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Paradigm Shifting American Health

by Mark Pettus, MD, FCAP

Most of us want to live as long and as well as possible. We want strong, healthy bodies and agile minds that maintain their ability to remember, reason, and communicate. We want to share life’s joys and sorrows with loved ones, participate in our communities in a meaningful way, and come to the end of our lives satisfied and fulfilled.

Unfortunately, for many of us, this won’t be how it happens. In my experience as a practicing physician for more than 20 years, it is increasingly common for people to live too short and die too long. In fact, despite a doubling of the life expectancy over the last 150 years, the sobering reality is that it is now estimated that this trend will begin to reverse itself, and life expectancy for future generations will be lower than for their parents.

What’s going wrong?

There are many factors contributing to the decline in American health, including the growing epidemic of obesity, poor nutritional choices, inactivity, unprecedented toxic exposure, and unrelenting stress. According to the National Institutes of Health, 60 percent of Americans are overweight and 30 percent are considered obese. Lifestyle Syndrome, characterized by abdominal fat, elevation of blood pressure, pre-diabetes, high insulin levels, and abnormal blood fat, affects 30 to 40 percent of adults. Alarmingly, Lifestyle Syndrome signals a trajectory that leads to many of the age-related diseases, diminished quality of life, and shorter life expectancy.

Five years ago, I was on this trajectory. I had little to no structured physical activity, I ate plenty of sugars and processed foods, and I lived a fast-paced life in which I always felt that there wasn’t enough time. This was coupled with a family history that included diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and premature death. The “tipping point” for me came at an annual visit to my primary-care provider. My blood pressure was up, my weight was up, and my cholesterol panel was as high as it had ever been. When we began discussing medications to control some of my risk factors, I realized I needed to take stock before things got worse.

A critical issue we are facing is that our systems of health care are more designed to address diseases once they manifest rather than they are to promote optimal health and prevent diseases from occurring in the first place. Doctors and patients alike are now trained to turn to medications and interventions after symptoms become severe or the disease has presented itself, often not taking seriously enough the warning signs and borderline readings that signal future distress. In truth, many devastating health outcomes, like heart attack, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease, have multiple contributing risk factors that are treatable and reversible—but silent—by their very nature. Feeling well does not equal good health.

Ironically, medical progress itself is also resulting in higher percentages of people with diseases: as people live longer, they develop many of the chronic age-related diseases along the way. And tragically, nearly all age-related diseases—high blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol imbalance, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and cardiovascular diseases such as heart attack, stroke, and chronic kidney disease—have major lifestyle, behavioral, and stress components to them.

Unfortunately, in our current medical model there is insufficient time and resources to appropriately educate, inspire, and motivate the necessary lifestyle and behavioral changes people need. Integrative and preventative approaches to health, including healthy nutrition, fitness programs, yoga and mindfulness activities, and the healing arts, are often overlooked and usually not covered by health-care insurance. The potential for these dimensions of living to profoundly transform all dimensions of health and healing and the magnitude to which they do is often underappreciated.

In my case, as I considered the options before me, I realized that my underlying assumption was that I believed that a decline in some aspects of my health and quality of life as I aged was inevitable. I thought that high blood pressure, high cholesterol, a drop-off in my conditioning, a few inches more around my abdomen, fatigue, and an inability to stop and smell the roses were irreconcilable manifestations of my genetic legacy and the aging program I was locked into. My passive approach to self-care was certainly contributing to making that happen. I decided to get active.

I took inventory of my life and targeted the “low-hanging fruit”—those things that would be easiest to change. I cut out sugar-sweetened drinks. I started walking in my neighborhood. I chose daily push-ups and abdominal exercises for light resistance work. And I learned some simple—and portable—breathing and relaxation techniques. My research and reading interests shifted to the science of mind-body interaction and practice. I began to broaden my knowledge about integrated health, the science and philosophy of Eastern approaches to health, and how people create effective and sustainable change. My connection to my own spirituality deepened and it became my mission to better understand how I could be a more effective steward of the precious gifts of which I had ownership.

What’s the solution?

It is increasingly clear that most of the health and quality-of-life issues we are likely to confront during our lives can be prevented or reversed with greater attention to self-care. Therefore the single most effective medicine that health care has to offer today is education—about how the body works and how the beliefs we hold in our mind play out in our lives; about nutrition, how foods affects the body, and how to cook for maximum nourishment and pleasure; about physical fitness, exercise strategies, and enjoyable ways to combine getting active and getting outdoors. We need to learn to take care of ourselves.

This can be easier said than done. Even when health-care professionals provide the health-promoting messages of exercise and good nutrition, the advice is heeded less than five percent of the time! Most people don’t lack knowledge about what they need to do; what they lack is the bridge to effective execution. What people need is practice in living in healthy, life-promoting ways that lead to optimal vitality and fulfillment—which is exactly what Kripalu has been specializing in for more than 30 years.

The medical center of the future

Education at Kripalu is experiential, which means that people learn by doing, by experiencing what they are learning. The experiential immersion offered in the Institute for Integrated Healing programs enables people to fully live and realize the benefits of healthy living. This is the only way we are going to help people transform their underlying beliefs and overcome the challenge of creating critical lifestyle changes.

The driving principles of Kripalu’s Institute for Integrated Healing are that most of the symptoms and chronic diseases we attribute to the natural and inevitable processes of aging are not inevitable or natural at all and that their root causes can usually be understood, prevented, treated, and reversed by addressing lifestyle, behavior, and stress. We also seek to cultivate emotional and spiritual health—to address the sense of disconnection and loss of meaning that is so prevalent in modern society and that can often contribute to poor health. We believe circumstances can be created to unleash the full human potential for health and healing.

Research is revealing the biology of why patterns of thinking, feeling, and doing are so hard to change. Research is also telling us that profound and enduring change is possible at any time in one’s life. In fact, we are designed for just that!

We live on the cusp of a new frontier of understanding the natural processes that promote and maintain health, longevity, and quality of life. The science of the mind has opened a window into the biological underpinnings of thought, feeling, and behavior and their connection to health and the experience of life. These recent discoveries are revealing a new understanding of who we are as human beings. And the implications are extremely compelling.

The doctor of the future

Consider the following: National Public Radio recently ran a report on research conducted in a diabetes prevention program at Washington Hospital Center in Washington DC, which found that diet and exercise programs can be just as effective as medicine in reducing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The results were surprising to physician Meeta Sharma and her colleagues, who thought it likely that drugs would work better. “Our own intrinsic appreciation of it was that just medical therapy is going to be the way to go in terms of prevention,” she said.

The Institute for Integrated Healing is being designed to bring experiential education and training not only to patients but also to medical professionals, many of whom, like I was myself, are in need of shifting the paradigm that guides their work. As Thomas Edison predicted, the doctor of the future “will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet, and in the cause and prevention of disease.”

When I began to reclaim my health—and my life—I was astonished by three things: The first was how quickly I began to feel better. The second was how effective small changes actually were. And the third was how addictive these changes became. After about three weeks, the more I changed, the more I desired to change, and my motivation, courage, resolve, and follow-through grew. Five years later, my cholesterol and blood pressure levels are better than ever. I run 20 miles a week, I crave green, leafy vegetables, and I have cultivated a lifestyle that has less stress and includes more of the things that I value—family time, friendships, and community. Helping others to become better stewards of their precious gifts is my unrelenting calling, and I have also become a better doctor, one who is walking his talk.

Dr. Mark PettusDr. Mark Pettus is a board-certified internist and nephrologist who did his postdoctoral training at Harvard Medical School. The ultimate “patient’s doctor” (he has been voted top physician more than once), he is passionately dedicated to health care that works. In addition to turning his own health around, he has helped thousands of people change their lives. Former chief of staff at Berkshire Medical Center, Dr. Pettus is the author of The Savvy Patient and It’s All in Your Head: Change Your Mind, Change Your Health and has appeared on numerous radio and television programs. You can find out more about Dr. Pettus at his website, www.savvypatient.com.

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