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Skills - Not just Pills - Help Treat these Common Chronic Conditions

One of my duties as a primary care physician is to help my patients treat and live with complicated illnesses like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Over the years, I’ve learned that many patients hope they can just “pop a pill” and go on with their lives, but in reality, the only way to increase lifespan and quality of life with these diseases is to develop important habits I call “lifestyle skills.”

Diabetes and cardiovascular disease

The two most common types of chronic illnesses I see in my practice are Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They are related, and they can both be improved or worsened through lifestyle choices. Type 2 diabetes happens when the body can no longer use insulin effectively, leading to the body’s inability to use sugar for energy. Uncontrolled, it can lead to kidney failure, cardiovascular disease and blindness.

Cardiovascular disease is a broad term for diseases of the blood vessels and heart, and includes hypertension, chest pain and stroke.

Left untreated or poorly managed, both of these conditions wreak havoc on the body and can lead to untimely death and a poor quality of life.


The good news is that science has made enormous strides in treating these diseases. Work with your doctor to find the right combination of medicines that work best for you.  While taking medicine (and paying for it) is never fun, it’s the easiest part of the equation for staying healthy with these diseases.

The hard part: lifestyle skills

Think of your healthy lifestyle not as a chore, but as a skill. Skills take time, discipline and effort to hone, and once you stop trying you start faltering. While skills are never easy to achieve, they are satisfying to improve, and they require following guidelines and rules to achieve them.

If you have one of these chronic diseases, improving your lifestyle skills gets the best outcome-and may even get you off the pills!

 Developing good habits around diet, exercise, sleep, disease management and mental attitude are essential for treating these chronic diseases. Form a team made of your primary care doctor, your specialists and nurses to help. Also consider working with a certified health coach. Check in with your team as often as you can-they will become your best cheerleaders and give you support if you start to fall off the wagon. Here are some skills you’ll need to develop:

  • Positive attitude. Accept that you can’t make changes unless you want it for YOU.  Write down specific lifestyle goals and include the reasons why you want to reach those goals. When you start to feel discouraged re-read your goals and the reasons behind them.
  • Diet. The key to a good diet is education and awareness. Know what is, and what is not, a good food choice. Rely on your healthcare team for advice, but also tap into the wealth of information available on the internet. Start following health food bloggerslink opens in a new window and experimenting with new recipes. Go ahead and avoid healthy foods you don’t like, but make it a point to try new healthy foods and keep an open mind. Keep a food diary to keep track of what you are eating. This can be especially important if you are tracking blood sugar levels.
  • Exercise.  If you haven’t found an exercise you like, keep looking. There are dozens of different types of exercises you can try. Anything that gets your heart pumping and builds muscle will boost your health.  Many of my patients find that exercising in a group setting is more fun and motivational than exercising alone. If you don’t know where to start, then just start walking. Increase your distance every day, and try to pick up the speed as well.
  • Medicine schedule. Take your medications religiously and exactly how your doctor instructs you to. If you have a hard time remembering, set a timer on your phone or ask your partner to help you.
  • Reach your goals. Your doctor will likely give you goals to reach, whether its waist circumference, cholesterol levels or blood pressure levels. Make it your mission to reach those goals in the time allotted, and meet with your healthcare team as often as necessary for adjustments, ideas and pep talks.

I know it’s not easy developing these skills. Skill #1, positive attitude, is essential for success. I’ve seen many of my patients successfully adopt these skills and ultimately be able to decrease or even stop their medication.

About the author:

Dr. Lowery is a board-certified family physician with nearly 20 years of experience. He considers himself an old-fashioned family doc who utilizes the latest medical treatments to ensure the most compassionate, personal and high quality medical care. You can learn more about him by visiting his website at opens in a new window. He writes for Combined Insurance in an effort to help educate readers, but his medical opinions and advice are for entertainment purposes only and should not be considered a substitute for visiting your doctor.