My pal Alan’s blood pressure is creeping up, and his doctor has told him that he needs more exercise, less stress and less salt. Alan says he’d rather just take blood pressure medication. His wife, Marie, is quite overweight. She ignores the healthy eating plan the doctor tailored for her and instead keeps asking for diet pills.

Alan and Marie complained to me, “Why won’t our doctor just give us the prescriptions we need?”

I answered, “Your doctor has given you the prescriptions you need. He has prescribed specific lifestyle changes, but you’re not complying with the treatment.”

My friends got a little huffy then. “Just because we don’t follow every one of the doctor’s suggestions doesn’t mean we’re bad patients. When he gives us pills, we always take them,” Alan said.

And there’s the problem in a nutshell. Too many people think that a prescription means drugs, the supposedly quick and easy fix…and that the more difficult lifestyle stuff is just a suggestion.

That is bass-ackward! In most cases, the most important prescriptions doctors give are the ones for therapeutic lifestyle changes, or TLC (an apt acronym)—to eat healthfully, exercise regularly, lose weight, quit smoking, cut back on alcohol, reduce stress, get more sleep and so forth.

Yet what do patients take more seriously? Prescriptions for drugs—even though relying on drugs can lead to a world of hurt. Here’s why…

  • Many drugs merely mask symptoms rather than fix the underlying problem…and many drugs work less efficiently over time. As a result, you wind up sicker and sicker despite “taking your medicine.”
  • All drugs have potential side effects, some of which can be quite serious or even deadly.
  • The more medications you take, the greater the danger that they will interact negatively with each other.
  • Certain medications can cause diseases that are worse than the condition they’re treating—diseases such as dementia, diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

What’s more, drugs often don’t work nearly as well as TLC. For instance, a major study called the Diabetes Prevention Program showed that losing a modest amount of weight through dietary changes and increased physical activity was much more effective in preventing diabetes in high-risk people than taking the popular drug metformin.

Why is TLC so effective? “Lifestyle changes have been shown to alter ‘genetic expression,’ meaning the way that cells function and replicate. You are actually improving your resilience permanently, with no negative side effects whatsoever,” said Andrew L. Rubman, ND, contributing medical editor for Daily Health News.

Dr. Rubman bristles when he hears people talk about getting “suggestions” from their doctors. “You get ‘suggestions’ from friends and health-food store clerks. You get ‘advice’ from nonphysician health-care providers, such as nurses and pharmacists. But what you get from your physician is a ‘prescription,’ whether or not that prescription involves a drug.”

Here’s how to get motivated to add more TLC to your daily life…

The next time your doctor prescribes a lifestyle change, ask him/her to explain why it is necessary…what benefits you can expect…and how you can best implement this particular TLC. The more thoroughly you understand the prescription, the better your odds of sticking with it. Example: A Swedish study found that heart disease patients were significantly more likely to comply with healthy lifestyle recommendations if they fully understood the risks associated with their illness.

Ask your doctor to actually write out a prescription for TLC. In your mind, this helps give the matter as much importance as a medication prescription has. Post the TLC prescription prominently (for instance, on your fridge or bathroom mirror) as a daily reminder. This idea of written TLC prescriptions is spreading across the country—for instance, doctors at New York City’s Lincoln Medical Center are now writing prescriptions for fruits and vegetables.

Breaking a bad habit or establishing a good one is much easier if you create an environment that encourages positive change. Examples: Get an exercise buddy (so it’s harder to skip workouts)…don’t bring unhealthful foods into the house (so you won’t have to rely on willpower to resist them when temptation strikes).

Remember, your body deserves some TLC!