though they are aware of the risks caused by a poor diet, lack of physical activity and other unhealthy practices. The report looked at the effects of the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program on heart disease within several healthcare providers across the country. The Ornish Lifestyle Medicine program, developed by Dean Ornish, MD, has been scientifically proven to reverse the progression of heart disease and other chronic conditions. 

Lifestyle practices for a lifetime of health
Awareness—The first step in living healthier is being aware of how your diet and activity choices affect your health. That means educating yourself on what makes for a good lifestyle choice, and also recognizing when you’re making poor choices and why you’re doing it.

Diet—According to Dr. Ornish, foods are neither good nor bad, but some are healthier than others. Ornish’s dietary guidelines focus heavily on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, soy, dairy, egg whites and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as fish, nuts and flaxseed.

Exercise—The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous exercise. According to the CDC, people who are active live longer and have a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, depression and certain cancers. A University College London study published in Diabetologia in October 2016 suggests that the recommended 150 minutes per week can cut the risk of type 2 diabetes by 26 percent. Doubling up on that (one hour of moderate exercise five days per week) reduces the risk by 36 percent.

Stress—Stress is tough to avoid in this day and age. Some stress is good; it kicks in the fight-or-flight response to physical danger, during which hormones flood your body, breathing quickens, your heart beats faster, your muscles tense and your brain works quicker. But when you have chronic stress, you’re more susceptible to infection, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and other illnesses. Ornish recommends a daily practice of gentle yoga, meditation, relaxation or deep breathing to manage stress.

Love and Support—Research suggests that social isolation and disconnectedness brings worse physical and mental health. Some of the longest-lived people in the world—who live in areas called Blue Zones—almost always have some sort of robust community support system. Ornish suggests spending more time with family and friends, improving communication skills, and listening with empathy and compassion.    

How hospitals implement lifestyle medicine
Healthcare providers across the country are increasingly starting to realize the many benefits of lifestyle medicine. St. Dominic Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi has enrolled nearly 200 people in Ornish Lifestyle Medicine since early 2015. Participants have lost an average of 6.4 percent of their body weight, increased their exercise capacity by 60 percent, decreased their cholesterol by 18.2 percent and have had a drop of 48.6 percent in depression scores. 

Healthcare providers are implementing a variety of tactics to promote lifestyle medicine, such as:

  • Educating healthcare providers on the science of lifestyle medicine
  • Informing patients about new programs
  • Offering a variety of traditional and lifestyle-based programs
  • Publically recognizing the healthcare providers who encourage their patients to make lifestyle changes
  • Using patient testimonials to spread the word about lifestyle medicine programs

Medically reviewed in February 2019.

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