Intensive lifestyle change: It works, and it’s more than diet and exercise

Monique Tello, MD, MPH
Monique Tello, MD, MPH, Contributing Editor

What if I could prescribe a pill that could prevent or treat high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, heart disease, even depression and dementia? And what if researchers had extensively researched this pill and the result was: ample proof that it’s effective. On top of that, it’s practically free and has no bad side effects. As a matter of fact, its only side effects are improved sleep, increased energy, and weight loss.

Actually, folks, this powerful medicine exists. It’s real and readily available for everyone. It’s called intensive lifestyle change. Its active ingredients are physical activity and drastic improvements in diet, and it works well. Amazingly well. If it were an actual pill, no doubt millions of people would be clamoring for it and some pharmaceutical company would reap massive profits. But here’s how you can get “it.” Intensive lifestyle changes involves knowledge and action — which many doctors think is just too difficult to teach, and many patients think is too difficult to do.

But they would be wrong

I’m here to report that intensive lifestyle change is doable, sensible, and essential for good health. Cardiologist Dr. Dean Ornish is a pioneer of intensive lifestyle change. I had the opportunity to hear him speak at the Harvard Medical School Lifestyle Medicine Conference in July. (You can listen to his TED talks here.) Dr. Ornish and his team started researching this program decades ago, and they have consistently found positive results.

Research-based intensive lifestyle change

So, what exactly that does their program look like? It emphasizes nutrition and exercise, as one would expect, but it also addresses psychological factors like loneliness, isolation, depression, and anger. Why? Because research shows emotional and social health is associated with a reduced risk of disease and premature death. He spoke about the importance (research-proven) of connection, intimacy, and love. He points out that a lot of “bad” behaviors such as smoking, drinking, and overeating are actually people’s attempts to self-medicate emotional pain.

Here’s how it works: nine weeks of nutrition and meal prep instruction on a plant-based, low-refined-carb and low-trans-fat diet, as well as shared meals with the group; recommendation for and guidance in three to five hours of moderate physical activity, along with two or three strength-training sessions per week; stress management, communications skills, and relaxation instruction; and a support group. The goal is for patients to adopt these health-promoting strategies for the rest of their lives.

What doctors and patients need to know about intensive lifestyle change

The overall message for physicians is this: an intensive lifestyle change program won’t work if it’s just “ordered” by docs, or if patients are expected to engage with it based on threats and warnings. During the course I learned the importance of avoiding guilt, shame, and scare tactics, and getting away from labels such as “good” or “bad.” Any lifestyle change has to be meaningful and pleasurable. If it’s meaningful and pleasurable, people will do it. For these changes to be most effective, people have to want to continue them for the rest of their lives. The physician’s job is to act as a coach for the patient, encouraging and guiding their efforts, without judgment.

The Ornish program is just one approach to diet, exercise, and psychological lifestyle changes. Dr. Ornish is honest about this, and he himself points out that many programs emphasize the same things as his does:

  • a plant-based diet (meaning eating mostly fruits and veggies)
  • avoiding sugars and flours, especially those in processed food (prepared foods, foods in boxes)
  • limiting animal products.

He also emphasizes that any increase in physical activity is desirable, and patients can follow the specific recommendations from their physical therapists, doctors, or trainers. And of course, people can use a variety of resources and methods to improve stress management, coping, and communication skills.

Interested in online resources for healthy diet, exercise, and psychological change? Here’s some additional reading.

Comments:

  1. Regina Ryerson ~ Clean Solutions for Healthy Homes

    It just hit me when reading this: I had this kind of intensive lifestyle change in my mid-twenties.

    To date myself, that was about 40 years ago.

    In the space of 2 years, I switched to a plant-based whole-food diet; started exercising and meditating daily. I also started using natural household products.

    Back then, people like me were laughed at. But we expected that and charged ahead anyway, and reaped the health benefits.

    At 60sh, my health consistently spirals upward. I’m talking energy, stamina, physical strength, good moods, everything. Even lifting 3x the weight most younger women lift.

    Yes, I had a major health condition in mid-life, but self-healed by tweaking my lifestyle, not taking pills. And never looked back— zero symptoms in the past 6 years or so!

    Interest in this seems to be coming into the mainstream now. I mean, friends and relatives are even talking about this at parties, passionately.

    Thanks for inspiring your readers to give this a try! I can’t say this passionately enough— it’s worth far more than you put into it!

  2. Elise

    This is so essential but the article misses the point that there are trained health coaches who do just what is described – work with clients to make lifestyle changes (in diet, exercise, nutrition, stress, and other factors) to promote health. It should not be the doctors job to also be a coach.

    • Regina Ryerson ~ Clean Solutions for Healthy Homes

      Amen, Elise. What helped me succeed in intensive lifestyle change 40 years ago was surrounding myself with like-minded friends, who were already well along the path. I could not have succeeded without them!

      Lacking trained health coaches at the time, we read health books and shared what we learned. And compared notes on our progress— what was working, what was not. Sure we made some mistakes. But at least kept each other on our paths, until health coaches and the Internet arrived on the scene.

  3. Lucy Kay

    There was a time I used to study each and everything that’s connected with healthy life and dieting. One thing I do is read, read more and more. Recently I came across a new source of health-related information which became my everyday “book”: http://phlabs.com/health-info/63/diet

  4. Carmela

    Saying is easy than doing

    • Ross

      That’s right Carmela, but it’s worth doing if you want to live a longer, healthier life & feel good in yourself along the way. Those with your mindset will always find a ‘barrier’ to change……

    • Regina Ryerson ~ Clean Solutions for Healthy Homes

      Carmela, that’s what I say to myself every day. The amount of time and effort to maintain my health— don’t get me started!

      But my very next thought is always, “Where would I be without my health? And who will do this for me if I don’t?

      I healed from two chronic pain conditions— with healthy diet, movement therapy and meditation, not pills or surgery. I’ve been entirely pain-free for at least 6 years now. And plan to live to 105 in good health.

      Here’s my mantra that keeps me on my path: It takes far more time and work staying sick than staying healthy.

      Surround yourself with health-driven friends— that kind of support got me through!

  5. Stephen G. Novosel, J.D., M.P.S.

    The key takeaway here:

    ” . . . [N]ine weeks of nutrition and meal prep instruction on a plant-based, low-refined-carb and low-trans-fat diet . . .”

    One could, but I am not advocating, remove all other activities described above to achieve a similar outcome — better health than current.

    Now, in order for HH to maintain credibility and consistency, its editors should review/revise its “Harvard to USDA: Check out the Healthy Eating Plate” 2011 post/Plate which sadly, misleadingly, includes fish and poultry as among (the first listed) recommended sources of healthy protein.

    • K West

      The industrialized, commercialized production and farming of most chicken and fish, and this includes beef and pork, has a plethora of growth hormones, steroids and antibiotics. In addition, these animals are not raised in humane conditions nor are they slaughtered humanely which includes tremendous suffering, which due to the stress the animal goes through, those stress hormones go into the flesh and stay there after death, eventually to be consumed. None of the artificial hormones, steroids, antibiotics and stress hormones are natural to the human body, and when consumed by humans ultimately impacting the body down to a cellular level, and not in a healthy way.

      • Lynn

        I agree with you that all of the above are terrible, but meat from organically raised animals is no panacea. No matter the source, the consumption of animal products increases inflammation and the likelihood of heart disease, some cancers, and diabetes 2.

      • B May

        “…those stress hormones go into the flesh and stay there after death, eventually to be consumed.”

        Please clarify this statement. I’m not challenging you, just asking for you to explain this process. Please be as detailed as possible.

    • Regina Ryerson ~ Clean Solutions for Healthy Homes

      Stephen, I’d think so too.

      Except I’ve seen many friends try a plant-based whole food diet alone, without the other components mentioned here (“stress management, communications skills, and relaxation instruction; and a support group”.)

      Over the years, most stuck to their plant-based diets, but reverted to eating sugar, white bread and and other refined plant-based foods.

      Anecdotally, almost all are suffering from major health conditions today.

    • Regina Ryerson ~ Clean Solutions for Healthy Homes

      P.S.

      Stephen, yes, even with the diet change alone, health outcomes would be so much better.