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Column: Filling the Prescription for Diet and Exercise

By Eugene Isaac, PA-C, MSPAS

Don’t smoke. Run more. Eat less. Sounds easy right? If it was, healthcare in the United States would be drastically different than it is today. Lifestyle changes are often the best medicine for your health, but one of the hardest pills to swallow. However, according to a Center for Disease Control (CDC) Report in 2014, the top 5 leading causes of death could be reduced by 40% with lifestyle modifications. Not only would this improve the health of many Americans and reduce preventable deaths, but it would also significantly decrease the burden of healthcare costs in our country.

The five leading causes of death in the United States include: heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory diseases, like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), unintentional injuries, and cerebral vascular disease (stroke).

There is no doubt that quitting smoking, eating healthier, and exercising regularly will improve your health. But just how will it improve your health?

Quitting smoking will reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks and strokes. It will also improve you lung health and lower your chance for lung cancer or chronic lung disease like COPD or bronchitis.

Healthy eating can lower your cholesterol and blood pressure and reduces your risk for heart and vascular disease. It also lowers your risk for diabetes, obesity, and cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends eating less processed and red meats and eating more whole grains and fruits and vegetables.

Exercise can reduce stress, improve sleep, help you lose weight, and increase energy. This lowers your risk of cancer, heart disease, and stroke. The American Cancer Society recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, like a fast walk, or 75 minutes a week of strenuous exercise, like running or biking.

All of these boost your immunity and give your more energy. In fact, coupled with using sun block, wearing safety devices like seat belts and helmets, and avoiding misuse of illegal and prescription drugs and excess alcohol, you can significantly decrease your risk of the top five causes of death in the United States.

But you’ve heard all this before. We know these things are good for us but it is incredibly difficult to make happen. Why? The answer is because our current lifestyle has become habit, and breaking habits is incredibly difficult.

How do we change habits?

According to New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize writer Charles Duhigg in an interview with NPR on his book “The Power of Habit,” habits form from a psychological pattern called habit loops that are comprised of three parts: the cue or trigger, the routine, and the reward. While our brain is in charge of making decisions, once a habit is formed, this active process changes to autopilot, which is why we can do a habitual task simultaneously with another task (think cook and talk on the phone). It’s also why when we change our environment, or cues and triggers, like when we are on vacation, it is easier to change our habits.

How do we break our current lifestyle habits and replace them with better habits? The first step is to recognize our existing bad habits. Is it smoking, sedentary lifestyle, obesity, or all of the above? According to the American Psychological Association, you should start with smaller, realistic goals. For example, your overall goal may be to lose 50 pounds, but make your initial goal the first 5 pounds. You’ll experience success sooner and keep motivated.

Eliminate just one item from your diet, starting with soda, for example. Want to eventually run marathons? Make walking the initial exercise, and work up to running.

Make one change at a time. If exercise is difficult due to injury, change your diet first. Not ready to give up the sweets? Earn them by exercising. It’s always the right time to quit smoking.

Make a plan. Map out your goals and post them somewhere that will visibly remind you every day.

Involve a friend, family member, co-worker, or anyone else to help keep you motivated.

Get support. Personal trainers, healthcare professionals, your mom… good cheerleaders keep us motivated.

Most importantly, stop thinking and talking about it and just do it. Nike got it right. And remember, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. That’s Laozi.


Making Lifestyle Changes that Last. American Psychological Association. Retrieved May 6, 2015, from

Lifestyle Changes for Heart Attach Prevention. American Heart Association. Retrieved May 6, 2015, from

Fresh Air (March 5, 2012). Habits: How they form and how to break them. NPR. Retrieved May 6, 2015, from

Simon, Stacy (June 24, 2014). CDC: Lifestyle Changes Can Reduce Death from Top 5 Causes. American Cancer Society. Retrieved May 6, 2015, from

Media Relations (May 1, 2014). Up to 40 percent of annual deaths from each of five leading US causes are preventable. CDC. Retrieved May 6, 2015, from

Eugene Isaac, PA-C, MSPAS, is a Cardiac Surgery Physician Assistant at Beebe Healthcare. Eugene received a Master’s of Physician Assistant Studies from Towson/Essex University in Baltimore, Md. He has trained and worked at several medical institutions and their affiliates including Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. Before joining Beebe’s cardiac surgery team in 2012, he worked as a surgical physician assistant at Medstar’s Good Samaritan Hospital.