Small Changes in Behavior Have a Powerful Effect on Health

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Purely self-determined and self-governed choices such as food habits, stress management, exercise, smoking, use of alcohol and drugs, toxic relationships, adverse emotional reactions, etc., make a powerful difference in our health and well-being.  It is hard to believe, but they do have a powerful effect .  For many people, "real treatment" consists of visiting their physician, going through a series of medical tests, and taking the medication.  Some believe that lifestyle changes are "soft treatments" and they are still waiting for hard scientific evidence to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that these behaviors can often change the outcome of a disease.  

Some have a visceral reaction to being asked to change or stop a habitual behavior they have performed for a long time, "I have done it all my life, it's not easy, you know."  Their reflexive response/s may be something along these lines:  

What?  You want me to give up red meat?  Quit smoking?  Not drink my 6-pack of beer even on a Friday evening?  It's impossible.  No way!"  "If I am supposed to get better, I will."   "If I quit (drinking, smoking, my favorite food, etc.), the stress of it alone will kill me."  "You want me to quit now?   Not right now.  I am totally stressed out.  Too much is going on in my life right now, perhaps,  some other time, but not right now."  

People who shield their habits with such pleas and excuses have not even begun to contemplate how to change their habit.  They are at the "pre-contemplation" stage, the stage of "why not to change" rather than how to change.  Listen closely to their reaction, "You want me to quit right now?"  They haven't reached the point of readiness to say, "Yes, I  want to quit right now."   Some will try half-heartedly for an insufficient length of time.  They quickly revert back to their old habit, saying, "I don't have the will-power."   Will-power?   Do people come to this world in two different packages, "with will power" and "without will power."   The fact is that all of us can have a strong will power if we believe we can, and are committed to do whatever it takes to get there.           

Let's look at healthy behaviors. Learning stress management techniques, getting exercise, eating healthy foods, joining a support group, becoming active in the local chapter of the national association for your illness, such as, for heart, lung, cancer, etc. have a very salutary effect on health.   Why doesn't everybody do it then?  Reasons for not investing one's effort in such activities often runs along these lines:  

"I don't feel too good right now.  If I feel a little better, I might try these."  "If am supposed to get better, I would, anyway.  "Look at Joe, he tried everything, but nothing helped."  "These things may have some benefits.  I don't know.  Even if they do some good, I doubt if it amounts to much.  There is no scientific proof that these things can help."   

We are living in times when the relationship between lifestyle behaviors and chronic/disabling  illnesses is being closely studied scientifically.  One of my heroes in the field of medicine is Dr. Dean Ornish.  His book, "Reversing the Heart Disease," published in 1990, was the New York Times bestseller for a long time.   Ornish, through rigorous scientific methods, has demonstrated that people can halt or even reverse their heart disease by bringing about changes in their lifestyle, emotional responses, and managing their stress better in everyday situations.   By the end of the year,  most of the patients in his program reported that their chest pains had stopped.   In a four to five years follow up they continued to improve and had on average 8 percent improvement in their coronary artery blockages.  Meanwhile, the control group (those not in his program) experienced 28 percent worsening.  

Take another example of the effect of lifestyle changes on health, aging.  Studies from many disciplines have converged to indicate that how we age depends on how we live.  Conventional wisdom used to believe that longevity depended on genes.  "If you want to live long, you should choose your parents wisely,"  geneticists advised tongue in cheek.  Now, scientists have estimated that how long we live depends 70 % on our lifestyle and 30 % on our genes.  Staying active, living and eating judiciously,  and staying connected with our support system has a lot to do with how long and how well we live.

David Spiegel of Stanford University recently demonstrated that post-breast cancer women who attended support group and practiced meditation and relaxation, on average, lived twice longer than those who didn't.  Spiegel says that if someone had invented a medicine that doubled patients' lives, it would have been in news everywhere.  But who would spend millions advertising that support groups and meditation doubles one's life?  In this case there is nothing  to sell and no corporation to benefit.     

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 



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