By 2016 nearly 20 years had passed since we incorporated and our model and approach were starting to get noticed by professional colleagues and peers. While it seemed outlandish (and even misguided) in 1998 to make prevention, and health promotion the central goals of a healthcare practice, the results were adding up and at every turn, the research was backing up our claim that it could be done. Around that time we began teaching a continuing education course for professional peers (mostly physical therapists) that covered key concepts. With as many as 1 of every 3 healthcare professionals feeling burned out at any given time, many were looking to redirect their skills and experience the often inspiring "give AND get" that our team enjoys while helping people achieve this way. Acknowledging that it isn't always an easy journey, we called one of the key assignments the "pathway project". It was designed to challenge the professional to use research and evidence to map the course from our influences and daily behaviors to common diseases. As they scoured the evidence, they developed a better understanding of "how we got here" and more importantly, as they compared notes, the root causes that needed to be dealt with to turn things around.
Although a growing and important problem, the map on mental health concerns like depression had wide gaps. The evidence of a clear connection with our day-to-day behaviors and the influences that drive them was only beginning to emerge and many people were still assuming much of it was not within our personal control. Although clearly incomplete, having a family history or genetic risk was often used as the likely explanation. In the last few years, however, the path has become far more visible.
For example and as we've previously mentioned, in February of this year we learned that regular physical activity can actually outperform "usual care" (medications) for common mental health concerns and that higher intensities are particularly powerful. One cool study in August even validated the dynamic warm-up that we use with so many of our clients. How we time our physical activity can make a difference it seems. It turns out that priming our systems with movement and physical activity BEFORE the workday can increase resilience and well-being as compared to waiting until afterward. Then, a few weeks ago another massive study that tracked more than 1/4 Million people over 9 years made the pathway even more clear. Researchers from The University of Cambridge were able to compare the preventative impact of genetics and lifestyle, drill down the risk-lowering contribution each of 7 specific lifestyle habits made, and even show a few physical health markers that connect the dots.
Here's the breakdown:
First - our genetics do matter, but not as much as our lifestyle. According to the study, those with a high-risk gene profile had up to a 25% increased risk compared to those with a low-risk profile. However, this was less than 1/2 the impact that lifestyle had. Those with unhealthy lifestyles had a 57% increased risk compared with those with the healthiest lifestyles and 41% increased risk compared with individuals with even moderately healthy lifestyles. This effect suggests that most of the benefit comes with even doing a little bit, an effect that was maintained even after genetic risk was accounted for.
Next - there were as many as 7 different habits that had a risk-lowering impact. Healthy Sleep (7-9 hours) had the strongest effect, lowering risk by 22%. The others lowered personal risk as follows:
Never Smoking: 20%
Regular Social Connections: 18%
Physical Activity: 14%
Low to Moderate Sedentary Time: 13%
Moderate (or less) Alcohol Consumption: 11%
Healthy Diet: 6%
Last - they were able to fill in key gaps on the map that link behaviors to the eventual disease. In addition to notable changes on MRI of the brain structure in people who led healthy lifestyles, simple blood markers of inflammation (C-reactive protein) and metabolism dysfunction (high triglycerides) were far more likely in those who had a high risk of future depression. Depression may "end up" in the brain but it appears to run through metabolism and immune system health.
Mental Health concerns are impacting as many as 50 Million Americans each year - it's a big problem. The risks we face are real and likely impact every one of us at some level. HOWEVER with a map in hand, the support of those around us, and the willingness to work hard at risk-lowering, "Stronger, Happier People through Better Health" is not just a mission statement...it is a reasonable expectation. 25 years later we are excited to be walking the journey to health with you.
Thank you for allowing us to play a role in your journey. Let us know if you need a map.
Have a great weekend,