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How Modern Medicine Can Undermine Habits of Health

When I was a critical care physician, I saw a stream of patients facing dire health challenges. In many cases, lifetimes of poor health choices deteriorated their health to the point that they needed extensive, invasive, and sometimes risky medical procedures to keep them alive.

We did everything we could to help, and before we sent patients home, we would explain how they should quit smoking and exercise more and pay better attention to what they ate. They would nod their heads and agree, but invariably we would see many of our patients again and again, in increasingly worsening states. That cycle continued until there was nothing that we could do to save them.

These experiences galvanized a shift in my thinking. I wanted to really help people transform their lives. I believed that we could treat patients more effectively, that there was a better way. And by now, you know this story. I left my role at the hospital, co-founded OPTAVIA, and built Dr. A’s Habits of Health Transformational System.

But I often think about my work in critical care because the sometimes-miraculous advances in modern medicine influence the way we think about our Habits of Health in a surprising way.

Before I continue, let me make this perfectly clear: Always talk to your physician before making changes in your health plan. The phenomenon I am about to describe is not meant to make you abandon treatment plans but rather to think about how you can make better choices for your health.

Because the brilliant minds in the medical community continue to push the envelope of what we can treat and how effectively we can treat it, a strange thing happens: Patients take their own lifestyle choices less seriously. They think that because there is a treatment available, they do not have to be mindful of what they eat or how often they exercise.

For example, a few years ago I wrote about a study that found patients taking statins—a common drug prescribed to combat high cholesterol—were in many instances more likely to eat worse on the drug. Yes, their cholesterol was high, but they had a pill to fix that, so what they ate didn’t really matter (in their minds).

When we believe we have a “fix” for a problem, we can trick ourselves into thinking that we need to take it less seriously. When it comes to our health, medicine is an incredible tool to leverage, but our biggest opportunity to live potentially longer, healthier lives lies overwhelmingly in our daily choices.

I emphasize this fact because news of medical breakthroughs in longevity are common, and they will be even more common as science continues to explore the limits of the human body. The New York Times, for example, just published a big article on a series of treatments designed to increase our lifespan. The work these physicians and scientists are doing is amazing, but there is the real possibility that many people who read these articles start to worry less about aging because somebody out there is developing a “cure.”

There is no magical cure for aging—no single pill we can take to live longer, vibrant lives. Just as it was with my critical care patients, doctors can do a great deal to extend your life, but if you leave the hospital bed and go right back to your pack-a-day smoking habit and your love for fast food, no amount of medicine can save you from your choices.

Habits of Health are your biggest opportunity to take ownership of your own story and to have more time to spend with loved ones. Medicine is a worthwhile tool, and you should continue to talk to medical experts about your health and your treatment plans, but you should also be supporting the work of your physicians with a healthier lifestyle.

Don’t be like one of my critical care patients coming back to see me worse off than before. I would rather run into you many years from now in a park where you’re laughing and running with your grandchildren, and the Habits of Health are the path to make that future a reality.

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