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Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.
Finding Meaning Through the Many Windows of Wellness

Should Doctors Prescribe Lifestyle Changes?

Carrie Steckl, Ph.D. Updated: Nov 6th 2012

Alice peers at the doctor, wondering what he is going to say. Yes, she's overweight. No, she doesn't exercise enough. True, her diet is less than exemplary. "But that's my choice," Alice thinks, even as she winces when the doctor tells her she has hypertension and that her diabetes has worsened. "Don't you say it," Alice thinks. Then she sighs in relief. The doctor hands her a prescription for an antihypertensive medication and a renewal of her diabetes pills. The elephant in the room stays silent.

prescription pad and stethescopeThere is something very wrong with this picture, although the scenario is all-too-common. Alice clearly could benefit from more exercise and a healthier diet, yet the doctor never broaches the subject of lifestyle changes. Instead, he writes a prescription for more drugs.

For years, doctors have been nervous about recommending lifestyle changes to their patients because they feared they would be seen as judgmental, discriminatory, or infringing on the right to personal choice.

Yet don't patients have the right to refuse to fill their medication prescriptions just as much as they have the right to ignore lifestyle recommendations?

Prescribing lifestyle changes is pure common sense. We are replete with research showing that increasing physical activity and eating healthfully can prevent, ameliorate, and even reverse many diseases. And positive lifestyle changes not only affect our physical well-being; they improve our emotional well-being too.

Luckily, the medical community is starting to show a bit more boldness with their patients. Here are three examples:

  • Dr. Edward M. Phillips directs the Institute of Lifestyle Medicine in Brighton, Massachusetts, which he co-founded along with the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital Network and Harvard Medical School. Somewhat of a pioneer in the field of lifestyle medicine, his institute focuses on education, research, and advocacy that move the primary care field toward integrating lifestyle medicine into daily practice.
  • Dr. John Principe, who was inspired by Dr. Phillips, started WellBeingMD Ltd. in Palos Heights, Illinois with the goal of helping patients take charge of their own health. The office offers two "Roadmaps to Wellness." The first centers on nutrition (including healthy cooking), physical activity and stress reduction. The second focuses on "functional fitness" - the ability to carry out daily physical tasks - and strategies for maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
  • Dr. Michael Joyner, a professor of anesthesiology at the Mayo Clinic, recently wrote a commentary published in the Journal of Physiology. He strongly recommended that doctors prescribe physical activity for sedentary patients. But they shouldn't stop at writing "Exercise!" on a prescription pad. In order for patients to follow through, they need detailed plans that include trainers in a welcoming environment and possibly cognitive-behavioral therapy to help patients adhere to the program.

This is encouraging to see doctors taking steps to make lifestyle medicine a natural part of primary care. I would love to see lifestyle changes more widely integrated into mental health treatment plans as well.

What are your thoughts? Do you agree that doctors should prescribe lifestyle changes, or is this something that should stay private and unaddressed? Post a comment here, especially if you have personal experience with this (as a doctor or a patient).


Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.

It’s a true blessing to have you visit my blog on mental health and wellness. I also write blogs on faith and caregiving in addition to teaching part-time for Columbia College of Missouri. For more information about my background and writing, visit my webpage at

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

YES Physicians should Prescribe Lifestyle Changes! - Heidi Rudolph - Nov 8th 2012

Good Article and very relevant now especially with Obesity overtaking Americans! After 10 + years with my MD, I took my own Lifestyle changes into my hands, started with 6day/week workouts, eliminated Red Meats, Refined Sugars and Alcohol, started heavy vitamin suppliments and 6 months into that, went for my annualy "Well Woman" visit.

We talked and I told her what I had been doing: My MD Actually HUGGED me for the first time in a decade for making the changes..and then Asked Me what I did too so she could advise other 35+ aged women on better health practices!  We can teach our Physicians too. Heidi 

Thank you! - Carrie Steckl, Ph.D. - Nov 7th 2012

Matthew, thanks so much for posting the link to this article. I'm glad that they did assess whether the group that received more encouragement to exercise actually did exercise more than the control group. The results are interesting but as you said, they seemed to have been misconstrued a bit for the shock value embraced by much of the media. I still feel that doctors can play a key role in helping people increase their well-being through lifestyle changes. Thanks again!

exercises - Matthew - Nov 6th 2012

About prescribing lifestyle changes, I came across this article lately:

You know it probably, it's nothing new but reaction to this was very silly. Newspapers catch it, and made it into "exercises doesn't help depression", instead of what studies was all about, how "prescribing" exercise works on people who are already under normal treatment. 

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