The reality of our lifestyles
Australia has the reputation of an active, outdoor-loving nation, with a high quality of life and one of the best health systems in the world. Why then do nearly 50% of us have chronic lifestyle diseases, with the number rising each year?
Chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, and arthritis, are amongst the leading causes of disability and death throughout the world. Many of these diseases are linked to lifestyle choices that are well within our control.
A study into Australian Burden of Disease risk in 2015 found the risk factors contributing most burden was tobacco use, being overweight and obese, and dietary risks. Add to this our predominantly sedentary leisure time and the chronic stress in our workplaces, and it’s no wonder our health is worsening over time.
The downside of living longer
Australians aged 65 can expect to live with some level of disability for more than half of their remaining years.
Even though women will live an average of 4 years longer, they will also experience more severe impact to their daily lives due to disability (25% of remaining years, compared to 17% for men).
The study mentioned above found 38% of the disease burden in 2015 were preventable and due to modifiable risk factors.
The message is clear – we need to live differently NOW to live well LATER.
How to live longer AND healthier!
Fortunately, there is a proven way to take on our lifestyle choices and behaviours to ensure better health outcomes and continued high quality of life!
The following steps are closely aligned to the Transtheoretical model of behaviour change (also known as the Stages of Change model). These steps have been used since the late 1970s to successfully walk people through all manner of lifestyle and behaviour change, starting from quitting smoking to losing weight, building strength and much more.
Identify and acknowledge you have behaviours as part of your overall lifestyle that are harmful to your health. Also acknowledge that you CAN change these behaviours with the right actions and support.
Example: Sitting on the couch eating takeaway, often (..too often..)
Choose one of these harmful behaviours. Look at the benefits of changing it and the health cost of NOT changing it, compared against the downsides of making the change. Now simply count the Pros and Cons, You’ll have clearly demonstrated that making a change is the clear choice! (and if change doesn’t occur, your health will only stay the same or get worse..)
Example: Maybe you really enjoy takeaway, but do you enjoy it more than feeling comfortable in your body?
Start researching and planning actions you could take to improve or eliminate that harmful behaviour. This could be joining a gym or changing what you eat, but could also be ballroom dancing, walking meetings, or buying new shoes. Get creative about how you could positively impact this behaviour, and be realistic about how you can start.
Example: No budget? No problem! Home exercise is a great start. Or what about redirecting money from the takeaway. What else can you think of??
Start taking the identified actions, 1 step at a time. Whatever you think you can do sustainably, do half of that! Remember, you’re playing the long game and the one sure way to have setbacks or drop out is to take on too much at once. Make sure whatever you do sticks!
Example: Start with some simple exercises during the TV ad breaks, and have 1 junk food free day a week
After 3-6 months of starting this new behaviour, the focus shifts to protecting this new habit. Build systems to prevent falling back into old (unhealthy) ways, eg don’t buy the sweets in the first place. Also, do what you can to further integrate this behaviour into your life, even making it part of your identity (i.e. “I’m a runner now”).
Example: Now you may be aiming for 3 walks a week, and avoid having junk food in the house, plus you’ve deleted the Uber Eats app from your phone!
So, what next?
Working on 1 behaviour is a great start, but keep the change train rolling! Choose another harmful behaviour every 1-3 months and follow these steps again, and again. This way you’ve attempted to changed 4-12 harmful behaviours every year, and some new behaviours might even stick!
Celebrate every progress – you’re moving further away from chronic lifestyle diseases, and slowly but surely leading yourself to your best health yet!