Healthy physicians make better role models, research shows

Whether doctors avoid smoking, eat right, exercise or maintain a proper weight can influence how they talk with patients about making lifestyle choices.

By — Posted April 2, 2012

Print  |   Email  |   Respond  |   Reprints  |   Like Facebook  |   Share Twitter  |   Tweet Linkedin

A physician’s health influences how comfortable he or she is offering healthy advice to patients — and that could motivate patients to adopt positive lifestyle changes, according to new research.

“Practicing what we preach is important,” said Jo Marie Reilly, MD, a family physician and associate professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California. “Physicians are just more aware and better able to counsel patients if they take care of themselves.”

A survey of 1,000 primary care physicians found that those who exercised at least once a week or didn’t smoke were about twice as likely to recommend five lifestyle changes to patients with hypertension. Those changes: eat a healthy diet, reduce salt intake, attain or maintain a healthy weight, limit alcohol use and exercise regularly.

The survey, presented March 14 at an American Heart Assn. meeting, found that 4% of the doctors smoked at least once a week, 27% exercised at least five days a week and 39% ate the recommended five cups of fruits and vegetables a week.

Doctors who lead healthy lifestyles demonstrate that they believe in the importance of preventive health, said Ralph Sacco, MD, AHA immediate past president and chairman of neurology at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

“Physicians who are healthier themselves are more apt to counsel patients about healthy lifestyle and diet,” he said. “They are more educated, more personally invested in personal health and therefore, better health advocates for their patients.”

The research follows a study in the Jan. 19 issue of Obesity that looked at how a physician’s body mass index influences whether doctors talk with overweight patients about losing weight. In the survey of 498 physicians, researchers found that 30% of doctors with a healthy BMI spoke with patients about losing weight, compared with 18% of overweight or obese physicians.

A study in the fall 2010 issue of Preventive Cardiology showed that doctors who exercised regularly and maintained a healthy weight were most comfortable talking with patients about making healthy lifestyle choices.

Helping to fight obesity

More than one-third of U.S. adults and about 17% of children and adolescents are obese, defined as having a body mass index of 30 or higher, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those high obesity rates contribute to more cases of chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.

Physicians will play an increasingly key role in combating chronic conditions as the health care system focuses more on prevention in coming years, said Dept. of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. She made the remark in a March 9 speech at the American Medical Students Assn.’s Annual Convention in Houston.

“There is a growing body of evidence that people’s behaviors outside the health care system — what we eat, how much we exercise, whether we smoke or not — affect our health just as much, if not more, than the treatments and medicines we get when we visit a doctor,” she said.

Even if physicians aren’t physically fit themselves, they can help patients by talking about their personal struggles with weight or other health issues, said Dr. Reilly, who has written about how physician health influences patients.

Doctors can encourage others in their office to adopt healthy behaviors and avoid negative influences such as having snack machines full of junk food in the break room. Most important, physicians need to make sure they take time to talk with patients about making healthy choices, she said.

“It’s really important that we take that time to counsel patients about how their health habits influence their lives at each visit, and that we look at that as important as any medication,” Dr. Reilly said.

Back to top

External links

“Trends in Adults Receiving a Recommendation for Exercise or Other Physical Activity From a Physician or Other Health Professional,” National Center for Health Statistics data brief, February (link)

“Impact of Physician BMI on Obesity Care and Beliefs,”Obesity, published online Jan. 19 (link)

“Patient-related diet and exercise counseling: do providers’ own lifestyle habits matter?”Preventive Cardiology, Fall 2010 (link)

Back to top



Read story

Confronting bias against obese patients

Medical educators are starting to raise awareness about how weight-related stigma can impair patient-physician communication and the treatment of obesity. Read story

Read story


American Medical News is ceasing publication after 55 years of serving physicians by keeping them informed of their rapidly changing profession. Read story

Read story

Policing medical practice employees after work

Doctors can try to regulate staff actions outside the office, but they must watch what they try to stamp out and how they do it. Read story

Read story

Diabetes prevention: Set on a course for lifestyle change

The YMCA's evidence-based program is helping prediabetic patients eat right, get active and lose weight. Read story

Read story

Medicaid's muddled preventive care picture

The health system reform law promises no-cost coverage of a lengthy list of screenings and other prevention services, but some beneficiaries still might miss out. Read story

Read story

How to get tax breaks for your medical practice

Federal, state and local governments offer doctors incentives because practices are recognized as economic engines. But physicians must know how and where to find them. Read story

Read story

Advance pay ACOs: A down payment on Medicare's future

Accountable care organizations that pay doctors up-front bring practice improvements, but it's unclear yet if program actuaries will see a return on investment. Read story

Read story

Physician liability: Your team, your legal risk

When health care team members drop the ball, it's often doctors who end up in court. How can physicians improve such care and avoid risks? Read story

  • Stay informed
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • RSS
  • LinkedIn