Thursday, May 29, 2014

Chronic Illness: How Riding (and Giving) in Public Might Help

It is almost June, and that means that we are close to the 2014 Tour de Cure, a fundraising 100 mile bike ride that benefits the American Diabetes Association. As of today, I've raised $400. You can help out by making a donation too. If you do, it just might make you healthier.

That might sound like a stretch, I know. But stay with me on this one.

Diabetes - both types - is a chronic illness. There is no cure (yet), and so people with a diagnosis have to learn to live with and manage the effect of chronic illness. In the general sense, those of us who manage diabetes and its impact on our lives are far from alone. In fact, the CDC reports that up to half of all U.S. adults deal with chronic illnesses at any given time.

Chronic illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, hypertension, asthma, COPD, arthritis, and diabetes,  rather than infectious disease, constitute the major health challenges of our generation in the United States and, increasingly, the world.

Chronic illnesses present different, and very difficult, challenges for treatment and prevention too. Not just on a population scale, but on an individual one. First, the big ones on the list above - heart disease, cancer, diabetes - effect critical systems in our bodies and do so in a systemic way and on a molecular level. This means the problems are pervasive throughout the body, they get more severe over time, but they do so in very very tiny ways. Often we don't even know what is going on until a disease is fairly far along. And then, once we do know, we may or may not be able to do something about reversing or slowing the effects a disease has.

When I got my diagnosis of Type II Pre-Diabetes, I was lucky. I had time and I had options to respond. About that same time in my life, I'd recently lost loved ones - family members and friends my own age - to chronic illnesses where there were few, if any options, for treatment beyond palliative care. Knowing that, I wasn't about to sit by and ignore the chance I had to improve my health.

Sometimes we call it "fighting back." We want our loved ones with chronic illnesses like cancer to have strong resolve, to muster the will to "battle." But managing chronic illness isn't really about battling. Or, at least, it's not about going on the offensive. It's more about playing great defense and shifting your priorities to make your body function as well as it possibly can given the circumstances.

TdC 2007 at the Start
And that's where, for me, riding a bike came in. I rode a bike because I could do that to address nearly all of the risk factors I had been diagnosed as having. Amazing, right? One change with lots of potential good outcomes. And for me, it worked.

But you know what also worked? Saying, out loud, in places like this blog and on Facebook and to my friends and family in person that I was riding my bike. That I was going to do an event like the Tour de Cure and ride 66 miles (the distance of the first couple I rode).

And I am not alone. I'll spare you the long version, but suffice to say that there is a lot of research in a lot of different exercise and health behavior areas done by a lot of different people for the last 30 years that show basically the same thing: if you express your intent to change your behavior to be more healthy in social settings, including social media, you'll be likely to make those changes.

So...why not try it? Announce it here (in the comments) or on Facebook. Donate to my campaign as a way to keep both of us going (heh, no really, that works too!). And then let me know how it works for you.

One last point about chronic illnesses: nobody asks for them. In many cases, they are genetically linked and so we inherit all or some chance to have them affect us. But it is also true that what makes them tough to treat and prevent is the fact that how much they shorten or otherwise impact our lives is usually the product of not just one thing (like a bite from an infected mosquito) but maybe thousands of little decisions we make every single day. But that also means that if you start today making little decisions that go the OTHER way...towards a healthy, longer are helping to solve one of the most challenging problems of our time. So, make some good choices today. And a few more tomorrow. And change your life, or some one else's, for the better.