Beyond pills: 5 conditions you can improve with lifestyle changes
We’ve gotten used to taking pills for much that ails us. But prescription drugs are not infallible and many have been pulled from the market or slapped with a warning by the FDA, due to health-threatening side effects.
We don’t lack for alternatives. Plenty of research shows that exercise, diet, and other lifestyle changes are effective weapons against many chronic diseases. But there are more findings about preventing diseases with so-called lifestyle changes than there are about treating them.
Let’s be honest: there’s a wonderful convenience to taking a pill. It’s just so much easier than changing what we eat, mustering up the time and willpower to exercise, or fighting the uphill battle of weight loss. Doctors see this and, understandably, figure medication is a more dependable, and responsible, way of treating a disease.
But for those wary of taking medications who want to take the road less traveled, here’s a brief overview of five common conditions and approaches to managing them without medication or supplements.
1. Exercising to ease arthritis
If you’re heavy and the problem is arthritic knees, losing weight won’t make the arthritis go away, but there’s a good chance it will make it less painful—and that’s what most people care about. Research results published several years ago showed that combining some weight loss (5.7% of body weight) with moderate exercise will result in less pain and improved mobility for heavy people with arthritic knees.
Even for those who aren’t heavy, exercise that doesn’t put “load” on the joints—swimming and bicycling are good examples—works to reduce pain. For walking, the right shoes can make a huge difference for people with arthritic knees. A padded heel can cut in half the force with which your foot hits the ground with each stride. A knee brace is another thing to try. It can realign the knee, taking pressure off the “compartment” of the joint that’s the most arthritic.
Activity that targets certain muscle groups is a proven pain reliever; beleaguered knees respond well to stronger quadriceps, for example. Some rain on the exercise parade: exercise may be more beneficial—and practical—for people with relatively mild cases of arthritis.
2. Eating for healthier cholesterol
You can adjust your diet in several ways to lower levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol. Your LDL level may drop by 5% or so if you keep foods high in saturated fat (namely, meat and full-fat dairy products) off the menu. Every additional gram of soluble fiber per day—the sort of fiber found in oatmeal, beans, nuts, and fruit—may reduce LDL levels by about 2 mg/dL. Diets that have included margarines fortified with sterols—compounds that block cholesterol absorption—have brought about LDL drops of 10% to 20% in some studies. And in others, low-fat, “plant-based” diets that are very heavy on the vegetables (10 servings a day) and legumes and nuts (four servings a day) have dialed down LDL levels by almost 10%.
The problem is that all of these approaches fall short of what the statin drugs can accomplish: a drop of 25% to 35% in LDL. The exception may be a diet that includes a veritable dream team of LDL-lowering foods (plant sterols, soy protein, soluble fiber, and almonds). It has managed to match effects of statins in several short, head-to-head studies.
And HDL, the “good” cholesterol? Exercise is probably the best way to boost levels. Inactive people who start to exercise regularly have seen their HDL levels increase by as much as 20%. Moderate alcohol consumption (one or two drinks a day) is another HDL booster. Excess weight, smoking, and diets heavy in easy-to-digest carbohydrates depress HDL levels, so changes in those areas can give your HDL a lift.
3. Mental—and physical—exercise to avoid cognitive decline
Memory training and other “brain exercises” seem to help healthy older people stay sharp, although there’s been some question about how well the gains translate to real, everyday activities. Scores of studies have been done and, by and large, the results in people with early, and even full-fledged, Alzheimer’s have been positive. Several studies have shown that structured “cognitive stimulation” programs administered by caregivers at home may help Alzheimer’s patients. But there are questions about the quality of a lot of the research showing positive results. Moreover, the bar for success is set pretty low: a positive finding is often a slowing of the rate of cognitive decline, not reversing it.
Evidence for the mental benefits of physical exercise may be stronger and more consistent than the evidence for mental gymnastics. A study published in 2007 is typical. It showed that even a simple, hour-long exercise program twice a week had a positive effect on the ability of Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes to perform daily activities.
4. Physical activity to relieve depression
Many studies have found that regular physical activity seems to have an antidepressant effect. Some research has shown that a fairly strenuous exercise program results in a 50% decrease in depressive symptoms, a drop comparable to that seen when people take antidepressant medications or receive cognitive behavioral therapy. The particulars of the program seem less important than sticking with it. Physical activity may affect the brain directly by boosting neurogenesis: brain cells grow a bit and make more connections where it counts.
It may not be just the physical activity alone that improves mood. Consider everything that can come with it: camaraderie if you exercise with others, the psychological boost from adhering to a challenging routine, the relief of focusing on something besides your problems. The exercise-as-antidepressant formula does have a major problem: one common feature of depression is that nothing seems enjoyable or worthwhile. Finding the motivation to exercise may be a huge, even insurmountable, hurdle for some.
5. Lifestyle changes to lower high blood pressure
If there’s one condition that you can change without a pill, it’s high blood pressure or, as doctors call it, hypertension. Take your pick: lose some weight, get more exercise, eat less sodium, change your diet. They all work.
If you’re heavy, each 2 pounds of weight loss—easier said than done, we know—translates into a 1–mm Hg drop in systolic (the top number) and diastolic (the bottom number) blood pressure. Regular exercise can even lower your blood pressure if you don’t lose weight.
Eliminating about three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt (1.8 grams of sodium) from your diet each day may drop your systolic reading by five points and the diastolic by three. Trials of vegetarian diets have shown that they can reduce systolic blood pressure by 5 mm Hg. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet is even better, lowering systolic blood pressure as much as 12 points and diastolic pressure by five. DASH dieting does involve eating a lot of fruits and vegetables (seven to nine servings a day) and low-fat dairy products (two to three servings a day), plus whole grains, nuts, poultry, and fish, all while keeping saturated fat, red meat, and sweets to a minimum. If you’ve got the discipline to follow DASH and keep your salt intake low, the decrease in blood pressure is comparable to that seen with high blood pressure medications.
Any of these lifestyle strategies will also make blood pressure–lowering medication more effective. Whether they can replace the pills depends on how high your blood pressure is. Current guidelines recommend lifestyle changes for prevention and control of high blood pressure, but they aren’t terribly optimistic about the control part, predicting that most people with high blood pressure (defined as 140/90 and above) will need to take one or two medications. Even at lower readings, if someone has other health problems (diabetes, for example), most doctors will prescribe blood pressure pills. But weight loss, exercise, and diet can make lower dosages possible and even eliminate the need for medication altogether.