Each night, you plan the next day full of good intentions. “I’ll get up early, take a long walk, eat a healthy breakfast and avoid too much caffeine,” you tell yourself as you climb into bed. However, by mid-morning, you’ve slept through the alarm, skipped the walk, inhaled two donuts and washed them down with a large coffee loaded with sugar and cream. As you wipe the powdered sugar off your shirt, you wonder: “Why can’t I make healthy lifestyle changes? I know what I need to do; I just can’t seem to do it!”
Good question. Why are some people more proactive than others about safeguarding their health? Various theories attempt to explain why some individuals regularly engage in healthy behaviors and others in harmful ones.
The late Irwin M. Rosenstock, a professor of health behavior and health education at the University of Michigan, studied these differences in lifestyle behaviors. In 1966, he developed his internationally recognized Health Belief Model to explain why some people indulge in unhealthy actions despite being educated on how those behaviors endanger their health. His model, still in use today, notes that individuals are more likely to change an unhealthy behavior only if they believe they are more susceptible to a serious disease and perceive that the benefits of changing the negative behavior outweigh any barriers they must overcome.
The benefits that drive healthier behaviors can include reducing the risk of certain diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure. Barriers to making healthy lifestyle changes can include feeling pressured to fit exercise into an already busy lifestyle, changing ingrained eating habits and/or wondering if making changes is really worth the effort. Although the connection between choosing poor lifestyle behaviors and increased health risks over time is certainly not debatable, many individuals still say they are simply too busy or do not have the time or money to join a gym and buy healthier foods.
Unfortunately, even having a family history of a serious disease and/or abnormal levels of glucose, cholesterol or blood pressure are not enough to make most people feel susceptible to the dangers related to unhealthy behaviors. For those individuals, only the diagnosis of a heart attack, stroke or diabetes may bring awareness. Ironically, many of the recommendations to manage or control these diseases are the exact recommendations to prevent or lower risk of that same disease.
There are three levels of prevention. Review them below for information about making lifestyle choices that help you to be more proactive versus reactive in your health.
PRIMARY PREVENTION refers to the actions an individual takes to promote overall health and wellness.
1. Eat a healthy diet
Choose a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fiber.
- Choose lean cuts of meat (filet, round, sirloin, 97 percent lean hamburger); limit red meat to three times a week.
- Choose foods that have 5 percent or less daily value of total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium listed on the label.
- Visit www.eatright.org to learn additional tips about healthy eating.
2. Be physically active
Being physically active does not mean that you have to join an expensive gym or work out for hours. If you are not physically active, it is never too late to start.
- A goal of 150 total minutes or 30 minutes, five days a week, is recommended. The 30-minute recommendation can be divided into three 10-minute sessions.
3. Manage Stress
Stress can manifest itself in many ways including insomnia, upset stomach, headache and anxiety. Unhealthy stress management includes the use of alcohol, tobacco, excess over-the-counter analgesics or sleep aids, and/or emotional or stress eating to cope.
- Deep breathing exercises, meditation, yoga or exercise in general can help you manage and minimize your stress.
- Talk to someone to gain perspective instead of allowing a problem to become overwhelming.
4. Get adequate sleep
Inadequate amounts of sleep can affect memory, cognition, concentration and increase the risk of injury. Sleep deprivation can result in increases in ghrelin (an appetite stimulant hormone) and subsequent decreases in leptin (appetite suppressant hormone) that could result in obesity.
- Keep a regular sleep schedule by setting a consistent bedtime and waking up at the same time every day.
SECONDARY PREVENTION refers to the different types of screenings to find abnormalities early so that they can be treated promptly, potentially cured or prevented from worsening. Examples include self-exams (breast and testicular), blood pressure, body mass index, waist circumference, lipid panels, mammogram/ PSA, Pap test, blood glucose levels and any other age-related tests or vaccinations.
TERTIARY PREVENTION refers to the measures taken once a diagnosis of disease has occurred in order to slow the progression of the disease or to prevent complications related to lack of control. Examples include the diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes and the prevention of complications associated with poor control, including heart disease, stroke, eye disease, kidney disease and amputation.
Don’t wait for a life-changing diagnosis to scare you into becoming more proactive in your health. Skim over the three levels of prevention again to determine where you can make healthier choices and lower your health risk of serious disease. Think proactive, not reactive. The time to act is now.
Dr. Tina Cloney is a health and nutrition professor in the College of Professional Studies, division of exercise science and sport. She is a registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and board certified specialist in sports dietetics. Her passion is communicating the role of nutrition in sport performance and nutrition and exercise in disease prevention and management.