Lifestyle: Medicine That Inspires

It is medicine that is safe, generally inexpensive, pleasurable, stunningly powerful, and potentially accessible to all. It is suitable for children and octogenarians alike; it is safe during pregnancy. It is medicine that can do more to advance the human condition than any other.
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I am the president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. Lest you think I'm boasting, I hasten to note that my title, plus a ticket, will permit me to board a train.

I mention it, though, because it also means I just presided over our annual meeting, concluding today in San Diego. Over 500 diverse health care professionals from all around the world converged at our venue to share practices and programs; data and technology; ideas and innovations; science and sense. Our speakers and presenters included luminaries who have established new disciplines, written the book, and shown us better means to better ends.

The conference was a great success, for which I take little credit but of which I am proud. But that's not why I write. The inspiration for this column is, well... inspiration.

The hundreds attending our conference were vividly, palpably inspired. When is the last time you heard that term applied to the practice of medicine? From start to finish, our crowd of grounded, sensible people was all but giddy with a shared sense of purpose, and the passion it engenders. Practitioners of lifestyle medicine are inspired, and with good reason.

For one thing, we know we are working to get closer to bedrock than most of modern medicine. What really kills us prematurely is not the chronic diseases for which there are standard treatments. Chronic diseases are effects, not causes. What really siphons years from life, and life from years, are the lifestyle factors that cause so many of us to develop chronic diseases in the first place. Lifestyle medicine is devoted to addressing those factors, the ostensible "root causes" of premature death and chronic illness- and that's inspiring.

More inspiring still is the potential we have to advance the human condition by addressing those factors. We have known for literal decades, with evidence continuing to accrue, that fully 80 percent or more of all chronic disease and premature death is preventable. If the opportunity to eradicate heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, dementia and more -- eight times in 10 -- is not inspiring, I'm not sure what would be.

Lifestyle medicine is inspiring because it can add pleasure as well as health to lives. Taking a statin may effectively lower cholesterol, but I have no patients who report that there is any pleasure in taking the pill. But I have many patients, as do the many colleagues who attended our conference, who report tremendous pleasure in discovering the vitality, energy, and productivity that comes from using lifestyle as their preferred medicine. When lifestyle is the medicine, we can get pleasure in the pursuit of health, health in the pursuit of pleasure.

In a world of divisions, lifestyle medicine emphasizes the importance of strong social bonds, even love. There is inspiration in thinking beyond the health bounded by our skin, to the contributions of family and community.

In a world of callous disregard for the welfare of fellow species, and the planet, there is inspiration in advocating for, and practicing a variety of medicine that is kinder and gentler, good for people and planet alike.

And there is inspiration in looking not only at the results of randomized, controlled trials for guidance, but in looking to the healthiest, longest lived populations around the world. The Blue Zones, and on-going efforts to replicate their considerable blessings, are a source of illumination and opportunity for all devoted to our field.

The Blue Zones have long been a particular inspiration for me, and are that much more so now that I lead an organization with some potential to contribute to their propagation. I presented to the assembled a dream of mine called GLiMMER: the Global Lifestyle Medicine Movement to Effect Revolution. I was rewarded with a deeply gratifying standing ovation.

Revolution may sound dramatic, but that's what we need. We have already lumbered through health care "reform" here in the U.S. Controversial as it has been, it is really just a minor modification of our sick care system, and more universal access to it. Nothing in our current system will prevent the dire projections about unsustainably, unaffordably-high rates of diabetes in the U.S. from coming true.

But propagating the Blue Zones would not only prevent a rise in the prevalence of diabetes (and other such misfortunes); it would allow us to eliminate more than 80 percent of the burden we have now. That's revolutionary.

The GLiMMER vision, which I won't belabor here, involves both the optimization of lifestyle IN medicine, where we clinicians offer the most effective, most empowering counseling and guidance; and lifestyle AS medicine, where we work as a global group of groups to advance culture change. Culture is the medium that delivers us our daily options for food, physical activity, stress, sleep, and social interactions. The choices we all make are subordinate to the choices we all have. When the norms conspire against health, health suffers. When the norms facilitate health, health flourishes.

The idea that our blue planet could be covered in Blue Zones is as tantalizing as it is challenging. It is compelling, but it won't come easy. It's a source of inspiration to a large and growing group with the expertise and resources to do something about it. Those are ingredients of revolution. And of inspiration.

We have had the knowledge to eliminate 80 percent or more of all premature death and chronic disease for literal decades. That knowledge is not power, however, if left unused. Lifestyle Medicine is not just a professional college here in the U.S.; not just a growing coalition of related organizations around the world. It is a movement whose day has come. A movement committed to turning what we have long known into what we routinely do, and adding years to life, and life to years.

It is medicine that is safe, generally inexpensive, pleasurable, stunningly powerful, and potentially accessible to all. It is suitable for children and octogenarians alike; it is safe during pregnancy. It is medicine that can do more to advance the human condition than any other. It is the very best of medicine.

And the prospect of getting better at dispensing it has me, and hundreds of colleagues- inspired.


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