A Primer on Lifestyle Factors & Chronic Disease
Here at Science for Fitness we developed an evidence-based paradigm to define health, resilience, and fitness. We also regularly provide information on how to improve each of these parameters with lifestyle factors (nutrition, strength training, conditioning, etc.). However, for someone completely new this area the link between lifestyle factors and chronic disease may be hard to grasp at first. Therefore, to lower the barrier for understanding and highlight the importance of this topic, we have created this primer.
What Doctors Say
Have you heard doctors or other healthcare professionals say that exercise and proper nutrition should be a part of everyone’s life because they can help keep people from getting sick? Most likely you have heard this at some point, but what were the next steps after hearing this? Invariably, after first hearing that exercise and nutrition are important, either 1) no additional steps are taken or 2) the steps are short-lived. Invariably, most people are roadblocked at this stage.
There are several systemic reasons for this roadblock:
- The recommendations may be given when individuals are young. When you are young it is extremely hard to wrap your mind around how important exercise and nutrition will be.
- Doctors do not impress upon their patients that without exercise and proper nutrition they almost certainly willdevelop one or more chronic diseases as they get older.
- Individuals cannot easily appreciate just how bad chronic diseases can be until they themselves develop a disease (or until they watch a loved one experience a disease).
- Doctors don’t have training/expertise in how to design exercise and nutrition programs for their patients.
- When chronic diseases do appear, doctors may or may not bring up exercise and nutrition again, but they will almost certainly look to prescribe medication.
- Doctors are reluctant to take patients off medication for chronic disease and seldom tell them that lifestyle changes (exercise and nutrition) can reverse chronic disease.
A Closer Look
Let's take a closer look at some of the points made in the previous section:
Youth: It’s obvious to anyone as soon as they start to get older – you can get away with a lot when you are younger. You can eat poorly with marginal amounts of sleep and still accomplish just about any activity. And if you get injured? You heal well and quickly. It’s hard to impress upon the youth that things will change. Even if they are made to understand, they can’t help but put concern (and action) off to a later date – they have “their whole life ahead of them” after all.
Exercise & Nutrition Are Mandatory: Our individual genetics can protect us from chronic diseases, but we don’t really have a way to assess how effective our genetics will be. So, while there will be some exceptions, most adults will develop one or more chronic diseases as they get older if they do not exercise and watch how they eat. There is an evolutionary theory behind this. Basically, humans as a species evolved under conditions of hard work (foraging and hunting for food all day, building shelter, avoiding predators, etc.) and by eating food that was straight from the environment (meats, vegetable, nuts, fruits, seeds, etc). In short, our bodies evolved to work hard and eat food that was minimally processed. As we get older, if we have not been doing this, chronic disease sets in.
The Burden of Chronic Disease: If you develop one or more chronic diseases you will be faced with a variety of burdens that will reduce your quality of life and potentially shorten your lifespan: chronic pain, weakness, tiredness, instability, cognitive decline. In addition to mounting financial costs as you require numerous medications and doctor visits, you will also be more likely to suffer a life-threatening event (e.g., heart attack, broken hip, etc) requiring surgery. Note also that many medications prescribed for chronic diseases have their own side-effects, potentially reducing your quality of life even further and should you require surgery (for any reason), any chronic diseases you have may make that surgery riskier and/or harder to recover from.
Why Don’t Doctor’s Do More: Although many will recommend exercise and proper nutrition, doctors seldom give their patients more than that. Part of the reason is that they simply are not trained in exercise science or nutrition. A corollary of this is that doctors may not even know that exercise and proper nutrition can reverse chronic diseases. And then, once they place patients on medication, doctors are reluctant to remove them from that medication as they fear the patient will get worse. With no lifestyle change, they likely will get worse, but if the individual has changed their lifestyle appropriately, their chronic disease(s) may disappear, rendering the medication no longer needed.
The Road Not Taken Is Still There
The financial and quality of life burden that chronic diseases place on adults as they get older can be unbearable. Yes, life would be smoother if lifestyle adjustments were made at a younger age, but all is not lost if they were not; the road is still there regardless of whether you are in your 40s, 50s, 60s, and beyond. To reiterate:
Osteopenia, osteoporosis, sarcopenia, lack of balance, back pain, inability to stand up without assistance, risk of falls/broken bones – all of these can be prevented and reversed with strength training.
High blood pressure, cognitive decline, high blood sugar/type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and respiratory disease – all of these can be prevented and reversed with nutrition and metabolic conditioning (aerobic and anaerobic exercise).
What The Road Looks Like
No matter what your age or current activity level, it’s not too late to get started. You just need to learn the fundamentals of nutrition, strength training, and metabolic conditioning:
- Nutrition: processed/unprocessed foods, calories, macronutrients, fiber & micronutrients.
- Strength Training: progressions from body weight to externally weighted movements.
- Conditioning: progressions from walking to low intensity aerobic exercise to high intensity intervals.
- Program Design: stress, recovery, adaptation.
All the above can be obtained from a qualified strength and conditioning coach.
Taking The Journey
I wish I could tell you that highly knowledgeable strength and conditioning coaches and the locations for their services were readily accessible to all individuals regardless of where they live, but that is not the case. Nevertheless, there are options.
Any Starting Strength Coach® or CrossFit® gym will have coaches who can teach you the fundamentals of strength training, conditioning, and nutrition. Even if you cannot visit these coaches or gym long-term, even one in-person visit will pay dividends.
Once you know some fundamentals, if you are not able to keep working with a coach in person, there are many coaches who will work with clients remotely, giving them customized programming and overseeing their form by reviewing videos of how they move in their workouts.
If you would like to work with us, the founder, Hayden-William Courtland, Ph.D. does online coaching regularly as well as in-person sessions at his gym in New York City.
If you do not live in New York City, Hayden may be able to travel to where you live if there is a gym nearby willing to host one of his seminars. Feel free to reach out to Hayden directly (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you are interested in one of his seminars or to work with him individually.