If you’re feeling discouraged because you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic medical condition, there is plenty of reason for hope.
And there’s even some science to bolster that hope.
According to one recent study, a healthy lifestyle—including regular exercise, healthy diet, not smoking and not drinking—can help you live longer, even if you have one or more chronic medical conditions.
In the nearly decade-long study, researchers from the United Kingdom followed about 94,000 middle-age adults who had two or more of 36 conditions.
The findings? A healthy lifestyle could add an additional 6.3 years to a man’s life and 7.6 years to a woman’s.
The biggest benefit comes from not smoking, according to the study.
Starting at age 45, smokers will live five to six years less than non-smokers.
Regular physical exercise is associated with living one to 2.5 years longer, the study showed.
Spectrum Health preventive cardiologist Thomas Boyden, MD, sees this data borne out every day in his office—particularly for conditions like heart disease.
“Healthy habits have a profound effect on our chronic medical conditions and the inherent risks of these chronic diseases,” he said.
Dr. Boyden said his goal is to teach patients about the important role their lifestyle choices can play in their health.
“We can always help manage their disease through prescription medications and medical procedures,” Dr. Boyden said. “But to maintain or regain health, the individual has to adopt practices that can reverse diseases like diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol.”
Patients reeling from a difficult diagnosis can find encouragement in knowing that lifestyle changes can deliver benefits.
“One of the main points I try to get across to all of my patients is that medical conditions do not have to be permanent states,” Dr. Boyden said. “If they make simple changes to their lives, the effect can be life-changing, literally.”
The recommended changes:
This one is mandatory, according to Dr. Boyden. Fortunately, smoking continues to be on the decline, so he sees fewer smokers than ever before.
“Smoking causes cancer, emphysema and vascular disease,” he said. “No one escapes this.”
Get moving, but it doesn’t have to be overly athletic. Dr. Boyden said walking 30 minutes daily at a moderate pace can lower cardiovascular risk as much as prescription medications.
“Daily moderate physical activity reduces blood sugar (improves diabetes control), lowers blood fats or triglycerides, reduces blood pressure, reduces stress and improves mood through the release of endorphins and improves quality of sleep,” he said.
Adopting healthy eating habits can do all of those things, too, Dr. Boyden said.
He recommends eating mostly plants, limiting animal products and eliminating processed foods.
“Following a plant-based diet with little animal and no processed food changes our risk of cardiovascular events within weeks,” he said. “That same effect can take more than a year with prescription medications.”
These improvements in physical health also reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke and cancer—the leading causes of death, Dr. Boyden said.
Manage stress in healthy ways
Identify your best stress-reducing activities and incorporate them into your daily routine. This can be meditation, yoga, exercise, spending time outside, reading, enjoying a hobby, talking to a friend or therapist and more.
“These really are the keys to maintaining or regaining your health,” Dr. Boyden said.