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Changing behaviors

Healthy eating, exercise: ways to combat lifestyle-related diseases

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Those who are at risk for developing a lifestyle-related disease — such as type 2 diabetes — may be able to reverse the illness by improving their diet and engaging in regular exercise, said one BYU professor.

But it's not easy for a population who is heavier now than at any time in history, said Steve Aldana, a BYU professor of health and human performance.

"People have to change behaviors," he said. "People have to physically decide to eat something different and in smaller quantities and to find 30 minutes in their day to do something active. Those are huge, which is why most Americans fail to do it."

In fact, the general population is becoming, as a whole, less healthy each year. In Utah, where Brother Aldana compiles yearly statistics, there is no sign of that trend slowing; an estimated 7 percent of the Utah population is diabetic. That percentage — as well as the state's obesity rate — increases yearly, he said. "Every year we gather data, we break a new record."

More important, he said, the population of Church members in Utah is worse off than the general Utah population when it comes to diabetes and obesity.

People have to find some internal emotional reason to say, "That is it, I am going to change. I am going to make time to exercise."

Without a healthful diet and exercise, the average person will die 10 to 20 years prematurely. Type 2 diabetes, for example, is avoidable 91 percent of the time. Colon cancer is avoidable 71 percent of the time. Strokes are avoidable 70 percent of the time and heart disease 82 percent of the time, he said.

Brother Aldana recently completed a study on a person's lifestyle and diabetes — "just one in a long litany of diseases that are lifestyle related." But, he explained, his findings can be related to other diseases that have a similar cause — an unhealthy lifestyle.

In the recent study, Brother Aldana found that those who have or are at-risk of developing type 2 diabetes may be able to reverse the illness with diet and exercise.

"We know an awful lot about diabetes prevention, but we do very little about it," he said. "Seven to nine percent of Americans have type 2 diabetes, and half don't even know it yet. It's a disease that's going to kill many Americans way before their time."

Type 2 diabetes, which accounts for 94 percent of all diabetes cases, typically develops later in a person's life, usually as a result of a poor diet and lack of activity. The affliction can cause blindness, loss of limbs and, ultimately, death. People who have questions about their health should consult a doctor regarding medical issues or before starting an exercise and nutrition program.

Brother Aldana's study, published in the November 2, 2005, issue of the American Association of Occupational Health Nurses journal, details implementing a work-sponsored wellness program for medical device company B.D. Medical. For the study, Brother Aldana and his team of researchers screened employees of the company to determine who was at-risk for or had diabetes. Those who tested positive were asked to volunteer to participate in the yearlong health program, which focused on reducing the amount of food people ate, improving the quality of that food and increasing physical activity.

"Participants ate more whole grains, fruits and vegetables, less refined carbohydrates and foods closer to their natural form," he said. They were also expected to exercise any way they chose for 30 minutes each day.

By measuring blood insulin levels and running glucose tolerance tests, Brother Aldana was able to observe how long sugars stayed in a person's system. Participants were screened at the beginning of the study, six months later and one year after the program started.

Brother Aldana observed dramatic improvements at both the six-month and one-year marks. In the end, more than half the participants were no longer diabetic or at risk. Cardiovascular risk indicators such as cholesterol and blood pressure decreased as well.

"Ideally, it's best to prevent diabetes from ever happening in the first place, but in many cases where it appeared to be too late we were able to stop it or reverse it," Brother Aldana said.

The professor said he feels the results of the study, although impressive, don't show the full influence lifestyle change can have on chronic illnesses like diabetes. "I wasn't at all surprised by the results," he said. "I was actually a little disappointed that more people didn't improve. The data we gathered confirm again how important it is for people to have encouragement to live healthy."

Brother Aldana also wasn't surprised the company wanted help establishing a wellness program. A diabetic employee can cost a company $100,000 in health care costs. Annually, the U.S. spends $132 billion treating diabetes.

Brother Aldana, the author of The Culprit and The Cure, is a strong advocate for lifestyle change as a way to treat illnesses in general.

"This is about more than just diabetes," Brother Aldana said. "It is about preventing, arresting and reversing many of the chronic diseases that Americans have."