Tag Archives: diabetes

Exercise, like all prescriptions, only works if you use it as directed.

Earlier this week  I wrote about the Exercise is Medicine initiative and why physicians should prescribe exercise to all of their patients.

Despite the widely-known benefits of exercise, many physicians—and people in general—believe that chronic health conditions should be managed using medications, not  proper nutrition and physical activity. This is a misguided approach considering that weight gain and health conditions related to weight gain  accumulate over a period of years, resulting from eating too much combined with low levels of activity.

One reason that physicians are hesitant to prescribe exercise (and, similarly, good nutrition) is that in their experience, it doesn’t work. What they mean is that the results they see after recommending lifestyle modifications are typically not sufficient. So the assumption made by doctors and patients is that lifestyle modifications don’t work. But this is not necessarily the case

This debate comparing lifestyle modification with medical management of chronic diseases is familiar. Consider statins, the popular lipid-lowering medications that are currently among the most-prescribed drugs (examples include Lipitor, Zocor, Crestor and Vytorin). The effect of statin drugs on lowering blood lipids is significant in most patients. This, together with clever marketing to both patients and physicians, explains why they are so widely used.

It is possible to lower blood lipids as much as statins by carefully controlling diet and regular exercise, but it is difficult. How difficult depends on the individual, but everyone would agree that successful lifestyle modification takes more effort and dedication than taking a pill. In order for any treatment to work, it has to be followed. A patient who doesn’t follow their diet or exercise program is no different from a patient who doesn’t take their medication as directed. In both cases, the response to the treatment will fall short of expectations.

If someone didn’t take their statin medication and their blood cholesterol didn’t go down, no one would label the drug a failure. The medication may well have worked if the patient took it. But people routinely claim that diet and exercise don’t work, when the real problem is that these treatments aren’t followed. This could be because the patients weren’t provided with appropriate and actionable information or because they didn’t faithfully follow the instructions they were given.

The problem isn’t that lifestyle modification isn’t effective, it’s that people don’t implement healthy changes for the long-term. Whereas a statin drug results in rapid changes, the benefits of behavior change are realized more slowly. This can lead to the incorrect conclusion that diet and exercise aren’t working, even though they are.

In reality, medication can be part of a treatment plan, but should not be the only prescription.  Long-term health benefits come from changing eating and activity patterns. Medications should be used as a  “jump start” to treating a condition, with a goal of developing a new way of eating and regular activity as the long-term treatment.

For example, medications like statins can lower cholesterol quickly. Then, lifestyle changes can keep the cholesterol down, reducing the need for the drug. Since side effects depend on the dose and duration of treatment, this approach would reduce the risk of potentially dangerous side effects.

For many patients, lifestyle changes are effective on their own, meaning the medication isn’t necessary. And consider this: maintaining a healthy body weight, proper nutrition, and regular exercise has been proven to be the best—and at this point, only—way to prevent most of the health problems most of us will face. Good nutrition and physical activity really are the best medicine!

Numbers you need to know to prevent and treat heart disease.

February is American Heart Month, an ideal time to assess your risk of heart disease and take steps to improve your health. When it comes to heart disease, there are several numbers, including your blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose, you (or your doctor) may be monitoring. But there is another set of numbers that are equally important for preventing and treating heart disease that you may not be familiar with: 0, 5, 10, 25, and 30.

What these numbers mean and why they are so important is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.


 

Blood test results

0 is for no smoking. Cigarette smoking more than doubles your risk of heart disease and stroke, is by far the leading cause of lung cancer and other lung diseases, and is responsible for over 400,000 deaths per year. If you smoke, quitting now is one of the most important things you can do to improve your health. Nicotine replacement therapy in the form of gum, lozenges, and patches as well as prescription medications can help, but quitting really does require serious dedication. It’s well worth the effort and some benefits of quitting can be realized almost immediately.

5 is for eating five fruits and vegetables each day. A healthy diet is one important aspect of good health. While there is no one single measure of a healthy diet, adequate fruit and vegetable consumption is widely considered to be essential for good health. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, and fiber and most are low in calories. At a minimum, you should eat five servings per day with an emphasis of fresh fruits and vegetables. Your real goal should be to include fruits and vegetables in all meals and snacks, but five servings per day is a good start.

10 is for 10,000 steps per day. Regular physical activity is essential for good health. Almost any activity counts, and a good goal is to be as active as possible throughout the day. You can track your physical activity using a pedometer (step counter) or an app on your phone. A target of 10,000 steps per day is a commonly cited goal, but you should try to take as many steps as possible. You can do this by minimizing the time you spend sitting, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and walking instead of driving when possible. More steps are better, even if you don’t get to 10,000.

25 is for maintaining a healthy body weight, or a body mass index (BMI) of less than 25. The BMI is a measure of weight relative to height. A BMI of 18–25 is considered healthy, 25–29 is considered overweight, and 30 and higher is considered obese. The risk of health problems like diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers goes up with BMI, so maintaining a healthy body weight is good for your health. If you are overweight you should lose weight, even if you don’t achieve a BMI of less than 25.

30 is for 30 minutes of exercise per day. In addition to being as active as possible throughout the day, you should dedicate a minimum of 30 minutes for exercise or other activity. Considerable research shows that as little as 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity leads to improved fitness and health with greater benefits coming from longer duration or higher intensity activity. This can include exercise—a brisk walk or jog, lifting weights, or other aerobic exercise—as well as other activities like housework and yard work. Your goal should be to sit as little as possible, move as much as possible, and make time each day to be active.

What parents and schools can do to make sure kids are ready to learn

Physical activity and good nutrition have long been recognized as essential for promoting good health in adults and children. More and more research suggests that these health behaviors can have beneficial effects beyond health, including how we perform both physically and mentally. The emphasis here is on children in school, but it applies to adults, too.

Unfortunately, taking time for activity and good nutrition is seen as a luxury or a distraction to learning in most schools. Far from being a distraction, physical activity and healthy eating are prerequisites for learning and academic achievement. In short, these often ignored factors can help make sure children are ready to learn.

Regular physical activity is essential for good health, growth, and physical development, including maintaining a healthy body weight. This last point is important given the epidemic of childhood obesity and related health problems, including “adult” diseases like high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

Current recommendations call for all children to get at least 60 minutes of activity per day. This can include activity at school from physical education classes, recess, other classroom activities as well as games, sports, and unstructured play. Unfortunately, most kids don’t get nearly enough activity at school and many aren’t active at home.

Physical activity is also important for academic performance. Research shows that children who participated in an activity program had better executive control, which includes resisting distractions and maintaining focus, improved memory, and doing better switching between tasks. This is particularly relevant for children with ADHD, but the effects can be seen in all kids. These positive changes can maximize class time and lead to improvements in academic achievement, especially math and reading test scores.

Similarly, good nutrition is also essential for health, growth, development, and academic achievement. Eating a good breakfast improves cognitive function, alertness, and academic performance in students of all ages. It should be no surprise, then, that skipping breakfast impairs cognitive function and academic achievement. This is one reason that many schools offer breakfast to start the day or include a healthy mid-morning snack.

The same is true for lunch, too. A good lunch can support learning in the afternoon and gives a chance to teach kids about good nutrition by providing healthy food that, unfortunately, many children may not get at home.

Schools have a unique opportunity to use physical activity and nutrition to promote health, support academic achievement, and teach healthy habits. Since formal nutrition education is missing from most curriculums and PE programs are being reduced or cut completely, schools must be creative to incorporate these essential subjects.

A way around this problem is to make sure children get a chance to move and play, ideally multiple times during the day. This is what recess is for. Teachers can also incorporate activity and nutrition education in the classroom and get away from the idea that kids must be sitting still to learn. As research shows, quite the opposite is true!

Schools are often hesitant to teach about nutrition and activity because it is thought of as a responsibility of parents, not schools. But most parents don’t teach these good habits at home, which affects what happens at school. Despite the obvious benefits, it will probably take years of effort to change this view.

In the meantime, parents can encourage their kids to be active and make smarter food choices at home so they are ready to learn in school.

When it comes to your health, don’t take the high road.

When faced with challenging moral or ethical situations we are advised to do what is right, even if it is more difficult. “Taking the high road” is often synonymous with living a better life. When it comes to your health, though, taking the high road may lead you on a path to chronic disease, disability, and early death.

The high road I am referring to in this case has nothing to do with ethical decisions. It has to do with test results, specifically measurements your doctor makes of your weight and blood pressure as well as blood tests of cholesterol and glucose. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

These tests are indicators of your current health as well as risks to your health in the future. The results of these measures are used to classify you as having “normal” or “high” blood pressure, blood glucose, and blood cholesterol. For example, a fasting blood glucose between 70–100 mg/dl is normal but you are considered to have diabetes if your result is 126 mg/dl or higher.

Even if your blood glucose is above normal (100–125 mg/dl) but isn’t high enough for you to be classified as diabetic, it may still be too high. This condition is called prediabetes because without intervention most people in this category will eventually develop diabetes.

Considering that diabetes is a leading cause of heart attacks, blindness, and amputations, preventing your blood glucose from increasing should be a high priority.

The same is true for other measurements including blood pressure and body mass index (BMI), the most common assessment of obesity. Even if you aren’t considered obese or don’t have hypertension, the higher your BMI or blood pressure becomes puts you at increased risk of the condition getting worse over time or leading to other more serious health problems.

In fact, even within the normal range, a higher value is associated with increased health risks. Take blood cholesterol for example, where the risk of heart disease increases at total cholesterol levels above 150 mg/dl, well within the “normal” range of less than 200 mg/dl. At even higher levels, total cholesterol is associated with a much greater risk.

Clearly, having a high BMI, blood pressure, blood glucose, or cholesterol is concerning. But it is important not to be fooled into thinking that a value that is technically below the diagnostic criteria for “abnormal” is necessarily “normal.” For many, even slightly elevated levels of these variables now are likely to get worse over time.

The good news is that modest lifestyle changes including weight loss, regular moderate physical activity, and changes to what you eat can prevent conditions like prediabetes and prehypertension from getting worse. This can be achieved through losing as little as 10 pounds, walking or doing other activity for 30 minutes per day, and adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet.

To be sure, taking the “high road” with BMI, blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose, even if your test results are within the normal range, can put you at increased health risk. For these conditions, you are far better off taking the low road and making the necessary lifestyle changes to stay there.

Don’t go into (health) debt!

We are all aware of the hazards of being in debt. Too many individuals and families have gotten themselves in a poor financial situation by spending too much and not saving enough. For most, this debt has developed over several years and will have an impact lasting years into the future.

Unfortunately, this is not the only debt we face. Many of us are also in a health debt crisis. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Poor eating habits and increasingly sedentary lifestyles have led to an obesity epidemic. This is important since the three leading causes of death among adults (heart disease, stroke, and cancer) are directly linked to poor diet, inactivity, and obesity.

Obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are among the conditions that make up our health debt. Even if we have not been diagnosed with these or other health conditions, our lifestyle has put us on that path.

Whether our doctors have told us or not, many of us are in poor health. And our overall health and potential complications get worse each year, so the longer we are overweight and inactive, the worse our health is likely to be in the future. That is our health debt crisis.

Another example of a health debt is smoking, the cause of nearly 90% of lung cancer cases. Lung cancer doesn’t develop after the first cigarette; it takes years of smoking to cause cancer. One estimate suggests that there is a 20 year time lag between smoking and lung cancer diagnosis.

During this time smoking is causing damage to the lungs that leads to cancer, but it is usually undetectable. The cancer process is underway long before it causes symptoms, and since smokers are unaware of it, they continue to smoke. Quitting smoking begins to erase this debt but former smokers suffer poor health even after they quit. In some cases, the debt can’t be completely paid back.

Aside from poor health and reduced quality of life, health debt carries a financial cost. The medical costs attributed to obesity alone are estimated to be $147 billion per year, and a typical obese patient spends over $1,000 more per year on their own medical care than someone at a healthy body weight. The financial burden is both collective and individual, meaning we all pay for it.

Just as financial debt is due to an difference between the money we save and what we spend, much of our health debt is due to an imbalance between the energy (calories) we save and spend.

We have been spending too little energy through activity and saving too much of the energy we eat in the form of fat. Each day we consume more calories than we burn, we store that extra energy as fat. Even a small difference each day adds up over time.

Putting it in these terms, the pathway out of health debt is clear—spend more energy by being more active and cutting back on the calories we eat. Like a financial debt, even though the solution is easy to identify, putting it into place requires making some difficult choices.

But it doesn’t have to be a painful process. Even small changes in activity and diet can lead to weight loss and improved health over time. Make it a priority to be active every day and try to spend less time sitting. Pass on second servings at meals and skip desert once in a while.

Remember, the health debt wasn’t created overnight. It was the result of small changes over time, some of which we may not have noticed. Fixing it will take time, too.

When normal isn’t normal.

The typical American is overweight, doesn’t get enough exercise, eats too few vegetables and fruits, too much sugar, and too many calories. Unfortunately, we have come to consider this combination as “normal.” While this situation may be common, it is definitely not normal. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

For most measures of health, a normal value is consistent with good health. A “normal” blood pressure is in a range that is associated with a low risk of stroke, for example. Someone with LDL (bad) cholesterol that is considered “above normal” has a greater risk of heart attack than a person with a normal LDL value.

But for many health indicators, having a normal value is not the norm. According to the most recent recommendations, a normal blood pressure is less than 120/80 mmHg. However, nearly 60% of adults have a blood pressure that is above normal, meaning they have hypertension or prehypertension.

A person who has a body mass index (BMI) in the normal range, between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m2, is considered to be at a healthy body weight. But two-thirds of adults are overweight, with a BMI above the normal range. Similarly, participating in regular exercise should be considered normal. But it’s not, since fewer than half of adults meet minimum recommendations for physical activity.

The problem is that the term “normal” is frequently used to refer to what is typical, rather than what is healthy. Obesity is so common that a person who is at a healthy weight may look out-of-place. So many people look for ways to avoid physical activity that a person who walks instead of drives is considered abnormal. The person who comes away from a buffet with a less-than-full plate or who has a salad for dinner often gets strange looks. One of the reasons that people get noticed for doing these things is because they stand out from the crowd.

In reality, though, many of the health behaviors we consider to be abnormal—regular exercise, a healthy diet, or a lean physique—are, historically, completely normal. Until relatively recently, most everyone was active much of the day and spent little time being sedentary. Likewise, the consumption of the processed foods that are such a big part of our current diet was rare even a few decades ago.

It is likely that, by considering unhealthy behaviors to be normal, we have created a situation that discourages people from adopting a healthy lifestyle. As anyone who has tried to change their health habits knows, it can be a challenge, especially if everyone else maintains their typical eating and activity pattern. It’s not easy to be “the one” who only eats healthy food or who takes time to exercise every day.

Maybe we need to redefine normal health behaviors to reflect what is healthy rather than what is most common. When walking or biking rather than driving becomes the norm there will be greater incentive to provide safe places for pedestrians and cyclists to travel. When a healthy diet is considered normal it is more likely that restaurants will offer more nutritious options.

In the end, we would all benefit from changing our definition of normal. And a normal diet and activity pattern will go a long way to promoting a normal BMI, blood pressure, and cholesterol.

Reducing your risk of heart disease

February is Heart Month, an ideal time to assess your risk of heart disease and take steps to improve your health. This is important because heart disease, sometimes called coronary artery disease, is the leading cause of death among adults in the United States. It is responsible for nearly 600,000 deaths each year, mostly from heart attacks. Millions more are at increased risk because of certain biological and behavioral risk factors.

Identifying your personal risk for heart disease and making efforts to improve your heart health is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

Some of these risk factors cannot be changed, such as age, sex, and family history, while others can be altered to reduce risk. These modifiable risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity, and physical inactivity. While your doctor can play an important role in treating these conditions, there is much you can do on your own to improve your heart health.

The first step is to get a good assessment of your heart health. If you haven’t done so recently, you should see your doctor to have your risk factors evaluated. This includes tests for blood glucose and blood lipids (including total, LDL, and HDL cholesterol and triglycerides), measurement of your blood pressure and body weight, and an assessment of other health factors such as your family history, whether you smoke, and your level of physical activity.

The next step is to treat the risk factors that you have. Depending on the severity and your own personal health history your doctor may prescribe medications to lower your blood pressure, blood glucose, or blood lipids. These medications are most effective when combined with lifestyle changes including good nutrition, exercise, and weight loss. In some cases, poor diet and lack of activity can counteract the beneficial effects of these drugs. Furthermore, these healthy habits may help you reduce the dosage, and limiting the side effects, or stop taking the medications altogether.

The other risk factors—obesity, inactivity, and smoking—really must be treated through lifestyle management. While there are medications that can help with smoking cessation and weight loss, being successful requires making lasting behavior changes. These habits can be difficult to change, and many people have tried before without success. Keep in mind, though, that everyone who is successful at quitting smoking, losing weight, or sticking to an exercise program has experienced his or her share of difficulty. The difference is that those people kept trying until they were successful. You can be successful, too.

Even small changes can have a big impact. Take exercise, for example. The benefits of as little as 30 minutes of physical activity per day are well established and impact heart disease risk in a multitude of ways. Physical activity helps with weight control, lowers blood pressure, improves blood lipids, and prevents and treats diabetes. Think of this as a great health “deal.” By modifying one risk factor—inactivity—you can also promote beneficial changes in four others—obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, and diabetes. There is no other treatment, drugs included, which can have such a broad impact on reducing heart disease risk!

Of course, there are steps you can take beyond becoming more physically active to reduce your risk of heart disease. The list of beneficial changes you can make to improve your heart health is long, but keep in mind that even small changes can add up to a big benefit. 

Knowing which risk factors are most concerning can help you and your doctor make effective treatment decisions. Quitting smoking, increasing your physical activity (and reducing sedentary time), and eating a healthier diet can lead to improvements in heart disease risk factors and reduced heart attack risk. The best news is that these same changes can also reduce your risk of other serious health problems including many types of cancer, stroke, and lung disease.