You have probably heard the saying that exercise is a miracle drug – free, harmless and beneficial. We could broaden this and apply the same description to the practice of lifestyle medicine generally. Most of the time we would be right. Medicine, however, must be taken in the correct dose. Too little, too infrequently is ineffective. Too much, too often may be toxic – whether it’s exercise, water or even oxygen. Here are my top tips for getting the most out of lifestyle medicine, whether you are the professional recommending it or the person taking it:
1. The dose will be different for everyone. Just like a doctor might take into account someone’s age or size when prescribing medication, so we need to consider an individual’s circumstances. You might be triathlete who wants to shave a few seconds off their PB and explore new types of dietary approaches. You might be someone whose idea of haute cuisine is overheating the ready meal in your microwave and who breaks into a sweat at the thought of breaking into a sweat. Too ambitious or aggressive a start to lifestyle changes risks injury and discouragement, too little change won’t get you the results you need. Start by thinking honestly about where you are, where you would like to get to, and how you can set yourself realistic goals along the way that take into account your circumstances and the resources (time, money etc) that you have available. As you achieve them you will feel encouraged to go further. You might want to get to the top of Everest but if you’ve never even climbed a mountain before you will need to spend some time developing the skills and stamina required.
2. The dosing regimen should be as simple as possible. If you want to lose a particular amount of weight, or to be able to take part in a 5k run, or to play with your kids or grandkids, just focus on that. If you decide as you make changes that you aspire to other things, that’s fine. You plan may evolve as you go along. You might start making dietary changes by reducing the amount of carbs/sugary foods that you eat. You don’t need to go straight to a paleo diet or raw food. If you want to start with being less sedentary, try using the stairs at work and consider a standing desk…you can move onto getting rid of all the chairs in your house and learning to squat in front of Netflix if you want to later!
3. Multiple medicines, in a low dose, can work well together. This is true when treating problems like hypertension and true of lifestyle medicine too. The key to successful lifestyle changes may be in improving five things by ten percent rather than one thing by fifty percent. For example, combining dietary changes with increased physical activity and better sleep will significantly enhance weight loss as well as improving physical and mental fitness.
4. The dose shouldn’t be too extreme. Just as too much of a prescribed medicine can taste unpleasant or cause unwanted side effects, too much of any lifestyle measure can be hard to take or even harmful. If it’s too arduous to sustain, costs too much or results in injuries, then you are likely to give up on it. There is the risk that you may end up deciding that it wasn’t for you, whereas a more moderate approach would have reaped rewards and encouraged you to sustain it.
5. Remember there’s more than one kind of medicine. If the drug your doctor prescribes for your medical condition doesn’t suit you for whatever reason, they will try you on another medication rather than give up on the idea of medication altogether. It’s just the same with lifestyle medicine. Your first attempt at making changes may not be as successful as you would have liked. Don’t give up on it as a bad job. There was a reason you started on this journey, and that still holds true. Maybe the diet you adopted was too complex or unenjoyable. Maybe the exercise wasn’t the right kind or intensity for you. Just as people might try a few times to give up smoking, it might require some trial and error for you to find something that suits you. Take advice from professionals or friends and family members with experience of making successful lifestyle changes.
I hope that these tips have been useful to you. To summarise – remember that the best treatment is the one that you actually take.
Dr Richard Pile.