What you need to know about lifestyle medicine

If you’ve never heard of lifestyle medicine, don’t worry, you’re not the only one. It’s something that hasn’t always been emphasised through standard medical practice, but is now growing in prevalence and popularity.

To get a better understanding of lifestyle medicine and why we should be even more aware of it as we get older, we spoke to certified lifestyle medicine practitioner Robyn Chuter BHSc(Hons), ND, GDCouns about the fundamentals of this practice.

Understanding the basics

“Lifestyle medicine is the use of lifestyle interventions in the treatment and management of disease,” says Robyn. “In more detail, lifestyle medicine is defined as the application of medical, behavioural, motivational and environmental principles to the management of lifestyle-related health problems in a clinical setting, including self-care and self-management.”

We often hear from doctors about the impact of poor diet, lack of exercise, maladaptive responses to stress and other behaviours on our health and the way they can contribute to chronic diseases including high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes and coronary artery disease.

Yet, as Robyn says, “most people – including the majority of doctors – don’t realise that lifestyle interventions can actually be used to treat these conditions, and in some cases can even reverse them so that people are able to reduce or stop their medications.”

What does lifestyle medicine encompass? Practitioners provide guidelines, recommendations, prescriptions and coaching that addresses these six contributing factors to health:

  • Diet and nutrition
  • Exercise and activity
  • Stress management
  • Sleep quantity and quality
  • Smoking and alcohol use
  • Social relationships and sense of purpose.

These are all things we should be mindful of no matter our age, but do become particularly more pertinent to consider as we get older.

What happens with age?

“The effects of poor lifestyle choices accumulate as we age,” says Robyn. “Everyone notices that while they might have been able to get away with staying up too late, eating junk food and drinking too much when they were younger, without obvious symptoms of poor health, by the time they’re in their 40s, 50s and beyond, they’re not getting away with it anymore!”

As we get older, we start to hear more about the risks and likelihood of diseases including type-2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and high blood pressure.

Robyn says the aches and pains, brain fog, poor energy and other vague symptoms of these diseases are often attributed to “just getting older”. Yet, these diseases are largely due to the long-term effects of eating an unsuitable diet, not getting enough physical activity, rest and sleep, having poor stress and relationship management skills, and having a chronic sense of purposelessness in life.

“By understanding how lifestyle choice affect our health and wellbeing, and working with a skilled and knowledgeable practitioner with good coaching skills, we can address each lifestyle domain in a systematic way,” says Robyn. “Then, experience an upward spiral of health rather than the downward spiral that most people accept as a normal part of ageing.”

For anyone dubious about the impact that lifestyle changes would have, Robyn recommends working with a lifestyle medicine practitioner, preferably someone certified by the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine.

Collaborating for change

“Lifestyle medicine training emphasises the development of coaching skills, so that practitioners can help their patients or clients to identify and overcome their own blocks to change in a way that works for them,” says Robyn. “Lifestyle medicine is a collaborative process: the practitioner helps the client to set their own goals, and then helps the client achieve them.”

These goals will likely depend on which areas or contributing health factor(s) that you’re mismanaging. If you eat healthily, but find you’re only getting four or five hours of sleep a night, then it’s important to prioritise a good night’s sleep (while still maintaining that healthy diet). You might be exercising regularly, but also going through a highly stressful time that’s leaving you feeling anxious or exhausted. Again, it’ll be about finding a way to manage that stress so it doesn’t impact your health.

These are just a few examples, but again, speaking with a certified practitioner will help you to delve even deeper and understanding what lifestyle changes need to happen for the benefit of your health.

Want to learn more? Robyn recommends checking out the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine website, which has lots more articles to read. Her own website, Empower Total Health, also covers various elements of lifestyle medicine so is well worth a read.

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The material has been prepared for informational purposes only and is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on as, a substitute for health and medical advice from a qualified health professional. You should seek the advice of a qualified health professional regarding your health and/or medical condition.