Will a healthy lifestyle prevent illness?

I am utterly sick of the myth that living a healthy lifestyle will prevent illness.

  • Granted, eating a balanced diet of nutritious food is better than grazing on ice cream and bon-bons all day.
  • Getting regular exercise has distinct health benefits; moving as little as possible has a detrimental impact on people’s health.
  • Is there anyone who isn’t aware of the health ramifications of smoking?
  • Excessive alcohol consumption is another no-no.

The story goes that if you exercise, eat right, refrain from smoking, and drink moderately, you’ll be healthy.  That’s a lie.

Those claims need modifiers.  Living a healthy lifestyle can lessen one’s chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and some of the other chronic diseases, but there are no guarantees.

The prevention protocol only goes so far.  Ancestry is also a factor.  Luck plays a significant part, too.

Autoimmune diseases really don’t care how you’ve lived your life.  If you eat right, refrain from smoking/drinking, and exercise, you can still have crummy genes and lousy luck.

When I was a kid, my mom was careful about planning nutritious meals.  My dad worked too hard and grabbed fast-food for his meals, and his waistline showed it.  My mom was determined that her children not suffer the same fate.  She planned menus and we kids learned how to do it, too.  We learned how to cook so we’d always be able to eat healthily.  I still try to plan good meals.

Exercise?  I was an active kid.  Everyone ran around outside and played.  When I was old enough, I played softball and soccer in the youth leagues, and took swimming and gymnastics lessons.  This was back when schools still had recess and PE classes.  In junior high I continued to play soccer during the summer, then during the school year I played volleyball, basketball, and ran track.  And still we had PE classes.  Junior high PE was interesting; due to a scheduling mix-up, I and one other girl were assigned to the boy’s class.  While the rest of the girls were in the gym doing jumping-jacks, we were outside in the rain playing real sports.  After PE, when most people went to math or history, I got to change into dry workout clothes for my gymnastics class.  There was no question that I got plenty of exercise.  In high school, I had to drop volleyball since it was the same time as soccer, but that doesn’t mean I exercised less.  The basketball coach made a point of tracking me down and asking me to turn out for the team.  I continued to run track for the first two years of hs.  My junior year I started dating a body-builder, so we’d go to the local gym and I learned to work out with weights.  In college, I was glad for that time in the gym.  It gave me a chance to continue exercising even when my organized sports dropped to just summer adult-league soccer.  I started swimming more.

Once in the workforce, I wasn’t nearly as active, but managed to make it to the gym four or five times a week (and I was dirt-poor, so had to walk everywhere).  Exercising came to a grinding halt when I was put on bed-rest with my first pregnancy, and I never quite resumed the same intensity.  I maintain, however, that if gardening and other yard work can be considered exercise, then chasing toddlers definitely counts.

It drives me crazy when people act as if having a chronic disease is my fault.  I exercised.  I ate well.  I didn’t smoke.  Yet here I am.

“WarmSocks” blogs at ∞ itis.

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  • Brian Kerley

    First you need to define a “healthy lifestyle”. Unfortunately as a society we cannot come close to an agreement on what that is exactly.

    Activity is pretty easy to come to somewhat of a consensus. It’s good for people to move around, include load bearing activities, have some fun, etc.

    The controversial part of course is food. Instead of enumerated so called health benefits of XYZ foods, it is much easier to show that certain foods promote disease. Luckily we have some great historical records of entire populations that were free of the Diseases of Civilization. Those include: Diabetes, Heart Disease, Obesity, Cancer, Auto-immune disorders, etc. These accounts are not just Conquistadors journals, but actual doctors that treated tribes where virtually everyone was fit, healthy, and lived long lives. Their ailments were those that are unavoidable like accidental injuries. 

    These societies absolutely did not have uniform macronutrient ratios. Some had high carb/low fat (Kitavans), others low carb/high fat (Inuit through some periods). What they had in common where a lack of certain evolutionary novel foods, specifically wheat, industrial seed oil (“vegetable oil”, source of excess linoleic acid) and excessive fructose (sugar). 

    Most people seem to be on board with how fructose is a dose dependent poison. 

    The excess linoleic acid from industrial seed oil will slowly come to light as one of the major causes of inflammation. With the popularity of omega-3 supplementation, it’s only a matter of time that people learn that there needs to be a close balance of omega-3 to omega-6 (linoleic acid). Unfortunately there is a major roadblock in reducing the consumption of these oils, that is the misguided belief that saturated fat causes heart disease. Biochemists are outlining the evidence that atherosclerotic legions are mostly caused by misregulation in the LDL receptors, and not just “cholesterol” concentration. A biomarker for heart disease risk would be “small dense” LDL, not those that are “large and bouyant”. Biochemistry is fun. 

    Luckily there is growing awareness of the dangers of wheat proteins. Around 1% of Americans celiac, but there is a large portion of the population that do not have traditional celiac biomarkers, but have auto-immune symptoms triggered by gluten exposure. This is a fascinating field of medicine. 

    So, although I am not familiar with your particular situation, I would absolutely contend that there are certain foods that overwhelming contribute to the diseases of civilization. These diseases happen to be the major causes of death in our country and around the world. For the past ~60+ years in this country we have promoted two of these agents of disease as paramount to good health. No wonder people are cynical about the benefits of a “healthy diet”. 

    • http://warmsocks.wordpress.com/ WarmSocks

      Do you have documentation for autoimmune diseases being absent in some civilizations? That’s not what I’ve read and would like to research that a bit further.

  • http://twitter.com/davisliumd davisliumd

    I think this is a great piece and speaks to a myth that is increasingly pervasive.

    A healthy lifestyle decreases risk of illness but is not a guarantee of good health.  Even Dr. Oz, arguably a person that practices what he preaches had a precancerous colon polyp found on a routine colonoscopy.  As an advocate of healthy living, what does that mean for the rest of us?  http://davisliumd.blogspot.com/2011/06/what-dr-oz-learned-from-his-cancer.html

    Yet there is a disturbing phenomenon that is occurring.  In the public’s quest for more natural and healthy lifestyles and treatments coupled with this myth of illness that essentially be eliminated by eating right and exercising, there is a backlash of avoiding treatments and interventions that can save lives.

    This is culminated in a recent Newsweek cover story – One Word That Will Save Your Life – NO!

    As a practicing primary care doctor, I wish the nuances of medicine was so simple that a word – NO – could provide great care.
    It isn’t that easy.
    Medical choices are not as obvious.  Today the vast amount of information and choices are overwhelming.  The easy and natural thing to do is to run away or bury our heads in the sand, or simply say no when decisions are complex.  We are seeing this appear already in something as basic as childhood immunizations. 

    As the National Committee for Quality Assurance noted in its 2010 State of Health Care Quality report, childhood immunization rates for those in private insurance has actually fallen compared to those in public insurance (Medicaid) plans.

    Childhood vaccination rates in 2009 declined by almost four percentage points in commercial plans.
A possible cause of this drop is commercial plan parents may refuse vaccines for their children based on the unproven, but increasingly popular, notion that vaccines cause autism. Celebrity activists are outspoken advocates of this view. Interestingly, we see vaccination rates in Medicaid – the program serving the poor – continuing to steadily improve. 
    “The drop in childhood vaccinations is disturbing because parents are rejecting valuable treatment based on misinformation,” said NCQA President Margaret E. O’Kane. “All of us in health care need to work together to get better information to the public.”
    The State of Health Care Quality Report examined quality data from over 1,000 health plans that collectively cover 118 million Americans.

    In today’s society where news is disseminated as sound bites or tweets, I am concerned about the unintended implications this Newsweek story will bring: patients will say no to everything.

    Even if it could save their life even as they live a healthy lifestyle.  http://davisliumd.blogspot.com/2011/08/newsweek-just-say-no-one-word-can-save.html

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ardella-Eagle/840440226 Ardella Eagle

      “In today’s society where news is disseminated as sound bites or tweets…”  Not to mention the overabundance of information out there and the natural tendency to only hear what you want to hear, sometimes all the information is ignored.

      For the immunizations, I’m very glad that Themerisol was removed from the formulary.  However, the CDC schedule for routine immunization still needs to be extended so as not to overwhelm an infant’s immune system.

      My two cents on the matter.

  • http://twitter.com/ConversasVadias CarLoS

    Every week I see lots of young people with strains and sprains in the ankles, the knees, the elbows … from exercising.  Many will line up  later for our NHS services to get to orthopedic surgery to correct for ; many will live with some minor limitation, they acquire for trying to live “healthy” … 

    • Anonymous

      I find that MD’s don’t have a clue on how to prevent injury or to rehabilitate an injury so it is less likely to be debilitating.

      Would you rather these young people sit in front of a screen all day?

  • http://www.facebook.com/DoctorStevenPark Steven Park

    Yes, eating healthy foods and exercising regularly, along with getting 7-8 hours of sleep may lower your risk factors for chronic disease, but this is assuming that all humans have the same size upper airway. Most modern humans, due to a radical change in our diets, have dental crowding and smaller jaws, which leads to smaller airways. This is why many people can’t (or prefer not to) sleep on their backs. The smaller your airway, the more you’ll be susceptible to gaining weight, chronic diseases, and early death. 

    As we all age, not only do we sag on the outside, but also on the inside. Since our facial skeletons are smaller to begin with, any degree of sagging and laxity will be amplified. This is what can lead to facial wrinkles (smaller jaws that don’t stretch out the skin), and sleep apnea (more crowding of the throat soft issues like the tongue and soft palate). It’s interesting to note that the human voice box continues to drop in the neck throughout a person’s lifetime, rather than stopping during early adulthood. It’s been shown that the voice box drops about 1/2 vertebral body, from ages 40 to 70. The lower the voice box, the more space that the tongue can fall back into, and the more breathing and sleep problems you’ll have. This can explain the gradual increase in sleep problems as we all age. 

    You don’t even have to have sleep apnea to have major sleep-breathing problems. You can stop breathing 25 times every hour and not have sleep apnea on a formal sleep study. Typically, younger, thinner patients will present with this scenario, where each obstructive breathing event is less that the required time duration to be classified as an apnea or hypopnea. 

    Not sleeping efficiently significantly can also alter your physiology, increasing your stress hormones, activating your sympathetic nervous system, raises glucose levels, and countless other metabolic, immune and hormonal imbalances. 

    It’s time that doctors realize that the human upper airway is a dynamic structure that is constantly changing, and prone to more frequent obstructions as we all age. 


  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RLWNFF5L5SPNGUQ7JTGHPRSCRI Jake the Snake

    This sounds like more of a situation for Dear Abby or Dear Prudence than for Dear Kevin.  But it might help others to understand your situation better if you told us what chronic disease it is that others blame on your lifestyle.

    • http://warmsocks.wordpress.com/ WarmSocks

      Why would it matter which autoimmune disease I have?  It’s hard to tell some of them apart.  Rheumatologists say it doesn’t matter since their
      treatment plans are so similar. Even after four years, my rheumatologist still
      isn’t sure; it’s either MCTD, RA, or AS – probably not SLE, probably not scleroderma
      despite the suggestion of SCL-70 antibodies.  I suspect that eventually the dx will be PsA.

      It’s in reading the literature (including medical websites)
      about how patients can improve things that there’s an issue.  Stop smoking (never have), lose weight (at 5’6”,
      125#, I don’t need to lose weight), eat the perfect diet (even though nobody
      can agree what that is)… Those who know me have never blamed my lifestyle.
      People need to be aware that a healthy lifestyle can help, but it’s not a guarantee. There’s a certain amount of luck involved in avoiding disease.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Lisa-Howell-Willingham/1425099088 Lisa Howell Willingham

    Thanks for your thoughts; as someone living with autoimmune diseases I agree with everything.  Everyone looks and acts like you put this on yourself and if “only” you had done…this… maybe you would not have gotten sick.  Whatever!!
    From Tired of Pain

  • http://twitter.com/shotzie52 RCK

    As someone also suffering from a chronic illness due to Lyme disease being undiagnosed for many years I too lived my life as healthily as possible even going macrobiotic for over 6 months.  Maybe it helped prevent me from getting worse than I am now but I am still sick.  I also was lucky enough to have a “rare” condition called Conn’s Syndrome, which was also missed for years.  My BP was stroke range and uncontrolable despite diet, exercise etc.
    Doctors need to realize that disease does happen.  I was blamed for all my problems….weigh too much ( didn’t)…don’t exercise (did)  …don’t manage stress ( was)  then the good old going into menopause, empty nest. To this day I cannot put trust in any provider as I was so poorly treated by so many of them.

    • Anonymous

      I was told I was depressed…

  • http://twitter.com/PatientCommando Patient Commando

    Over 30 years ago a doctor told me I had a serious illness, I had Crohn’s disease. From that moment on my life changed forever. Everyone I knew, family, friends, co-workers, and especially my mother, looked and talked to me differently, as though I was no longer the casual, happy go-lucky chump I always was.
    My mother was convinced it was her food that had done this to me and, to the last gasp of breath she took on this God’s good earth, she would watch intently every bite of food I would take in her presence.
    I was concerned that my new bride might have second thoughts, but as its turned out, she’s stuck around for all this time. And we’ve had children who grew up with a “sick” dad. They’ve seen me many times in a not-so-happy condition.
    Its made me wonder over the years if our society shouldn’t be rethinking the whole notion of illness. People with chronic illness are marginalized and stigmatized. We’re identified by our disease not by our name.
    I’m not about to argue whether the fact that about 50% of the population suffers from a chronic illness is due to environmental or genetic or lifestyle conditions. The reality is that many of these chronic conditions are incurable and that most of us  are going to live the rest of our lives suffering in some way.

    So isn’t it time to start thinking that chronic illness is a natural part of a “healthy” life?

    Zal Press

  • Azhar choudhry

    I somehow disagree. Healthy lifestyle definitly decreases your risk of certain diseases, the one who are major burden on US healthcare system like diabetes, cardiovascular etc. These chronic diseases give rise to many other related illnesses. Obesity is another disease which can be eliminated by eating healthy and switching to active lifestyle.

    In the end everyone is going to get old and die. You cannot predict any thing so why worry about things that we do not have a control on like being hit by lightening or bus or getting an autoimmune dieases. Our US healthcare system is based on acute treatment approach not a preventive one which in the long run can be beneficial for the public. Offcourse this is not what sounds good to health and pharmaceutical industry,

    • http://twitter.com/shotzie52 RCK

      If my conditions had been diagnosed earlier I would not be as ill as I am today, I had yearly physical exams then monthly office visits when my BP was out of control and even had a falling serum potassium level that was ignored, as a matter of fact one practitioner was ready to label me bullemic because she couldn’t figure out why the serum K was so low even with oral replacement of 80 meq per day.  After all  I ate that strange DASH diet…so uneducated and so quick to blame the patient. 

      Much chronic disease is autoimmune, so what is the trigger?  Infectious agents are implicated but denied.  Our healhcare system is medication based, don’t worry about finding the causes.  Then the meds themselves add to the problems so add more meds….if that doesn’t work blame the patient

    • http://warmsocks.wordpress.com/ WarmSocks

      Interesting examples you picked.  People can affect their chance of being struck by lightening – hold a golf club up in the air in the middle of a golf course during a lightening storm, or go indoors where it’s safer.  People have a choice of whether they walk on the sidewalk and cross at intersections with the traffic light, or whether they dash across busy roads trying to dodge busses and taxis.  Accidents happen, but there are things people can do to reduce their chances of being hit by a bus or struck by lightening.  There are things people can do to reduce their chances of developing type2 diabetes, or hypertension, or heart disease.  To date, scientists have no idea what causes autoimmune disease. There’s nothing that anyone can do to avoid it.  I don’t know of anyone who ever sat around worrying about getting Autoimmune Arthritis.  Most people had never even heard of it before being diagnosed.

      As to disagreeing… I’m confused.  Are you saying that you’ve already made up your mind and don’t want to consider little details like facts?  The fact is that while a healthy lifestyle can decrease our risk of disease, it isn’t a guarantee.  Autoimmune diseases, which I mentioned, are one example. Thank you for providing another: obesity, too, can be reduced but not eliminated.  Have you heard of Cushings?

      Your comment is a good illustration of the problem. We’re so innundated with the message that a healthy lifestyle will prevent certain diseases that people dismiss the fact that it doesn’t always work out that way.  People can live a healthy lifestyle and still get sick.

  • http://apainedlife.blogspot.com/ Carol Levy

    I live a terrible lifestyle, totally do not take care of myself. I am 59 and may one day pay for it.  For now I have a chronic disorder that has kept me disabled for over 30 years, trigeminal neuralgia, atypical facial pain, atypical tn, that is from a birth defect.  People get on me about the way I eat, in particular, thank goodness for V8 fusion juice so now I for sure get some form of veggie/fruit into me.  My father died of ALS as did his, pray G-d I do not have the gene for that.  It is my frined who eats very healthy and exercises that had cancer, has asthma and other chronic disorders that one normally associates with an unhealthy lifestyle.
    I do not know what the author has.  I do know, at least for people with chronic intractable pain, and especially for women, it is often the first line we hear, from family, friends, even docs; that ‘it is somehow our fault that we have this disorder that causes the pain.

  • Anonymous

    Delay illness maybe, prevent illness no.  Remember that life is an ultimately fatal condition. 

  • Jean Oliver

    To Davisliumd: While it may be true that a healthy lifestyle may not prevent you from all disease, it is also true that going to see a physician every year for a check-up when you feel fine may also not prolong your life.  What we need is balance.  We also need accurate information from the medical community about screenings, tests, etc. as far as the risk versus benefits, which people rarely get.  That, I think, is the idea behind telling your doctor “no”.  There is also a downside to having every screening test, especially for healthy, asymptomtic people.  We as consumers get a lot of “disease mongering” from not only the medical field, but also from the media, with little or no balance.  Everyone is medicalized and made to feel like they are walking time bombs.  Even the article about Dr. Oz having a “cancer scare”.  After a lot of research, I found out that the majority of colon polyps, especially small ones, do not go on to develop into cancer.  The term, “cancer scare”, seems to be a bit overreactive.  So, we are screening and scaring a lot of people unnecessarily.  There is a definite overuse of expensive and possibly risky procedures on an asymptomatic population.  Possibly another reason our health care system is so expensive.  Please just give us ALL the facts and let patients make informed choices.  None of us are getting out of this alive but there is a lot to be said for being proactive about your health by lifestyle and not worrying constantly about what may be lurking inside of you.

  • http://warmsocks.wordpress.com/ WarmSocks

    I’d agree that illness is a normal part of life, but I don’t think I’d include illness (chronic or acute) as part of a healthy life.  People do get sick.  Fortunately, lots of illnesses are of a short duration.  It’s those chronic conditions that throw a wrench in the works. 

    You make a good point: nobody wants to be identified by a disease.

  • 譲 黒須

    Health is not the absence of disease, me thinks.

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