What is Lifestyle Medicine?

Issues around health and chronic disease are rarely out of the news. In fact, barely a week goes by without a new study or report which has a lifestyle medicine component or angle. But how many of these reports frame the discussion in terms of lifestyle medicine – or are even aware of the term?

When we founded the British Society of Lifestyle Medicine five years ago, the term was well established and other lifestyle medicine societies globally – most notably in Australia and the United States – had led the way in terms of organising at a national level. BSLM may have been a few years behind, but I’m happy to say we soon caught up – and have gone on to play a leading role in organisational development at a continental and international level – through the European Lifestyle Medicine Council and the Lifestyle Medicine Global Alliance (soon to become the World Lifestyle Medicine Council).

At BSLM, I’m also pleased to report rising engagement levels among our growing community of clinicians, other healthcare professionals and patients.

I was, and remain, comfortable with the term lifestyle medicine. But as a community it remains as important as ever for us to explain what lifestyle medicine is – and what it isn’t, consistently. It isn’t complementary or alternative … it is an evidence-based, established and respected medical discipline, which focuses on supported behaviour change to help people live lives free from chronic disease.

Making lifestyle changes at the individual level is only one part of lifestyle medicine. Our discipline also acknowledges the need for change at the wider societal level. The social and economic determinants of health matter just as much as our own personal efforts to live healthier lives, #1change at a time!

And of course, lifestyle medicine isn’t about blaming or judging people – there’s no place for that in the consulting room, or in policy making. It’s not only wrong, but ineffective and counterproductive – and it fails to recognise the complex reasons why people find themselves at risk from chronic illness.

Where issues relating to chronic illness do crop up, BSLM will continue to advocate for lifestyle medicine approaches to be part of the solution and for greater understanding of the term.

Whether it’s called lifestyle medicine or not, there’s certainly a renewed focus on the impact changes to lifestyle can have on chronic disease and there have been a number of high-profile examples in recent months.

In October, the government commissioned report into overprescribing by the Chief Pharmaceutical Officer for England, was of huge relevance to those of us pushing for lifestyle medicine approaches. We were quick to welcome the report and to highlight the synergy between its conclusions and the approaches we have been recommending for many years. In summary: don’t first reach for drugs or surgery, where lower cost, and lower risk, lifestyle interventions can be more effective.

In the summer, the publication of the UK National Food Strategy also had plenty of “food for thought” for those of us interested in diet and nutrition and its impact on health. Again, we may not have heard many people use the term lifestyle medicine when discussing the report, but perhaps that is beside the point. The fact is a national conversation was happening about the importance of healthy eating – and again the lifestyle medicine community was part of that discussion.

Similarly, the increase in attention around climate change which occurred around the COP26 summit in Glasgow was also an opportunity to fly the flag for lifestyle medicine approaches. We’ve often said there’s no health without mental health, but ultimately there’s also no health without planetary health. It’s important we don’t lose momentum on this post COP26 – and we must keep making the case for lifestyle medicine and the need to create a healthy living environment for everyone on Earth.

Finally, the publication of new NICE guidelines around the treatment of depression and anxiety in November, was also widely discussed in the lifestyle medicine community. The recommendation to avoid the use of medication as a first line treatment option for mild cases of these illnesses was something we warmly welcomed. As is so often the case, the efficacious, practical and low risk / low-cost lifestyle medicine treatment options are often the ones we end up settling on. I’m pleased to see us heading in the right direction on this issue in particular.

Personally, I would like to see us to continue to frame our contribution to these kinds of debates in terms of lifestyle as medicine. When these issues crop up, let’s use it as an opportunity to introduce others to the term and explain what it means and how it is relevant. And if necessary to explain (again) what lifestyle medicine isn’t. If you need some evidence to back you up, our foundational lifestyle medicine courses, which will be delivered by our Learning Academy when it is launched at the end of winter, will be a good place to start.

As a movement, I think we are pushing at an open door right now – more so than when we first founded BSLM in 2016. There is growing recognition of the complex lifestyle factors which lie behind much of the chronic disease epidemic.

BSLM is a community of committed members, many who are now qualified in Lifestyle Medicine. We have come together under the banner of lifestyle medicine, and I am keen that we collectively keep making the case for its use in healthcare settings and by all healthcare professionals. And ultimately, it is what we do with our knowledge of lifestyle medicine principles, and their applications, which really matters.

So, when you next see something in the news or on your social media feed which is clearly of relevance to lifestyle medicine – don’t be afraid to say so. Remind and inform people about lifestyle medicine – what it is, and its enormous potential to change lives and societies by reducing the burden of chronic disease. Doing so will help us to grow the lifestyle medicine movement in the years ahead – #1change at a time!