dahlia in my garden: Rio Fuego in Coleus leaves

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Facing a Lifestyle change: Benefits outweigh struggle

Getting a diagnosis for a chronic condition can be completely and entirely overwhelming. You begin to envision the worst that could happen to your body, how your life will change, how it will affect your relationship with the ones you love, and what kind of treatment and medications you will have to endure. Then there’s another thing which can be even harder to accept... how you will have to change your daily lifestyle.

What will you have to change for your health and will you be able to keep it up?  Sometimes it’s those daily adjustments in our comfortable lives which have the most impact. You may think to yourself, sure I can take the pills, okay I can do the therapy, no problem I’ll learn to give myself injections... but then you hear what else the doctor says: I have to eat a strictly controlled diet? I have to live near a certain hospital/treatment center? I can’t travel because of my weakened immune system? It’s not recommended for me to have children? I’ll have to give up my driver’s license? 

These types of changes often have the biggest immediate impact and can trigger an emotional reaction we may underestimate. It's a struggle we have no choice but to face.

Eighteen months ago, my husband, Mark, was diagnosed as borderline diabetic. His family history is full of diabetics (both parents and his brother) and high blood pressure. The doctor told Mark his current state of health was speeding him toward an inevitable date with diabetes.

The doctor laid everything out about how bad diabetes can get, in blunt detail. It really scared my husband. Although the doctor said Mark would not need to take insulin or use a glucose monitor at every meal, he recommended doing some testing occasionally to learn how his numbers were fluctuating. But the doctor’s biggest medical advice: he told my husband to make major lifestyle changes, and to make them quickly.

“Every adversity, every failure, and every heartache, 
carries with it the Seed of an equivalent or greater Benefit.” 
~Napolean Hill 

Now, I have to step in and say that at the time, Mark was not exercising, he ate what he liked, and was carrying extra weight around his middle. When he was younger he was much more active and healthier, but he’d never put any limits on his diet. 

After his diagnosis he went into a flurry of self-education. Mark bought books about diabetes or checked them out of the library. He looked up information on the internet. He took a class through our health insurance on managing diabetes. He bought glucose testing supplies and started testing himself far more often than the doctor had suggested. He found healthy recipes online and cookbooks for diabetics. Even though I could see Mark was taking the diagnosis seriously, I didn’t believe he would make the major dietary changes required of a true diabetic or that he would push himself to exercise regularly - and stick with it over the long term. This was a man who’d eat what was there just because it looked good, not because he was hungry. He was more couch potato than exercise nut. I just didn’t believe his good intentions would last more than 6 or 8 weeks.

I was wrong. And boy, am I glad!

Mark cut out white flour and only allowed himself limited sugar. He stopped using salt when I showed him a few great herbal salt-substitutes. He gave up drinking coffee and soda. Despite his avowal of hating most vegetables, he willingly started trying them - if anyone had told me my husband would eat broccoli and like it, I would have laughed myself silly. Mark made an effort to cook more for himself (with some guidance from me) instead of eating frozen or fast food. He used to eat a lot of rice, but he omitted it as well. I was very surprised to see how far he was willing to go. His glucose testing showed how what he ate and how active he was directly affected his numbers. It revealed patterns which helped him to make further adjustments, and motivated Mark to challenge himself even more.

As for exercise, it had been years since he had gone bike riding, which he used to do a lot. He started out slowly to give his body time to adjust, but over time he began to tackle hills and add more miles. He’d call me on the way home from work to ask if I had any pressing household chores because he was so eager to get out on his bike. In the past he’d come home from work and collapse in front of the television, saying he didn’t have the energy to do anything. Now here was my husband rushing to take out the garbage so he could hit the saddle and get out on the road. I was so proud of him!

As of today he has lost 25 pounds! He is biking about 20 miles on an average ride and doing it three days a week. He decided to take it to another level when he heard about the Diabetes Tour de Cure bike ride to raise money for research. He signed up for the ride, asked friends and family to sponsor him, and challenged himself to complete thirty miles. He finished the ride in two hours and fifteen minutes and raised $850. He enjoyed it so much, he can’t wait to do it again.

I know Mark misses a lot of his favorite foods and treats and that it’s a constant daily struggle to avoid the things he knows he shouldn’t have. And I also know, as a borderline and not true diabetic, he does sometimes allow himself to step outside his recommended diet. But he’s been so good at maintaining a steady course and not letting himself lose focus. 

He says the motivation to make alterations in his diet and exercise was fear of diabetic complications, and how that would far more affect his life - and in a destructive way instead of a beneficial one. Making and maintaining a life transformation like this is not easy, but the benefits far outweigh the difficulty of the struggle. In addition, having pride in the achievement of such major success can give us strength to face down our chronic illness as a whole.

If you are currently facing a lifestyle change which will help you avoid an illness or better manage one, I wish you all the certitude and will-power you’ll need to meet your goal. Good luck!

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