Voices in balance // Choosing the health business over the illness business

About a year ago I did something most would consider crazy in the current economic climate: I walked away from my career of 20 years to pursue a new professional direction. I’ve always been a man with a passion for life, food, the outdoors and my community. My lifestyle demands that I have a vibrant mind and body and I wanted to share my enthusiasm for healthy living with the world. Hence, two decades ago, I became a registered nurse. Instead of spreading my message of health, however, I ended up working in the pain, confusion and disappointment of a hospital emergency room. I treated symptoms, administered medications, assisted in interventions intended to “fix” problems, watched patients grow dependent on outside influences for their healing and, ultimately, leave the ER unchanged and uninspired. I grew calloused and skeptical. I realized that I wasn’t working in health; I was working in illness.

In spite of my fear of starting over, I needed to find a platform that would allow me to do what I originally set out to do as a nurse — inspire health. I turned toward personal training and today, as a trainer, coach and bicycle tour guide, I’ve found my place providing healthcare. Everyday I actively teach people how to improve their lives through exercise and nutrition. Serving the good of my community in an environment of smiles and excitement, I spread my passion for life and pave a path to a healthy mind/body.

Now don’t get me wrong: Medicines and medical professionals are doing amazing things for many people. Never would I underestimate the value of the industry or its people. However, after having worked in as a nurse and as a personal trainer, my unique perspective allows me to see where medicine has failed — treating lifestyle-related health problems, which statistically affect the most Americans.

Lifestyle-related diseases are largely preventable through appropriate lifestyle choices like good nutrition, frequent exercise, cultivating sense of belonging and purpose and communion with nature, to name a few.

Mainstream medicine is unable to transform lifestyles. Gone are the days of the family doctor who intimately knew each patient’s full medical history. Today, the average visit with a physician is 15 minutes. Medical professionals simply do not have the time to give patients proper direction regarding lifestyle-related diseases and the changes they must make to prevent them.

Toward the end of my time as an ER nurse, I saw a patient who exhibited lifestyle-related health problems. He was a 38-year-old male, overweight, pre-diabetic, hypertensive with chronic low back pain. He felt awful, slept little and lacked energy. As his nurse, I was duty-bound to record his vitals then encourage him to take his medications regularly while monitoring his blood sugars. I effectively managed his symptoms, but did not address the underlying cause of his problems. I would mention lifestyle changes, but stop short of addressing physical or emotional barriers that could prevent such change from actually happening. My approach cured nothing.

Where mainstream medicine falls short, however, personal trainers and other complementary health professionals excel. We are in the business of lifestyle change. The man in the above example has a profoundly different experience in my care as his personal trainer. I have time to ask the tough questions that get to the bottom how he lives, where he comes from, what inspires him, who he is. Using this insight I can create a client-specific program that encourages lifestyle changes towards good nutrition, frequent exercise, a sense of belonging and purpose, communion with nature and the myriad of other factors that contribute to “good health.”

Over time, incremental successes place the client at the center of the healing process and reinforce personal responsibility. Understandably, a large barrier to making lifestyle changes is economical. I argue that ultimately, the costs associated with a lifetime of illness far outweigh the cost of a weekly visit to the health club for a good workout, a bi-weekly massage or a monthly appointment with a diet expert. As another example, paying $1,000 for a bike may seem crazy until you consider the thousands that some people pay each month to fill their prescriptions! Obviously, it costs money to be healthy, but costs exponentially more being sick.

I’ve had two jobs in healthcare: one in the “illness business” as an ER nurse and one in the “health business” as a personal trainer. Mainstream medicine has its place, but for the lifestyle diseases plaguing our country, we must step outside the familiar to explore new and diverse options to improve health.

While I recognize that choosing to participate in the “health business” at the expense of the “illness business” is challenging, I know firsthand that the quality of life gained far exceeds any barrier that can — and will — come up.

Joe Christian is an ACE-certified personal trainer and TRX expert. Joe also operates a bicycle touring company, MelloVelo.