The CDC reports that as of 2012, half of all adults – or 117 million Americans – have at least one chronic health condition. These conditions – which include heart disease, stroke, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and cancer – can all be largely prevented using a seemingly simple prescription: don’t use tobacco, maintain a healthy weight, stay physically active and eat nutritious foods.
“Many risk factors for these diseases are the same: smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, obesity,” says Dr. James Nettum, a Family Medicine physician at Dean Clinic – Fish Hatchery. “By dedicating time and energy to real lifestyle changes millions of Americans could see a better quality of life through improved health.”
While it sounds easy enough, following through on healthy lifestyle choices can be difficult. Convenience foods are packed with sodium which increases blood pressure, and sugars which can cause spikes in blood sugar levels. Busy days make quality sleep and adequate exercise hard to achieve. Many turn to substances like tobacco and alcohol as a form of stress release, but both are detrimental to our health in multiple ways. So how do we make positive changes?
“Start small,” says Dr. Nettum. “While making incremental changes can feel slow and tedious, the changes will build on each other. By creating a healthier lifestyle you can reduce your overall risk for disease.”
Smoking is one of the first things doctors say needs to go when talking about better health. For good reason, since smoking can increase your risk of developing most chronic diseases:
• Heart disease and stroke risk can double or quadruple
• Lung cancer risk is increased 25 times for smokers
Not only will smoking significantly increase your risk for these serious, costly conditions, but the habit can cause many other health issues:
• Pregnancy complications, trouble conceiving and health issues for babies after birth including low birth weight, higher SIDS risk and orofacial clefts in infants
• Greater chance of developing cataracts
• Gum issues and other oral health problems
• Inflammation and immune system problems
• Higher risk of Type 2 diabetes
Despite these risks and the many other health complications that come from smoking or tobacco product use, many people find it hard to quit.
Dr. Nettum suggests talking with your health provider to develop a plan that will end your dependence on nicotine and tobacco use.
“There are very successful treatments to help patients quit smoking,” says Dr. Nettum. “Some people can be successful in quitting without help, but many others try time and again without success. Creating a plan with your clinician, or working with a smoking cessation specialist or program are tried and true ways to kick the habit for good.”
Many providers at Dean Clinic are specially qualified as smoking cessation experts. You can also get support by calling Quit For Life at 866-QUIT4LIFE (866-784-8454). This service is free and offers coaching, nicotine replacement therapy and other resources for anyone working to quit smoking or tobacco use. Research shows that people who utilize a program like Quit For Life are much more likely to successfully quit smoking.
Another big change for many people should come at meal time. In our busy world, processed and convenience foods dominate our plates. Unfortunately, many of these foods are filled with sodium and hidden sugars. These ingredients then wreak havoc on our bodies by increasing our blood pressure and causing spikes in our blood sugar.
The best prescription for these conditions?
“Eat healthier foods in proper portions,” says Dr. Nettum. “It sounds simple. We hear this advice constantly. But for many families, making the change from drive-through dinners and processed snack foods is hard.”
Dr. Nettum suggests starting small and build on your successes each week. For example, if your family can’t find time to eat a home cooked meal every night of the week, start with one night of the week and build from there.
Some other suggestions that can make eating healthier meals include:
• Buy frozen fruits and vegetables: frozen produce is often less expensive, can be purchased in bulk or on sale and offers a healthier option than canned produce or highly processed meals.
• Find new recipes online or in cookbooks from the library. Not only can you branch out to find new, quick family favorites, but having recipes on hand can help you plan out several meals in advance.
• Try cooking or prepping food in bulk. Having cut veggies or previously roasted chicken on hand can make packing a lunch, grabbing a snack or warming up a fast dinner easier.
As you change what you eat every day, it’s also important to devote some focus to what you drink.
“It can be eye opening to realize how much sugar and how many calories we drink every day without a second thought,” says Dr. Nettum.
Many drinks we assume are “healthy” still contain hidden sugars. Try switching up your morning latte for black coffee or herbal tea. If you drink soda throughout the day, work on swapping one can out per day or per week with sparkling water.
Keep in mind that while alcohol consumption is fine in moderation, drinking too much can increase your risk for disease. Dr. Nettum says the general recommendation is no more than two servings per day. One serving is equivalent to one glass of wine, one cocktail or one bottle of beer.
To see even bigger gains in your healthy lifestyle, Dr. Nettum wants to remind everyone that being physically active is key.
“Modern life is sedentary – from desk jobs, to unwinding in front of the TV, or video games – many of us do not move enough during the day,” says Dr. Nettum. “The good news is it doesn’t take grueling workouts at the gym to see positive effects.”
The American Heart Association recommends that adults get at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days, so if you’re just starting out, start small. Carve out ten minutes during a break to walk. If you already get in routine walks at home or at work, start increasing the total time per day you are moving.
“Exercise does amazing things for the body,” says Dr. Nettum. “Getting your heart rate up will increase the oxygen going to your body’s organs. Exercise releases endorphins that boost your mood. It lowers blood pressure and even counteracts stress.”
Together, poor diet, smoking and lack of exercise can contribute to one risk factor that compounds your risk for chronic disease: obesity.
“Carrying extra weight is hard on the body in many ways – from increased pressure on your bones and joints to the extra work your heart and lungs need to perform to keep your body moving,” says Dr. Nettum. “Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial in reducing your risk of disease.”
Working with your doctor to achieve a healthy weight is important. Your specific needs can be assessed based on your current activity level and the amount of weight you may need to lose. If you are already at a healthy weight, your doctor can help you develop a plan for maintaining that weight through proper diet and exercise.
Local group focuses on decreasing chronic disease risk
The Rebalanced-Life Wellness Association is a local group on an important mission: to reduce the health disparities that adversely affect African American men living in Dane County.
With a special focus on chronic diseases including diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, the group uses special outreach events to help educate African American men about health issues and connect them with services aimed at improving their quality of life and overall health.
Dean & St. Mary’s recently partnered with Rebalanced-Life Wellness as part of the Helping to Keep Dane County Healthy grant program. Grant money from the program will help high-risk African American men increase physical activity, learn about healthy eating and nutrition, and promote volunteerism and social support.
If you want to get involved, check out the group’s website at rebalanced-life.org