Exercise and Nutrition Counseling
Each day, research uncovers dramatic new developments in the fight against chronic pain. But one development has been quietly influencing us from the very beginning: what we eat and how we move. Even small changes in these two elemental practices can have a profound effect on your pain levels and quality of life. Exercise and nutrition counseling have increased dramatically recently with the emerging evidence of effectiveness in treating chronic pain and other conditions, both physical and emotional. Because of that, they form an important part of our integrative care approach for chronic pain at Arizona Pain.
Benefits of exercise and nutrition counseling
The benefits of exercise and nutritional counseling begin even before you lace up your running shoes and pick up a fork. We often move through our day by habit, not paying attention to what we are putting into our bodies or how much we move.
But these two components of life—food and movement—can be part of a comprehensive pain management approach with no side effects or interactions with other treatments. It’s support that you can begin right now by making small, incremental changes that add up. The key is to know where to start.
Chronic pain is just one of the conditions that can benefit from exercise and nutritional counseling. A small sampling of others includes:
- Kidney disease
- Cardiovascular disease
- Gastrointestinal disorders (irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, and celiac sprue)
- Obesity (adult and pediatric)
Chances are good your doctor understands the value of exercise counseling. Medical students who receive instruction in nutrition counseling are also more likely to feel confident in “prescribing” it for their patients, too.
We know it works—here’s the research.
Effects on chronic pain
Exercise is one of the most effective treatments for chronic pain.
In a 2017 review of studies surrounding exercise and chronic pain, the results were conclusive. All but three of the 381 studies reviewed found that pain severity, quality of life, and ability to function improved significantly with exercise. A follow-up to this review in 2019 came to the same conclusion: exercise effectively reduces the perception of pain.
Effective exercise includes not only whole-body exercise such as swimming, yoga, walking, and tai chi, but also targeted exercises for specific conditions (e.g., lower back pain).
And attitudes among pain patients are changing, too. Most understand that exercise promotes a better quality of life and are looking for guidance from their doctor.
Effects on cardiovascular disease
Cardiovascular disease is the term for many different diseases affecting the heart and vascular circulation, including:
- Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
- Coronary artery disease
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
With the increasing prevalence of cardiovascular disease, it has become the leading cause of death in the United States.
The risk factors for the development of cardiovascular disease are high cholesterol, high triglycerides (fats), obesity, age, diabetes, and smoking. Many of the major risk factors for this disease process are modifiable by diet and exercise. Exercise and nutrition counseling can be key in helping to combat the epidemic of cardiovascular disease.
It is well established in research that exercise lowers the risk of heart disease and is protective for those with comorbid conditions (e.g. obesity, diabetes, etc.). General nutritional counseling packs a one-two punch, supporting healthy movement with healthy food choices, too.
Effects on diabetes
Diabetes can be broken down into two main types: Type 1 and Type 2. Put simplistically, Type 1 is present at birth and Type 2 develops over time. Type 1 is managed using insulin, but in many cases Type 2 can be managed with proper diet and exercise.
In some cases, Type 2 diabetes may even diminish or reverse with exercise and nutritional counseling. How?
- Educating patients about how food affects their blood sugar
- Identifying a well-balanced diet with correct portion size
- Integrating regular exercise to achieve and maintain a healthy weight
- Understanding that exercise improves blood sugar regulation
In fact, the first-line treatment in patients with newly diagnosed diabetes Type 2 is diet, exercise, and weight loss. These three factors may prevent the need for pharmacologic medication. Only when a person cannot control their blood sugar through diet and exercise, is medication required.
Managing diabetes with exercise and nutritional counseling is important because diabetes is often comorbid with other serious health conditions. It is a severe risk factor for:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Kidney disease
- Retinopathy (affecting the eyes)
Strict blood sugar control is crucial for preventing these and other diabetes-related complications.
Effects on hormone management
Women experience hormone fluctuations throughout their lives. From puberty to childbirth (or during struggles with infertility, PCOS, endometriosis, and others), women’s hormones can be greatly influenced by changes to diet and exercise.
Nutritional counseling covers everything on how fish supports heart health, how many supplements are effective, and how coffee affects mood disorders in women. It also looks at myths about dietary treatments for things like hot flashes and how to prevent high blood pressure with food.
One of the biggest hormonal swings for women happens around 50: menopause. It’s no secret that women going through menopause experience emotional and physical changes. Some of the commonly reported experiences of women going through menopause include:
- Weight gain
- Hot flashes
- Mood swings
In healthy women, weight gain and increased waist circumference during and after menopause can be prevented with long-term lifestyle dietary and physical activity interventions. Maintaining a healthy weight with exercise also decreases the risk of bone loss and improves mental health and quality of life.
Effects on obesity
For most of the above conditions, obesity is a risk factor and increasingly comorbid with other life-threatening conditions.
Obesity causes serious medical complications and impairs the quality of life in many people across the globe. In older people, obesity can exacerbate the age-related decline in physical function and leads to weakness and frailty.
In the United States, obesity is a public health crisis with 45% of adults over the age of 60 obese. Recent statistics reveal that only 13% of those over the age of 65 engage in vigorous physical activity three or more days a week. Physical activity has been shown to help prevent chronic disease and improve quality of life, yet few adults of any age exercise consistently.
Research is showing that change is dramatic for those patients who participate in exercise and nutritional therapy.
- Participants in a ten-week class on nutritional counseling lost weight and improved their BMI
- Adding exercise counseling resulted in a reduction of waist size that was sustained over 12 months
- Diet and exercise, when combined with patient exercise, results in the most weight loss
Exercise and nutritional counseling clearly are foundational when it comes to combating obesity.
Effects on mental health
Depression is a mental illness that affects many people of all different ages. In many people who experience depression, a chemical imbalance of serotonin within the brain is a cause. Serotonin controls a person’s mood and is frequently lower in people suffering from depression. Therefore, many of the therapies for depression aim at trying to raise serotonin levels in your brain.
While prescription medication may be necessary, exercise and nutritional counseling can provide good, effective support for all stages of treatment. As noted above, exercise is a mood-booster that elevates levels of serotonin in the brain. Aerobic exercise in particular may be helpful in fighting depression and boosting mood.
When it comes to nutritional support, there are a variety of foods that can enhance health and well-being. Tryptophan is a feel-good chemical in B6 that is broken down to become serotonin. Tryptophan is naturally found in many foods (most famously, turkey). By increasing consumption of these foods, you may indirectly increase your levels of serotonin.
Similarly, nutrient-dense foods are very supportive in the treatment of depression and can be tailored to a person’s preferences and comorbid conditions. Nutritional counseling is very important in patients with depression because the types of food you eat may have a direct effect on your mood.