by Beth Shepard   Beth's profile on LinkedIn  

The closest thing to a revolution in healthcare has been quietly gaining traction for over 15 years. Providers in the US and around the world are taking a keen interest in treating the root cause of many chronic diseases: a toxic lifestyle. Writing prescriptions for fruits and vegetables, a daily walk, or a visit to the local park is becoming more common. It’s called lifestyle medicine. And we hope your population will experience it sooner rather than later.


In this first of a 3-part series, we explore this fledgling field: what it is, why it matters, and points of interest — and possibility — for employers and well-being managers.


What Is Lifestyle Medicine? 


“Lifestyle Medicine involves the therapeutic use of lifestyle, such as a predominately whole food, plant-based diet, exercise, stress management, tobacco and alcohol cessation, and other non-drug modalities, to prevent, treat, and, more importantly, reverse the lifestyle-related, chronic disease that’s all too prevalent.” 

 — American College of Lifestyle Medicine


Medical doctors have traditionally been trained to diagnose and treat problems through medications and procedures; most have received little or no instruction in exercise science, nutrition, or behavior change coaching. During an office visit, a provider might tell a patient to “get more exercise” or “lose some weight,” but that’s about it. 


But hope is on the horizon; medical schools are adding lifestyle medicine to the curriculum. Organizations like the American College of Lifestyle Medicine and Institute of Lifestyle Medicine offer continuing education for providers seeking to promote healthy lifestyle habits as a first line of treatment. The American Medical Association adopted a resolution calling for all physicians to “acquire and apply the 15 clinical competencies of lifestyle medicine, and offer evidence-based lifestyle medicine interventions as the first and primary mode of preventing and, when appropriate, treating chronic disease within clinical medicine.”


Some medical organizations, like Vera Whole Health, are going even farther, making certified health and wellness coaches part of the clinical care team. These behavior change professionals team up with licensed providers to equip patients to tackle the day-to-day work of making sustainable lifestyle changes. While coach training and skills vary widely, the National Consortium for Credentialing Health & Wellness Coaches begins a national certification program in 2017, offering a standardized quality measure across rapidly expanding profession.


What’s the Big Deal?


A lifestyle approach to health improvement isn’t new; it’s been used for decades outside the confines of the exam room. Cardiac and pulmonary, diabetes management, and physical therapy have long used therapeutic exercise, stress management techniques, and nutrition counseling to reduce risk factors, alleviate symptoms, and boost quality of life. For allied health professionals like exercise physiologists, registered dietitians, wellness coaches, and others, helping clients adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors is all in a day’s work.


Research shows that a doctor’s advice to quit smoking, lose weight, or move more is highly influential on patient behavior; but not nearly enough providers use the golden opportunity of an office visit to promote healthy living. Getting more doctors to counsel patients on behavior change — and to use this approach in primary prevention and treatment of related chronic diseases — is a huge win… for patients, populations, and payers.


Meditation Over Medication


As health plan sponsors and self-ensured entities, employers have a huge stake in the lifestyle medicine movement. Imagine what could happen if employees and dependents received care from providers committed to help cultivate active, healthy lifestyles. What if your workers with high blood pressure received a prescription for 30 minutes of walking 3-5 times a week and a referral to a local mindfulness-based stress reduction program along with their medication refills… plus weekly support calls from the clinic’s health coach? It’s not a far-fetched scenario within lifestyle medicine. 


Think of the synergy an approach like this could have with your worksite wellness program. Cheryl has high blood pressure; her doctor prescribes regular walking as well as a prescription medicine. She meets with a health coach before even leaving the clinic to set an initial walking goal, talk through potential barriers and solutions, and identify friends/family/coworkers to call on for support. Cheryl remembers seeing an email about an upcoming walking challenge at work, and registers. She teams up with colleagues for daily lunchtime walks and takes walks with her family after dinner several times a week. 


At the end of the 12-week program, Cheryl’s blood pressure is in a healthy range; she’s happy and motivated to maintain her new habit. She’s also confident that the self-management skills she learned will help her stay on track. Her doctor is happy, because now Cheryl doesn’t need medication and has lowered her risk for several chronic conditions. Her employer is happy because healthier, happier employees are good for business. It’s a win-win-win.


What You Can Do Now


  • Learn more about trends in lifestyle medicine (see resource list below).
  • Start an internal conversation about lifestyle medicine and what it could do for your population and well-being program.
  • Brainstorm ways to use your power as a healthcare and health benefits purchaser to influence reimbursement, clinician training, and support for lifestyle medicine in primary care.

Look for more on this exciting topic in future posts.


Lifestyle Medicine Resources


American College of Lifestyle Medicine

American College of Preventive Medicine

Doctors Who Actually Tackle Your Unhealthy Lifestyle

Exercise Is Medicine

Institute of Lifestyle Medicine

Lifestyle Medicine Competencies for Primary Care Physicians

Lifestyle Medicine Education

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