October 14, 2019
The front-page headline said it all: "Heart disease roars back."
The Wall Street Journal story, published on June 22, examined how historic reductions in cardiovascular disease death rates were slowly backsliding among middle-aged Americans.
The article cited behavioral-linked factors, most notably obesity and diabetes, among the underlying causes in the mortality reduction rate. But what jumped off the page was an expressed need among heart experts for new tools and approaches.
A quote from Dr. Sadiya Kahn, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University, nailed it: “We’ve made such great progress in coming up with smoking-cessation programs. For physical activity, healthy diet and weight loss, we haven’t found the right approach.”
"Finally!" I screamed as I read the piece. I am a proponent and a living example of new, motivationally-based approaches to healthy behavior anchored in our social relationships. They work better than jumping directly into a radical diet and exercise regimen.
It is clear that Americans need a different and unconventional path to good health. Only through the adoption and cultural acceptance of a new model can Americans overcome the practical constraints to healthy living, including time and attention, and reverse these alarming trends.
My studies of men over 50 have given me insight into a condition that is present in men and women of all ages, as this new reporting showed. I felt validated and positioned to provide the new approach the experts desired.
A tsunami of discouraging data document how Americans are becoming more sedentary, with less than 3 percent of adults leading a healthy lifestyle. The data comes from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Mayo Clinic.
A Wall Street Journal article from April, titled “Americans are becoming more sedentary,” referenced a growing body of research that has linked sedentary behavior to early mortality, among other repercussions. Yes, our behavior is literally killing us.
Despite these compelling arguments for behavior change, Americans, of all ages and genders, are not motivated to act. Distraction and scarcity of time dominate.
A New York Times article from January, dubbed “Simplicity bolsters wellness,” described a behavioral economics study in which the researchers detailed the failure of so-called “active” policies – like going to the gym – based on an individual’s scarcity of time, money or bandwidth.
In place, the article suggested “passive” policies like water fluoridation or air quality improvement as a means to improve public health in view of just how busy and distracted we are. Really? Is this the best we can do in view of the life and death circumstances that are emerging from the data? Are our values that inverted?
Paralleling these gloomy findings and giving support for a new socio-motivational model is a growing body of knowledge concerning the impact of social factors on health. Often labeled as "social determinants of health," these factors typically include employment, housing, transportation and food insecurity. They emanate, in part, from the socioeconomic conditions of health inequities associated with poverty.
However, there is increasing recognition that social and emotionally-based interactions, outside of the socioeconomic framework, can impact one's health. This has been documented by my own work and the research of others, such as my Cooper University Health Care colleagues Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli, authors of "Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference."
Perhaps, the most telling indicator of future reliance on social factors in promoting health is the growth of motivational interviewing curricula at U.S. medical schools. The technique is focused on the use of a patient’s social aspirations as a means to promote behavioral change.
Together, these examples illustrate a common thread that social and emotional factors can and do impact our health. That's no small point in the context of these alarming new trends and a cry for new approaches to behavior change.
A special report released by Harvard Medical School, titled "A guide to Men’s Health Fifty and Forward," put it best: “Lifestyle changes really matter. They are more powerful in protecting you against all of these killer diseases than any medicine yet invented or discovered.”
Healthy living is personal, about as personal as it gets. Building your behaviors on a platform of motivation and leveraging your most emotionally-based relationships deepens the personal connection. But given the depth and breadth of the challenges chronicled here, Americans need more.
As a long-term executive I know that culture beats strategy any day of the week. Your personal commitment to living healthy is a critical first step, and specific instructions for building your own motivationally-based lifestyle are detailed among my many articles here at PhillyVoice. But a larger and more powerful cultural change is needed to confront the indifference and distraction that Americans face in regard to their behavior. Somehow, someway, we need to find that new approach to diet and weight loss called for by Dr. Khan.
My model injects social motivation into the existing framework of diet and exercise, both as a prerequisite and sustaining feature. I've seen it work in men over 50, one of the toughest, most change-resistant populations.
It’s a marriage of purpose and process in which individuals develop a strong cognitive association between their emotional agenda and their health. It's an approach that recognizes that one’s social aspirations are the end game, the driving force for which healthy behavior is the means. In older men, it means that they live healthy long enough to enjoy their grandchildren, travel or embark on an encore career. The applications for men and women of all ages is clear.
Yes, Dr. Kahn, there is a new approach. It’s called social motivation, finding America’s “why” for healthy behavior.
Louis Bezich, senior vice president of strategic alliances at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50."