Changing and Keeping a New Healthy Lifestyle — for Patients and Doctors

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • We all know smoking and drinking are bad for us.  Speeding through an intersection with a yellow light changing—probably not the smartest decision.  Every little thing about jumping out of a perfectly good airplane just sounds idiotic… but I’ve done it, and so have countless others. There are plenty of things we know are dangerous, or that are in our best interest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean our actions follow said advice.

    “It won’t happen to me.”  Sure some of these things will never yield negative consequences, and we’ll skate on like it was never a real threat.  When it comes to our health though, it’s hard to surmise why patients would directly ignore the advice of their healthcare provider or physician. However, it does happen, and unfortunately many times it is life and death!

    So let’s think about this: Why would someone completely disregard the advice their doctor gave them? Like skydiving, this just sounds counterintuitive.  A person whose well-informed opinion is backed by studying the science of medicine for years and years, and we’re going to totally ignore what they tell us? Maybe some of you have already experienced this. Whether the patient just has trouble staying on a medicine/diet regimen, or never even adopts a single proposed change, it could simply be an issue of motivation. Here are some strategies I like to use for both instances that just may help you when speaking to patients:

    How to Create and Sustain a Healthy Lifestyle:

    1. Establish your support system.

    I think most would agree they perform better when they know they have a cheering section.  The positive reinforcement we can get from others is like throwing extra fuel on the proverbial fire to get us over our current hurdle or through to the next level of success.  Of course they have you on their side as their healthcare professional, but a more personal source will usually resonate better.  The patient’s family, friends, spouse, or coworkers are all perfect examples of where they might find that support team. When taking on this new health initiative, it is important that they surround themselves with positive influences.   Encourage them to identify the people who will root them on in moments of triumph, or pick them up with a hug or compliment when they have hit a low point.

    2. FIND your support system! 

    Unfortunately, not everyone has a family or even many close friends to rely on.  Still others have all the family in the world, but don’t necessarily get that positive, reassuring feeling from them.  For these individuals it is imperative that they find their motivation, if not self-induced.  Finding a great coach is an excellent way to accomplish their health and fitness goals.  Fitness professionals have a job for a reason!  Most of us will become a very real and integral part of a client’s path to success.  Whether the client lacks the requisite fitness knowledge or has the necessity for external motivation, a good coach will keep them on track to accomplish their goals, and hopefully expedite the process as well.  For those who cannot afford a fitness coach or trainer, encourage them to figure out a different way of keeping themselves focused.  Some people will make themselves stick to their nutrition and exercise regimen strictly for a set number of days and then reward themselves.  Another trick I like to use is posting motivational and positive sayings around the house and in different cupboards as a pseudo-random, but constant way of keeping focused on whatever the current objective is.

    3. Figure out what works for YOU.

    Just like there are one million and one theories in the health and fitness industry, there are also countless methods to get and stay fit! Some people like to do individual, resistance training workouts, while others prefer group fitness classes.  Yoga, Pilates, cycling, barre, joining a running group or local sports league are all great ways to work on physical fitness.  The key is to encourage them to try different activities to find what they enjoy!  If the methods to better health aren’t at least somewhat enjoyable, I find that the odds of a client sustaining the lifestyle aren’t great.  Once they’ve found something they like, help set a goal for them.  It could be doing at least 200 minutes of general physical activity per week, or it could be more specific like two resistance training workouts and two cardiovascular workouts.


    Think about what you want MOST versus what you want NOW. 

    No matter how immersed a client gets in their newly-found healthy lifestyle, there will always be temptation!  Friends going to happy hour for greasy bar food, drinks andcandy bars at the checkout lane, and negative human influences will always be around.  It’s important to remind the patient of how far they’ve come to reinforce those good behaviors.  Make a big deal out of their vital signs improving, and show them the charts for visual evidence!  Applaud their positive lifestyle changes.  Congratulate them on that recreation league victory you may or may not actually care about.  Even just a casual compliment on them looking a little slimmer or healthier will go a long way in helping to ensure they stay on this good path.

    Think about who you might be inspiring. 

    When all else fails, sometimes you have to just give a good pull on the proverbial “heart strings.”  Adopting a more wholesome, healthy lifestyle is no small task.  It is a very emotional journey for most.  Many of these patients are changing habits they may have had their entire lives.  If they inspire you or make you proud, TELL THEM! If they have children or close nieces or nephews, remind them of the great example they are setting for those young, impressionable minds.  This added feeling of empowerment and responsibility will truly resonate with many people.  If they can believe they are someone’s inspiration or role model, I’ve found they are much more likely to keep up the lifestyle and even make it their own passion.  I think we all want to believe there’s a purpose for us in this world.  When someone tells you that you motivate or inspire them or they look up to you in some aspect, doesn’t that feel GREAT?!  Helping to develop that genuine, innate self-confidence is imperative, so that even when they leave your office, they are on a path to success.

    Unfortunately humans are always going to do what they want to do.  All the great, scholarly information in the world will never be enough for some.  The important thing is to do whatever we can to give our patients and clients the best odds possible.  If you have briefed them on what they need to do and helped them devise a plan of action on how to do so, it is then in their hands.  You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.  Adopting these different motivational strategies might not get every patient to take control of their own lives and health, but if it saves even one life, I’d say the extra effort was certainly worth it!

    Michael Dockter is the Managing Director of the Reserve Fitness & Wellness in Louisville, Kentucky. He also leads small group classes and trains individuals at the club.

    Image courtesy of Casserole Club blog.