Taking care of our health is one of the most important things we can do. Join Physician Assistant Sarah Keyes and me in this latest episode of the Productive Living series as we talk about how to do that by making simple but meaningful lifestyle choices–and giving ourselves grace along the way.
Making lifestyle changes can have a positive effect on our health and our productivity
Sarah Keyes has a keen interest in something known as Lifestyle Medicine. She notes that while she’s a Physician Assistant by training, she is an educator by passion and currently is pursuing her doctorate in education while continuing to coach patients and teach as an assistant professor in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Physician Assistant program, helping to train the next generation of physician assistants. Outside of work, Sarah enjoys cooking, figuring out productivity hacks, napping and resting, and hanging out with her husband, baby Weston (5 months), and Calvin (3 years).
Sarah was first introduced to Lifestyle Medicine by a mentor who thought it might be a good fit for her due to her interest in helping others live healthy lifestyles. When she looked into it, it was a lightbulb moment for her. She knew this was a topic she wanted to learn more about and teach to others. Sarah feels very fortunate that she gets to do this for a living and she tries to model it in her own life as well.
What is Lifestyle Medicine?
The American College of Lifestyle Medicine defines Lifestyle Medicine as the evidence-based use of lifestyle modifications in order to prevent, treat, and reverse chronic disease. It’s kind of an old notion that we can use our habits, the choices we make, and our lifestyle to promote our health and prevent chronic disease. While it’s extremely elegant in idea, it’s not easy to practice.
Lifestyle Medicine is framed through six pillars:
- Physical Active
- Stress Management
- Social Support
- Substance Use Secession
If we optimize and work to have supportive habits in all of these areas, then we’re on the path to having a healthier life. The American College of Lifestyle Medicine website says that
“80% or more of all healthcare spending in the U.S. is tied to the treatment of conditions rooted in poor lifestyle choices.” Chronic diseases and conditions such as hypertension, heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, multiple types of cancer—are among the most common, costly and preventable of all health conditions.”
Some people could see this as blaming us for our own disease, but it’s actually encouraging news, because if poor lifestyle choices are causing or contributing to these types of conditions, then that means we have the power to be healthier by changing our choices.
How we can change our poor lifestyle choices
This is the million-dollar question because so much of the healthcare spending in the United States is on the conditions listed above (and women in particular are really impacted by heart disease). It’s actually empowering to know that Lifestyle Medicine can give us some control and autonomy over our lives. Sarah believes our society views poor health as having no willpower or discipline, and although that may apply in some cases, Lifestyle Medicine can allow us to take control and ask ourselves, what can I do to promote my health?
There are both upstream and downstream factors that play a role in how healthy we are though, such as inequality and access to care, but knowing that we can change our health by changing our lifestyle choices is one thing that can give us some control.
Some behaviors that can put you at a higher risk for disease are sedentary lifestyles, nourishment choices, poor sleep quantity or quality, living a high-stress lifestyle, poor social support, loneliness, and substance abuse (particularly tobacco). Lifestyle Medicine does not discount the importance of medicine itself. There is the firm belief that if you need pharmacological intervention, you should have it. But the hope is that doctors are also talking with their patients about making lifestyle changes in order to get off of certain medicines and improve overall health.
What should we focus on if we want to take control of our health?
Sarah recommends conceptualizing your life through the Six Pillars she previously mentioned because those are the things that matter the most in our overall health. There are some simple and small things we can do that will make a big difference in our overall health. You might think that in order to improve your health, you need to do a big 360 change, but that’s not necessarily true.
- When it comes to nutrition, it’s always recommended that we eat more vegetables, but with women in particular, Sarah feels that we don’t get adequate nutrition at all. When we have a busy day where we haven’t had any time to eat, our natural bodily instinct is to look for something quick and easy, which is usually something full of fat and sugar. But, we can’t eat that way day after day if we want to stay healthy. Sarah recommends starting out just making sure we are getting enough to eat in general-pack some snacks for your day in case you get hungry.
- With physical activity, the prescription is always to move more because some is better than none. Although getting in a 25-minute workout on your treadmill is good, it’s also important to move consistently throughout your whole day. Remember to get up often and stretch a little-try to avoid just sitting all day long.
- When it comes to our sleep, more is also better than none, just like with physical activity. Sarah says the most efficient way to improve your health in this area is to implement a bedtime routine. This cues our brains to go to sleep, which is something that we as adults often forget we still need. We have bad habits of staying up late on our phones scrolling through social media or other websites and this can make it hard for our brains to settle down and sleep. Instead, make your bedtime routine analog, with activities such as journaling, deep breathing, and maybe a cup of tea–anything that helps you get into the mindset of sleep.
- Next, try to focus on stress management. Self-care is something that is really being pushed by the wellness industry and although it is important, it can often feel like just another box we need to check off. Sarah recommends shifting our mindset to mindfulness instead. Whenever you have a free moment in your day (maybe you’re on hold for a few minutes), try focusing on your breathing and just relax.
- For social support, it’s important to stay connected to others. Find a passion that connects you with other people. If you can find something you really enjoy and it allows you to be around other people consistently, this can kill two birds with one stone.
- If you are someone who struggles with substances, such as tobacco or alcohol use, Sarah reminds us that above all, remember to drink plenty of water throughout your day.
These things Sarah has mentioned are good for all of us to do, whether or not we have a chronic health condition. But if we do have a condition we are trying to manage, she says it’s important that you find someone to work with who is focused on tailoring the lifestyle changes and habits to your specific conditions and health goals. There are so many broad pieces of advice that we hear but with diabetes for example, your eating habits need to be very specific.
Sarah also says that it’s important to start working on the pillars that we are most excited and motivated about, because although we may not be ready to tackle the other pillars, once we start with one of them, we’ll be ready for the others soon enough. Getting better sleep leads to better nutrition choices. Better nutrition choices lead to more physical activity. And so on and so on.
Resources and apps Sarah recommends for managing our health
Sarah first recommends checking out the website for the American College of Lifestyle Medicine because it has so many good resources, such as hand-outs on the Six Pillars and the different steps you can take. She also recommends speaking with your healthcare provider about your goals.
Sarah thinks one of the most overwhelming steps to manage is our nutrition-specifically meal planning. She uses the Paprika app to manage meal planning and overall nutrition. For her physical activity, Sarah loves to simply get out and walk. This activity is something you can do without consulting with your doctor-just get out there and start. There are some great videos featuring 10-15 minute walks that can be easily fit into your day. Sarah also really enjoys the Calm app and its sleep stories, as well as the app Insight Timer which features something called Yoga Napping.
And finally, the simplest tool you can use is your breath. Notice your breath–meaning you intentionally sit and notice how you are breathing and where you feel your breath come in and out. Your breath is always with you, always on, and if you just sit and notice it for a minute, it will really help to connect you with your body. One technique Sarah recommends is called Box Breathing, which is where you take a breath in for 4 counts, hold it for 4 counts, and breath out for 4 counts, and then repeat over and over again.
Your body will tell you what it needs, whether that’s nutrition, movement, or more sleep. But the key is to listen to it! Listening to our body and giving it what it needs is ultimately what makes us more productive.
What does “making a life that matters” mean to Sarah?
Sarah used to think productivity meant checking off more boxes and getting more things done in a day, but that’s just like running on a hamster wheel. Now, though, Sarah makes a life that matters by finding and cultivating moments of joyful awareness in doing things that are commensurate with her values. This may sound a bit like finding happiness but it’s not, that is more of an emotional state. Joyful awareness means acknowledging the moment you’re in, whether good or bad, and giving it your full time, energy, and presence. It’s a shift from doing to being.
What do you do to get back on track on a day when everything gets away from you?
Sarah feels like this describes almost every day! Even on the day of this interview she had a picture of how her day would go, and by the afternoon it had all gone off track. On her crazy days, Sarah practices (or at least tries to) an acronym called STOP. When you notice a threat level rising in your body and you start to sweat and get overwhelmed, stop what you’re doing, observe what’s happening and how you feel, proceed with what is most critical to do, and then focus on what your body needs in that moment-a shower, something to eat, some movement, a glass of water? Let go of whatever idea you thought of how your day would go and instead focus on meeting yourself where you’re at.
Sarah’s last words for the listener
Stop “shoulding” on yourself and get in there and win ugly (meaning don’t think about how things should look and be, just do it).
What do you think? Questions? Comments?
Connect with Sarah
Productivity tools and resources Sarah recommends
- Sarah’s favorite podcast
- Sarah’s favorite way to track time
- Sarah’s favorite book on Lifestyle Medicine
- Information on Box Breathing
- American College of Lifestyle Medicine
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