Lifestyle medicine seeks to prevent illness, increase students’ overall health

As a new school year comes around, Bruins begin brainstorming their goals, such as doing better in their classes, making new friends or getting a job. But another big genre of goal setting includes health goals, such as hitting the John Wooden Center more often or picking up more fruits and vegetables at the Westwood Village Farmers’ Market.

Ernie Sacco, manager of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation at UCLA health, said it can be easy for young adults to disregard these lifestyle goals and habits because they are generally in good health and don’t think about how their habits will impact them later in life.

“As you get older in your 30s and 40s and on, things aren’t so easy, and that’s when… everything catches up to you,” Sacco said. “You want to start thinking about choices that you can make.”

According to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, positive lifestyle habits can dramatically decrease risk for chronic diseases, especially heart disease.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for adults in America, according to the CDC. Certain risk factors can increase the likelihood of developing heart disease, including obesity and excessive alcohol consumption.

The deadliness of heart disease and other diagnoses, such as high cholesterol, has prompted physicians to develop new branches of preventative care like lifestyle medicine, which defines six pillars that make up the basics of health according to the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.

The idea behind these pillars is that when an individual follows a comprehensive array of healthy habits, that person is much less likely to develop chronic disease later in life. These pillars include restorative sleep, nutrition, physical activity, stress management, social relationships and avoidance of risky substances such as alcohol and tobacco.

Sacco said lifestyle medicine played an important part in cardiac health and rehab when he was involved with a lifestyle medicine program at UCLA earlier this year. He said it inspired him to incorporate different techniques such as stress management and a nutrition plan in order to help patients struggling with heart disease.

UCLA Health previously offered a lifestyle medicine program called the Ornish Lifestyle Medicine Program which recently closed. Now, the practices involved with lifestyle medicine are being encompassed into the cardiac rehabilitation unit.

While research shows making positive lifestyle changes can significantly improve heart health, a 2018 study by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that only 6.8% of U.S. adults had optimal cardiac health.

According to the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, positive lifestyle changes such as engaging in regular exercise and drinking alcohol in moderation can help reduce risk by greater than 80% for cardiovascular disease and greater than 90% for diabetes.

Zhaoping Li, chief of the division of clinical nutrition at UCLA, said heart disease is preventable, regardless of genetic background.

“When you truly get to the point to see a cardiologist or have a first heart attack, it is very much late in the game,” Li said. “I want to do more preventative (care) to save the patient, for better health and longevity.”

According to the CDC, up to 80% of premature heart disease cases are preventable.

Along with the prevention of heart disease, daily healthy habits are important in maintaining general health and wellness. Exercise and eating healthy is linked to lower levels of anxiety, higher cognitive function, a boost in mood and better memory, according to the Sage Neuroscience Center.

Guadalupe Gonzalez, who graduated from UCLA in 2023 and founded UCLA’s Lifestyle Medicine club, said it can be difficult for college students to incorporate all six of the health pillars described in lifestyle medicine, and no one is going to be perfect.

“Just being conscious of things that we can start to incorporate, to the level that we have with the time that we have, is a good step,” Gonzalez said. “Everyone goes about it a different way in terms of incorporating things like stress management, physical activity into their lives. … I think it’s good to find what works for you as an individual.”

Being a college student means having a jam-packed schedule while still making sure there’s time to have fun on top of it all. For students that want to be more focused on their health but don’t have hours a day to dedicate, Li explained tips to practice important aspects of lifestyle medicine.

Li said college students should attempt to eat as many whole foods as possible while limiting consumption of processed foods, and also supplement with exercise.

“You cannot just talk about nutrition alone,” Li said. “Exercise plays two roles, (to) drive your body to use the nutrients to … become truly part of you. The other issue is dispose the ones (nutrients) we don’t need.”

Sacco said increased awareness of the benefits of exercise and stress management will help make a difference in this generation of students’ health.

“When I was in college, I mean, no one even talked about yoga. And now yoga is one of the main disciplines that we all do,” Sacco said. “And relaxation? No, that didn’t happen back in my day. There are many apps and stress management techniques that are great, and so there’s a lot of options right now.”

Gonzalez said although fitting all these habits into one’s lifestyle may seem overwhelming, persistence is what will make a positive difference.

She added it is important to remember that one small action is better than no action at all.

“I think just having grace with yourself. … You want to create lifestyle habits that you can sustain throughout the entirety of your life,” Gonzalez said.

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