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Are Lifestyle Changes Impossible?

Many years ago, I became exhausted dealing with a friend who ignored my advice on living a healthy lifestyle. His attitude toward exercise was similar to Oscar Wilde’s “I often take exercise. Why only yesterday I had breakfast in bed.” His attitude toward food, especially restaurant food, seemed too often that he didn’t care if the quality was good as long as the portions were huge.

We agreed early on that our friendship would suffer if I were his physician, so I referred him to an excellent internist who was far more patient than I. Now, years later, my friend has diabetes and is on a large daily dose of insulin, his kidneys don’t work too well, and he’s prone to problems with his circulation and cholesterol. He still has a voracious appetite and remains ultra­sedentary.

Also, as you might guess, he spends a lot of time in the waiting rooms of doctor’s offices.

If you know someone like this, or even if you yourself are on the threshold of being a medical regular, just know, right now, things can change. Chronic medical conditions are preventable and reversible. The wizard behind the curtain is the phrase “lifestyle interventions.”

It’s old stuff
Hippocrates, the father of medicine, expressed lifestyle interventions succinctly: “If we could give every individual the right amount of nourishment and exercise, not too little and not too much, we would have found the safest way to health.”

Now, almost 2,400 years later, here’s what we know. If you commit to the so­-called modifiable risk factors–weight control, not smoking, a healthful diet, and physical activity–you can expect an 81% reduction in what’s called all­-cause mortality. Rephrased, this means that if you follow a healthy lifestyle, you increase to four out of five your chances of dying at a nice old age, perhaps well into your 90s, free of the chronic illnesses like those besetting my friend.

Think of it! You could avoid, or at least dramatically reduce, your chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, stroke, kidney failure, lung disease, cancer, and congestive heart failure.

David Katz, MD, president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, puts it well. “Lifestyle practices have more influence on our medical destinies than anything else in all medicine.” He adds there is no pill, and there never will be any pill, that can reduce our risks for chronic illness the way making healthful lifestyle choices can.

This should be inspirational
But there’s a catch. The major problem is that making lifestyle changes can be truly challenging. To anyone who’s been overweight for years, you know how hard it is to shed those extra pounds permanently. New Year’s resolutions to exercise start each year with gusto and a sweaty T ­shirt, but a few weeks later your enthusiasm flags. You’re intent on loading your shopping cart with pastured beef, kale, and quinoa, but one day you’re famished, catch a whiff of a baking cinnamon bun, and before you know it you’ve inhaled two. Even group therapy often fails. Patients enrolled in cardiac rehab programs or in one of the many weight-loss programs drift back to their old ways months or even weeks after the program ends.

The experience of attempting a permanent lifestyle change is, well, humbling.

One question that frequently arises is the doctor’s role in all this. According to patient surveys, doctors don’t score well on lifestyle change counseling. Physicians complain that patients ignore their advice, that they don’t have time, or that they’re not being paid by insurance companies to give detailed preventive counseling. In fact, some health insurance policies won’t cover any obesity treatment, arguing that health insurance companies shouldn’t be required to pay for poor lifestyle choices.

It’s been suggested that other health professionals do the counseling, like physician’s assistants, nurses, nutritionists, or pharmacists. But still there’s the question of time, knowledge, and money.

So, if lifestyle interventions are extraordinarily hard to accomplish, and the healthcare system says “No time, no money,” let’s review other options.

Money for change
One interesting idea has been to financially reimburse a person for signing on to a healthful change and later accomplishing it. For example, if you’re a smoker and agree to stop, or overweight and join a weight-loss program, expect a check in the mail. Then, as long as you’re smoke-free/losing weight, a check arrives every month, continuing for a year after you’ve accomplished your goal.

This has actually been tried successfully in the UK, where they paid pregnant women to not smoke during pregnancy and men to lose weight. The results were good.  In the US, there’s been bickering over who would cut the check. Insurance companies balked. Congress, well you can imagine Congress. Even patients nixed paying someone else to stop smoking (especially if they were nonsmokers themselves), even if their own personal cost might be a modest $25 annual increase in their health insurance premiums.

Another idea discussed for years is stronger government intervention. Let’s face it, there’s a reason smokers are a rarity these days. It’s not so much because people know smoking is unhealthful, but rather because high taxes made cigarettes breathtakingly expensive, laws restricted where people could smoke, and government hearings that revealed Big Tobacco chicanery brought the industry to its knees from personal injury lawsuits.

We needed the government to step in and take action before tobacco killed us all off.

In one study, the government examined what would occur if a 20% tax were added to all sugary beverages. When the numbers were run, the results are compelling: after ten years, this tax would prevent 95,000 heart attacks, 8,000 strokes, and 2,600 premature deaths, save $17 billion in medical costs, and generate $13 billion in annual tax revenue. However, again in surveys most citizens oppose this, mainly irritated by too much government intrusion. Other models produce equally dramatic results.

If the prices of all fast food were increased and those of fruits and veggies were decreased (perhaps by subsidizing them the way junk food ingredients are currently supported by government), we could expect better weight control and less heart disease and diabetes.

The food industry, like Big Tobacco and even the auto industry in its opposition to seat belts, argues that this interferes with a person’s right to make choices. I guess Tea Party folk drink this sort of Kool­Aid, too naive or ideological to acknowledge it’s really all about money.

Good government intervention
These days, there’s some positive government intervention you may not even be aware of. All those Chicago Divvy bikes and its hundreds of miles of bike lanes are funded through a federal environmental impact grant. Conversely, you can see an interesting failure of government intervention in suburbs where developers never considered how people could bike or walk around town. Not designing decent sidewalks or jogging/bike paths contributes to the fact that suburbanites weigh an average of six pounds more than city dwellers.

Your health savings account, really useful in these high-deductible days, can be used for nutritional supplements, alternative practitioners, and even your health club membership or a personal fitness trainer (you’ll need a letter from me, which I’ll be delighted to write).

If you’re a WholeHealth Chicago patient we can drive you a bit nuts pushing you toward positive lifestyle choices. But as a result of our incessant nagging, we have a scant dozen patients still smoking, we treat a handful of people with diabetes, a few patients with chronic heart disease, and virtually no one with emphysema. At the most, we hospitalize five patients a year. And yes, we’re extremely proud of these stats because we know they reflect an investment on your part in your own health.

I don’t envy my chronically ill friend or his internist as she helplessly watches him make a slow, steady decline. I left conventional medicine when I recognized that if I didn’t shift my focus toward prevention, my medical career would consist of little more than raising people’s insulin doses and blood pressure meds, adjusting their statins, and ultimately signing their premature death certificates.

We know lifestyle changes are tough, but they’re not impossible. Don’t give up.

Be well,
David Edelberg, MD



Leave a Comment

  1. frank a trotto says:

    I am 79 years old, a cigar smoker, Wine drinker (I make my own “Dago Red”, also Vodka drinker, and love Italian Cuisine. Until I read your article I had not exercised or walked for the last 2 years. I am 5’x4″ 200lbs, happily married to my wife of 39 years, I don’t want the music to stop anytime soon, so after reading your article I quit the cigars, quit the Vino and Vodka, started eating sensible portions of the fresh foods that we have always eaten and visit my equipped gym down stairs daily for 45 minutes of biking and exercise.
    Today May 5th, is one week of my new life style and I feel better, my mouth is fresher, my head is clearer and its not easy but I am determined to make this my new way of lIVING.

  2. Judy Zaleske says:

    I needed that….the humbling part and don’t give up. A lot of little changes add up to big changes! Thanks, Dr. E.

  3. Lesa says:

    Thank you for continued efforts to make us gently aware of the hard information so we can make these decisions toward something better. I find that the more I have compassion for how hard this life is on us humans the more I am able to make more positive changes.

  4. John says:

    Well said, Dr. E!
    I’ve never smoked, but do struggle with my weight. And though making lifestyle changes is still a work in progress, in the five or so years I’ve been going to WholeHealth I’ve made more progress than in the 20 previous years. Having a Dr. and a team who want to help me get healthy (rather than put me on a statin and send me on my way) is invaluable.

  5. Jude Mathews says:

    Thanks for opening the conversation, Dr. E. My personal opinion is that it takes tremendous concentration and a gathering of personal resources to change a single lifestyle element. As one who has quit smoking, quit eating cane sugar and wheat, become a regular exerciser, and lost 30 pounds, I’ve come to understand some things about human nature. First of all (a confession), only two of the above “quits” of mine have become permanent. None of this is at all easy. Secondly, doing something like giving up a favorite food group can probably only be done one at a time. Like: give up wheat. Get used to that for a year. Then give up sugar. Give that a year. Then start exercising, and so on. Thirdly, there is an entire psychology to changing habits, and people who want to start or stop doing something need to be treated with great kindness and understanding. Nothing motivates like enormous, long-term support and sympathy. Where a person gets that is, well, wherever they can find it.

  6. Tiffany Ashley says:

    This is great perspective. I am struggling with this issue, being inspirational, with my mother. She has chosen a life style that is less than active. Thank you for this blog. I learn a lot every week.

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Just print this out, tape it on your refrigerator door, and stay calm.


• Runny nose
• Sneezing
• Red, swollen eyes
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• Tickly throat
• No fever

• Runny nose
• Sneezing
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• Rarely a low fever

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• Fever

FLU (Standard seasonal flu)
• Fever
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• Sore throat
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• Muscle aches, sometimes quite severe
• Rarely, diarrhea

• Shortness of breath
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• Dry cough (no mucus)
• Slow onset (2-14 days)
• Mild muscle aches
• Mild fatigue
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