Written by Dr. Frank Tucker
As a health care provider I’ve treated many patients for conditions where I said to myself…”that will never happen to me”. Disease in humans is complex and their causes are multifactorial. There are certainly those who are genetically predisposed to a condition and despite their best efforts may have disease. The reality is that for the vast majority of people, they are the biggest cause of their own morbidity and mortality. Don’t get me wrong…I don’t want to simplify these complexities as socioeconomics, health disparities and environment play a role in contributing to disease. Combating disease may require a coordinated effort from the community to improve social systems, support systems and drive culture change to address the factors that contribute to diseases. What I am really looking at are the things we can control as individuals through the very choices we make.
Lets take a look at the top 5 causes of death in the United States. Approximately 597,000 people die each year from heart disease, 574,000 die from cancer, 138,000 die from chronic lower respiratory disease, 129,000 from stroke and 120,000 from accidents. For the top 4 causes of death, the leading factors that contributed to their disease are obesity and tobacco use. For accidents, its alcohol. Alcohol is so influential in its impact to society that it was a factor in approximately half of the rape cases, half of violent crimes, half of domestic abuse incidents…you get the point. Homicide and suicide has gone up in the US and you can see from the data that alcohol, more than illicit drugs, has played a role in violent actions taken by adolescents. In fact, illicit drugs are not even the leading cause of death from drug abuse. Instead, its legal drugs ranging from alcohol and tobacco to prescription drugs, which for the past 11 years have caused more deaths than all illicit drugs combined. My point is that each of these represent choices and we have the power to make a change despite our socioeconomic status, despite the problems with health disparities and despite environmental exposures that can raise your risk for disease. I realize the problem is complex and I don’t want to simplify the factors that contribute to drug abuse in the nation. My point is that more times than not, its an individual choice that we have the power to change.
After I retired from the Army, I made the unfortunate choice to stop exercising while continuing to eat the way I always have. That really knocked things out of balance. First, my clothes didn’t fit. Next my sleep apnea got worse. I found myself tired frequently and lacked the stamina to do the things I previously enjoyed, which affected the interaction I had with my kids. I was no longer the Dad in the game; I was the one watching from the sideline because I was too out of shape to play it with them. I dreaded going to the theme parks because that meant a lot of walking with an abundance of stairs. One day I noticed that I had to hold my breath to tie my shoes. I hated dropping anything because bending down to pick it up was a real event. Then I went to the doctor and was told I had high cholesterol and was pre-diabetic. All this happened in the span of 1 year after retiring. To put it in perspective I met up with people I haven’t seen for a year and the first thing they would say is “What happened?” or “You look different” in a facial expression of awe or my favorite…you really got big. I guess the Army’s fitness program was a blessing I didn’t appreciate while doing that 12-mile road march with 70lbs on my back or the many miles I ran.
This was my wake up call. Certainly there are medical conditions that may cause obesity such as problems with your thyroid. So you should see your health provider before starting any fitness program. There may be also some underlying psychosocial issues and you may want to seek help as these could be major contributors to obesity. We all react to stress differently and the chemicals produced by our body in response to that stress can also contribute to obesity. Yes, genetics also play a role as there is diabetes in my family. However, I knew better and still didn’t do what needed to be done. Quite frankly, my obesity was the common variety simply caused by eating too much, eating the wrong things, and not exercising enough. I make no excuses.
The doctor informed me that I should start taking medications for my cholesterol because being a pre-diabetic puts me at greater risk for heart disease. Interestingly, my cholesterol levels were considered slightly elevated before my pre-diabetic diagnosis, but no treatment was indicated. However, once my blood sugar reached a certain threshold, the situation changed even though my cholesterol levels really didn’t change. What is even more troubling, from a professional standpoint, was having to counsel my patients as a provider all the things they should be doing to improve their health and here I was not following my own advice for the past year.
I’m not ashamed of what I look like after becoming overweight and neither should any of you. You don’t have to look like a model, but I do encourage a healthy weight for your height, gender and frame. More accurate than weight alone, your Body Mass Index (BMI) is a number calculated from your weight and height. BMI provides a reliable indicator of body fatness and is used to screen for weight categories that may lead to health problems. For me, I was disappointed that my quality of life and health was getting so poor due to my lifestyle choices. I was particularly disappointed in my poor productivity due to the lack of energy. My family, my work and my patients deserve more.
The good news is it’s never too late to choose the healthier option. Turns out, the things we were always taught, such as eat right, everything in moderation and exercise regularly was the magic formula all along. Like many others, I was certainly lured by the possibility of quick fixes. I tried them all Raspberry Ketones, Green Tea Extract, Green Coffee or whatever the craze of the week was. How healthy can these artificial products be that they claim are natural? I don’t recall ever seeing nature decomposing itself into a powder with fillers, binders, and stabilizers then packed in a pill. Clinical evidence just doesn’t support the use of these products and they can be harmful if used without the proper health supervision.
So my new plan is the old plan that has been pushed by the clinical, public health and nutrition community for years. Stop dieting and change your lifestyle. Studies suggest that it takes an average of 60 days for a behavior or habit to change into a lifestyle. It wasn’t easy at the beginning, but it gets easier as these bad behaviors transform to healthy habits. Nothing fancy…nothing you haven’t heard already, no magic pill and certainly no crazy diet. I simply followed what our nation’s public health teaches us here http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/workshops/. It doesn’t work fast, but we aren’t looking for the quick fix…we want to maintain good health for a lifetime. I don’t starve myself or deny an occasional confection as that typically results in binge eating, which leads to guilt and the yo-yo effect. Quite frankly, I didn’t really give up anything, I just ate much less of it, avoided processed foods where possible and ate in smaller, but frequent meals. I added some things to my diet such as more fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes and lean protein. I started down the road fitness by also increasing my physical activity and exercise. Sometimes its the little things like taking the stairs or parking a bit further away from the building…it just adds up. I also added enjoyable regular exercise to my day, such a brisk walk with my dog. I hope to be jogging again soon or maybe swimming, but definitely something with a bit more vigor. The cumulative effects? 25lbs lost in a little over 3 months and my cholesterol levels and blood sugar are back to normal.
I have a lot more to go but I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I feel better than ever and now, with the benefits of healthy eating and moderate exercise; I no longer crave or even enjoy the pleasures of fast food or the quick fixes of a fad diet. No more 3pm burn out or food coma after a big lunch! Thanks to our corporate wellness program our team provides support through various programs to help people to make healthier choices. I find strength and encouragement in social weight loss and fitness. Sometimes I wonder if I could even make this life change without the wonderful team in our company. I look at our break room and the chips are gone replaced with heart healthy almonds. Occasionally there is a “saboteur” who brings in homemade cookies, which we all enjoy in moderation. We have low glycemic sweeteners, like blue agave, giving a tasty alternative to higher glycemic products like sugar. More people are bringing healthy lunches in place of the burger we previously ate. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll see us go out from time to time to celebrate success, which may include the occasional pizza, slider, wings and fries, but its no longer the norm. A few folks have started to go out and walk during their lunchtime, while others are taking the 7 flights of stairs to our office in lieu of the elevators. Its amazing and simply inspiring to see how infectious getting healthy and fit (body, mind and spirit) has become in the company. I hope that we start to visit the on-premise gym more often, which employees at our Tysons Corner office have free access. People are not only feeling better, but we are all bonding to combat the big threat to the health of our nation, obesity. I’ll let you know how things progress in about another 3-4 months.
I would love to hear your story. Share your experience with us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. We will maintain utmost privacy and security of what you share. We would like to hear what worked for you or what didn’t work for you? We would love to take lessons learned from your corporate wellness experience. We would also like to hear your stories of inspiration that keep all of us here motivated toward the common goal of a healthier and happier life.
This blog is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. This blog is for information purpose only. As always, please consult your healthcare provider before beginning any weight loss or fitness program.