Did you know even moderate lifestyle changes can dramatically impact your health and wellbeing, and may even reverse chronic disease?
Over the past 40 years, research by preventive medicine pioneer Dean Ornish, M.D. — along with hundreds of correlating studies — has shown that we hold tremendous power to affect our own health (and happiness).
We can do this through simple changes to what we eat, how often we move, how we deal with stress and how connected we feel to others.
“It’s not like there's one set of lifestyle recommendations for reversing heart disease, and a different one for diabetes, and a different one for prostate or breast cancer or gene expression,” Ornish says.
“It’s basically the same lifestyle recommendations for all of them, and the more you change, the more you can improve at any age — which is a very empowering realization for people.”
Ornish presents an immensely doable formula for how to live healthfully and joyfully for as long as we’re here. And his recommendations have not only helped former President Bill Clinton regain health after a second emergency heart surgery, but also have shaped the standards for preventive care now widely accepted by the medical and insurance industries.
Dr. Dean Ornish's 4-Part Formula for Greater Health & Vitality
1. It’s what you eat.
Ornish prescribes whole-foods, mostly plant-based diet, which includes healthy fats and good proteins to everyone. According to his website, these foods contain “at least 100,000 anti-cancer, anti-heart-disease and anti-aging properties.”
2. It’s about movement.
Even a half-hour of moderate-intensity exercise every day makes a difference. From increasing the efficiency of the heart and boosting metabolism to decreasing your risk for blood-clots and osteoporosis, regular aerobic activity and moderate strength-training are essential for not just improving health, but for maintaining it for life.
3. It’s how you cope.
The impact of stress on the body is well-known, and often found at the root of illness — be it heart disease or premature aging. Simply put: When your nervous system is on high alert all the time, it takes a toll on body and mind.
Ornish’s program emphasizes daily stress management practices that include meditation, mindfulness, and yoga. Done regularly, the program promises that these practices will help to undo the many impacts of stress on our systems.
4. It’s who you know.
Having a sense of community and close relationships are an essential part of Ornish’s prescription for health and longevity.
“There are literally thousands of studies showing that people who are lonely, depressed and isolated — which I think is the real epidemic in our culture — are 3-10 times more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a sense of love and connection to community,” he says. This is particularly important as people age, he emphasizes.
“To be in an environment where you can let down your emotional defenses and talk openly and authentically about what's going on in your life is incredibly meaningful,” he says. “Nothing in medicine, not diet, not exercise, not even [quitting] smoking affects our health and our well-being and even our longevity as much as love and support.”
Other Pearls of Health Wisdom from Dean Ornish, M.D.
- These same principles hold true for everyone.
The beneficial changes that result when you upgrade your diet, get regular exercise, reduce stress and increase connection with others happen no matter what age or what condition you start in, Ornish says.
In fact, his research has shown that telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that shorten as we age, can actually grow as a result of these changes. “[Ours is] the only intervention — including drugs or surgery — that's been actually shown in a controlled study to make your telomeres longer, in a sense beginning to reverse aging at the cellular level.”
- Intention is a better motivation than fear.
It’s well known among doctors that even people who face a serious health crisis will often revert back to their previous unhealthy behaviors within 4-6 weeks. It takes a clear intention for wanting to be healthy, to create lasting change, Ornish says. This is why he asks his patients, “Why do you want to live?”
For President Clinton, commitment to change meant he would be able to see his daughter Chelsea get married and to hold his first grandchild, Ornish recalls. “While fear of dying is not sustainable, joy of living is,” he adds. “You make these changes because they make life more pleasurable, you can think more clearly, you have more energy, you have better sex, you can move without pain. What you gain is so much more than what you give up.”
- It works!
Ornish’s recommendations yield results in very little time. “Because these underlying biological mechanisms are so dynamic, you don’t have to wait long to see the benefits,” Ornish says.
Blood flow increases. Digestion improves. Energy levels rise. The areas of your brain that control memory and feelings of well-being get bigger while those that trigger things like the fight-or-flight impulse calm down. In fact, controlled studies of Ornish’s Spectrum plan after just 3 months identified 500 gene changes, including “turning on” protective genes that keep us healthy and repair damage and “turning off” those that cause heart disease, oxidative stress, inflammation, cancer, diabetes, among many other conditions.
- Every little bit counts.
To any degree that you can incorporate these lifestyle changes there's a corresponding benefit, Ornish says. But it's not all or nothing. If you’re trying to reverse a life-threatening condition, your commitment to change will need to be drastic. But for most of us, he says, trying to improve upon already good health and to feel even better through the years, you simply can’t fail by trying.
“What matters most is your overall way of eating and living. So if you indulge yourself one day, eat healthier the next. If you don't have time to meditate for an hour, do it for a minute. If you don't have time to walk for half an hour, do it for whatever you can do,” he advises. “Just know there's a corresponding benefit, and then you can't fail.”
PS - These insights from Dean Ornish, M.D. were featured in The Body Intelligence Summit hosted by bestselling authors Gay and Katie Hendricks. If you'd like to discover how you can Transform Stress into Joy with Body Intelligence, you're invited to download Katie's complimentary, hour-long recording where you'll learn to turn fear into flow with simple, pleasurable practices.