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Lifestyle Medicine w/ Dr. Stefanie Meyer; DPI Candidate Kirsten Baesler

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Dr. Stefanie Meyer, Concordia College

Today's Segments

  • Dr. Stefanie Meyer, a certified Lifestyle Medicine professional, is the wellness director, and exercise science professor at Concordia College. She talks about chronic conditions linked to lifestyle.
  • Supt. of Public Instruction candidate Kirsten Baesler stops by Main Street. She is one of four candidates seeking the non-partisan office.

Transcript of interview with Dr. Stefanie Meyer

Ashley Thornberg

What is a lifestyle medicine professional?

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

Yeah, so lifestyle medicine is a field of science and it's been around for 20 years this year as kind of an organization. So what they are, what this field of lifestyle medicine is, it's an evidence-based approach of using lifestyle change as treatment. So if you think of medicine, Western medicine, like many of us are used to here, you often think of different treatments that can kind of be used to treat a very specific symptom, but not actually get rid of whatever the disease might be kind of growing into.

Where lifestyle medicine is looking at lifestyle change to treat chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, so that you don't have the symptoms of those diseases anymore. It doesn't just stop them from getting worse. You actually want to reverse the chronic illness progression.

And so that's the field of lifestyle medicine, and I am certified in that field of science.

Ashley Thornberg

So this is sort of the people who say, you mentioned some chronic illnesses and places like the CDC and the NIH are saying upwards of 80% of chronic illnesses can be prevented with lifestyle changes. What are some of the lifestyle changes that we can be implementing here?

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

The field of lifestyle medicine is foundational with six pillars. So I can list those off and kind of talk about those a little bit. So the pillars are physical activities, getting enough exercise or movement, eating nutritious whole foods, avoiding harmful substances, stress management, having good social connections is another one.

Yeah, I think I mentioned them all there. And getting some good sleep. I think I mentioned that one.

So those are super foundational to healthy living. And the word healthy, people can have different various definitions of what they think that is. But if we think about the best quality of life that we can create for ourselves, if we focus on those six things, we're upwards, like you mentioned, 80% of chronic illness can be prevented.

But we can also engage in these behaviors to reverse a trend that we might be on, maybe some not great behaviors or health functions. So we can actually use them to treat as well as to prevent. And you mentioned CDC, they really focus on prevention a lot, which is great.

However, the current patterns and pathways that we are using for preventing chronic illness, they're not working, because we're continuing to have an increase in chronic illness. So it's really important in this lifestyle medicine field, really is trying to get a shift in kind of the healthcare mindset as well that we can't just be talking about lifestyle as prevention, which is super important. We have to start using it as treatment as well.

So that's the only way we're going to start to shift this direction of chronic illness burden.

Ashley Thornberg

How many of these sort of chronic illness burdens that you're talking about are happening in much higher percentages in the United States and other very developed countries that have a lot of similar lifestyles?

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

So it's definitely connected to more of the developed countries as the chronic illness burden. There's something called the epidemiological shift or epidemiological transition, not to get too sciencey, but that's something that you kind of watch.

And as countries go from maybe undeveloped to more of a developed country like the United States, you see a shift from infectious disease issue and uncontrolled infectious diseases to then uncontrolled chronic illnesses. And that really has to do with our lifestyle change and what we have access to, as you kind of mentioned before, these lifestyles and are they easy to do? And they're not, which they seem like they should be because it's things that we know.

We know common sense-wise, we know fruits and vegetables are good for our bodies. We know moving our bodies is good for us. We know getting enough sleep is good for us, but it's not necessarily easy to do for real.

Ashley Thornberg

But Netflix is easy and so our drive-thrus.

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

Right. And so especially when our communities are built in a way and our culture is built in a way that doesn't value those things as much, we value the large coffee, caffeinated drinks and whatnot. It becomes very difficult to live that lifestyle on a regular basis.

Ashley Thornberg

That's really interesting what you said, when our community and our culture is built that way. What do you mean by that specifically when our communities are built a specific way? How does community design impact health?

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

Yeah. So that's a great question. Many times I like to kind of debunk maybe this myth that especially people who have decided, you know, I'm going to, let's just say lose weight.

That's such a common one. It's in the news a lot right now, the weight loss stuff. If you're at a point where you're deciding I'm going to be healthier.

So that's just one example. And then they realize that everything around them is built and designed to really not help them to, again, lose weight, healthier exercise, fill in the blank. What happens is that what's around us really does have an impact on the choices we're able to make.

And if we feel supported and many times we as individuals think we have a lack of willpower and we blame ourselves for not being able to do whatever the healthy item is that we want to do to really change our health behavior to be health promoting for what we need it to be. We blame ourselves and we think we just, we don't have enough motivation to do it. Something must be wrong with us, which in fact, how, who we surround ourself with the people that we surround ourself with up to three times kind of three people removed from us impact our behaviors and choices, whether we realize it or not.

Yeah. Like the sidewalks or lack of sidewalks is just one really common examples. So physical built spaces, as well as then the things we have access to and the people we surround ourselves with really have a large, much larger impact on us environmentally than we do personally with our own kind of motivations.

Ashley Thornberg

…Dr. Meyer earlier, you mentioned these kind of six pillars of health and really intriguing that you would say something like up to three people removed can impact our health decisions, but also going back to those six pillars, that sort of social health component being really important. What if your group of friends that you love to hang out with maybe doesn't have the healthiest eating or physical movement activities, but they're the kind of people that you really connect with on some sort of other level. What are some sort of guidelines for balancing that emotional health with the physical health?

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

Yeah, that's a great question. So I might answer this in kind of two different directions. Yeah.

So social connection in and of itself is important for our overall well-being. So let's think of it if you don't have positive social connections, whatever that might mean to you. So I would maybe say, if you have a social group you're hanging out with, but they're not promoting the rest of your physical health, are they really good for your social health?

And so I would maybe question. So if I would be working with you as a client or as a small group or something, that would be something that would show up on my assessment to say, well, you're saying that these are your social groups, but then all these other areas of your life are really struggling because of how much time you're spending in this social group. So it would be a really great point of maybe introspection, interflexion on what's going on there.

And I have had that happen when I've worked with people to say, when you're with this group, one of the pillars is avoiding risky substances. And when people are with a certain group, oftentimes they might indulge in too many risky substances or behaviors. And so it's really time to look at that.

That's on one hand of things. The other one though is, you can have more than one social group for whatever that need is. If you've got a group that is parents of kids that your kids are friends with, and that's different than another social group that you have when you don't want to talk about school-related activities, that's okay.

And knowing how those different social groups feed your overall sense of purpose and sense of well-being, that's what's most important about those social groups.

Ashley Thornberg

Yeah. Talk about that part of health, the point of being that sense of purpose and that sense of being and how that can impact your health decisions. If I've had a bad day at work, boy, do I eat pretty crappy.

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

Right, right. So that your social well-being, your sense of purpose that can be connected a lot, what you just mentioned there, it can be connected to stress management. So who we spend our time with, what kind of things happen in a day, social, emotional responses and experiences we have, as well as then managing our stress response.

I mean, it's really hard to kind of tease them apart in this specific maybe example of what do we do when or how does our social situation impact what happens when we go home at night? And then the behaviors that we engage in, a lot of it is kind of all balled up into one thing, but that stress response of, are we recognizing what's going on and how we're feeling? Do we have more days than, more maybe days where we're wondering why we spent all day doing that thing and how it's not really serving what we enjoy doing or why we feel like we're here using our skills.

Those things are really, really important to then everything else, like you mentioned, to then what we choose to eat or not eat, or if we're feeling like we want to engage in physical activity, what kinds of substances we choose to use as maybe coping. And we don't realize it because it's just, again, going back to the culture in our environment, it's just kind of the normal thing that we do after, like you said, a long day.

Ashley Thornberg

… Is there a difference between stress avoidance and stress management?

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

Yeah. You can't really avoid stress, although we really try to ignore it maybe or not deal with it and hope it goes away. But here's the good news.

When I talk about stress, I talk about there is a good side of it because stress is mostly a perception of physical or emotional tension that we feel. So we have real physical tension and we have real emotional tension that we feel. However, stress is how we respond to these things.

So this is the good news is that because it's a function of our mind, we can do things about it. We can have influence over how we react to situations. So we might not always be able to remove ourselves from a stressful situation that we're either going through for short term or long term, but we can influence how we respond to it with things like exercising is so, so good for our feelings of stress and being able to kind of manage our emotions as well as meditation.

There's walking meditation so you can build in exercise and meditation at the same time. There's things like yoga and there's so many different types of yoga that we could talk for a long time about that. So there's so many different things that you can do that are not trying to avoid the stress, which I would say things like using substances just tries to get rid of the feeling of the tension and that point in time, which it's effective, right?

And it's point in time, but it's not a long-term solution.

Ashley Thornberg

Is working too much also a way to avoid health issues?

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

Avoid dealing with them maybe, right? Yeah. So anytime we maybe over-fixate on something, so your example, working too much…That's a tricky one because it depends on if we feel a strong sense of purpose in the work we do, it could be that too. So I don't want to say it's all one thing because many times with feeling like we are doing a job or a vocation that we are absolutely meant to do and we love everything about it, we can kind of get pulled into it and not realize that there's other people in our life or there's other things in the world that we could be doing too for a little more balance.

But it could be that we just really feel called to do this thing or this job, this occupation really well. So that's kind of one side of it. But yes, the other side can be, are we always working because we don't want to deal with other things?

Because it's hard to really, it's not hard to live a healthy lifestyle, but it's hard to choose to because really so much, like I mentioned before, of our environment is working against us. And especially that social piece. Again, I'm going to kind of bring all these pillars back together because they're so related.

And if you are someone who's decided to make some more healthy changes and you don't have that support or you kind of have to work uphill against your social circle a little bit, it can be challenging right away.

Ashley Thornberg

Years ago, there were these billboards that had doctor advice and it was, if you could change just one thing, and it was, yeah, it was wear sunscreen or drink more water or don't eat at your desk or something like that. And I know there is never just one thing that you can do. But what are some of the more common concerns that are happening now because of the lifestyle of 21st century life in the United States?

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

Absolutely. So I do have an answer to this question. Unfortunately, it's not physical activity and that's my background.

I'm an exercise physiologist by training, first of all, and you should still exercise. But the best thing, if you're going to pick one thing, is to eat whole foods, mostly plants and not too much. And that's a quote from Michael Pollan, who wrote a book a while back doing some research on kind of looking around the world in the United States on some things with healthy living.

And really, if you're going to do one thing or start in one place, is look for plant-based foods and whole foods. Try not to buy those processed foods that are so easy to find in our lifestyle is really setting us up to kind of think we need to do that all the time. But that's what I would say.

If you could do one thing, eat whole foods, mostly plants and not too many of them.

Ashley Thornberg

Going back to the people that you kind of surround yourself with and the impacts on your health, obviously, there's family. And families, yes, they can be similar, but families can be remarkably different and have an impact on our health and specifically things like genes. Let's talk a little bit about genetics and how those can really impact our health outcomes.

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

So there's a couple of things we could talk about with genetics. First, I'm going to kind of start more in the space of talking about our environment and cultural impacts again, I think, since we've been talking about that.

I'll do that first. Especially when we think about things like hypertension, we go into the doctor and we take a look at our family history and our risk factors. And so we look at how many of your family members have high blood pressure, hypertension, how many have had type 2 diabetes, right?

So we answer those questions and we kind of look for risk that way. So that's a thing. However, more impactful to the chronic disease risk, like those examples I just mentioned, is our environment and the choices that we make around foods and exercise and tobacco and alcohol.

So just because we might have a risk factor for some of those things, like again, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, does not mean you're going to get it. And lifestyle and our environment has a much stronger influence on the trajectory of those risks. Now, on the other side of things, we're learning a lot about what's called epigenetics.

I am not someone who does research in this area, so I can really only talk to the cursory of it. But what we are learning, especially kind of looking at the nutrition side of things, is what we put in our bodies does impact future generations through that kind of genetic, the genetic line that happens with kind of the next generation that is born. And so there's definitely some research coming out with epigenetics and what we're putting in our bodies does matter for future generations.

Ashley Thornberg

What about things like addiction? If you're the child of an addict, are you automatically just in a position where your friends are meeting in a bar and you can't go because your parents are alcoholics?

Or what are some things you have to keep in mind there?

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

Addiction is a disease of the brain. And this is maybe more of a newer way of thinking of addiction than maybe generations past have thought of addiction. Again, I go back to human nature is one where we always want to blame ourselves because we think we have this lack of willpower and we should just be able to figure it out and will ourselves to make the right choices.

But especially with something like addiction, upwards of 50% of addiction does stem from a genetic predisposition. So it doesn't mean that you're automatically going to have a problem if have a parent that had had an addiction to the alcohol or another substance, but it means that 50% is one of the highest genetic predispositions that you can have, especially with any type of an addiction, addicting substance. I mean, it could be gambling as well.

I just know more about addiction with alcohol and drugs. So it's something that we don't talk about enough. And if I could tell people listening anything about kind of, if you think substances are something that you want to use for whatever reason, casually or otherwise, you really should kind of think about your family history and conversation.

The unfortunate part is, is we don't talk about it because there's stigma. It's embarrassing. It's difficult.

There's so many feelings and emotions that go into it. Because again, we think that we should just be able to figure it out ourselves. And the reality is addiction is a disease of the brain.

And so we need to be talking about it just like we do diseases of the rest of our physical body.

Ashley Thornberg

So often we think of the word medicine as a thing. It's like a pill or a shot. You take it, you have a specific problem, you take the medicine to fix the specific problem.

How do you think of the word medicine when you've got a word like lifestyle in front of it?

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

The field of lifestyle medicine and how I think of it is that it's not alternative medicine. That's maybe something I want to say what it's not, because sometimes we'll think of like it's this alternative way of being. And in fact, lifestyle medicine is Western medicine.

It's using the same science that we use to figure out a hypertension pill, but it's using food. It does similar things within the body. It's just, we don't have the side effects of using food that we might have if using some other kind of created products.

So it's really taking science that we've had around for a long time. There's really, really solid evidence on how we can treat and reverse diseases with stress management, food, nutrition, exercise, not using these toxins, toxic substances, and we can reverse and treat things just like we can with other created medicines. So it might seem like, well, that's a strange thing to think about, but it really is using the same foundational science as it would be as if we were using some type of pharmaceutical.

Ashley Thornberg

How do you work with your students at Concordia?

Dr. Stefanie Meyer

So my position at Concordia is to teach all first-year students two credits of wellness. And so we have the approach where we take a seven dimensions of wellness approach. And within that, I include all of these pillars of lifestyle medicine so that the idea is that we can start early on when students are learning to develop their own young adult lifestyle habits out on their own so that they can learn some of these behaviors and foundational reasons for why they would want to engage in some of these foundational behaviors and give them the tools to do that.

There's multiple types of self-assessments to take to kind of reflect on what are your behaviors, what are your values and things that are important to you and what health promoting behaviors can you engage in or learn from within the classes that we do at Concordia.

NOTE: Main Street uses turboscribe.ai to create transcripts from its interviews. The official record is the audio of the show.