Beth Frates's picture Submitted by Beth Frates December 10, 2016 - 10:46am

Lifestyle Medicine Basics for Coaches

In September 1986, Donald was a middle-aged New York City businessman who was over-worked, over-stressed and over-weight. He dined almost exclusively on hamburgers, French fries, chocolate cake, cookies, and hard candies, stashed in his middle desk drawer at work. Despite the fact that he was an outstanding athlete in high school, Donald was sedentary at this time in his life, working at least twelve hours a day. However, he did engage in one form of exercise, sporadic sprints. Occasionally, at 11:07pm, Donald would race from his office to Grand Central Station, to catch the last train home. If he missed that train, he would have to spend the night on the cot at work. On one of these mad dashes to the train, Donald experienced a little bit of pressure in his chest. Despite this, he forged forward. By the end of the train ride, he felt as if an elephant were accompanying him, resting on his chest. He was short of breath, sweaty, and felt numbness and tingling down his left arm. Immediately after seeing him, his wife rushed him to the local ER, where Donald completed his massive myocardial infarction (heart attack) and subsequent right middle cerebral artery infarct (stroke), leaving him paralyzed on his left side.

Donald made a complete recovery and a complete lifestyle change. I know intimate details of this story because Donald is my father, Donald Pegg. After a year of working with physical therapy and occupational therapy, my dad regained movement and strength on his left side. After his heart attack and stroke, my dad changed his diet, started exercising a half an hour, five days a week, reduced his crazy work hours, slept more hours, and spent more time with family as well as friends. With these changes, Donald was able to thoroughly enjoy a healthy lifestyle and live life to its fullest for almost thirty more years.

Lifestyle Medicine

All coaches can benefit from knowing basic principles in lifestyle medicine. Lifestyle medicine is the burgeoning field of medicine that uses healthy habits such as regular exercise, a nutritious diet, restful sleep, stress reduction, smoking cessation, and social connection to help patients reach their optimal level of health and wellness. Knowing the guidelines about exercise, diet, and sleep can help coaches to help their clients to be more productive, more joyful, and healthier.


The recommendations for exercise from the United States Department of Health and Human Services are that adults accumulate 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity in a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity physical activity in a week. With moderate activity, the person can talk but not sing during the exercise, and with vigorous activity, the person cannot sing or talk during the exercise.

Clients are at greatest risk for a heart attack when they move from a sedentary lifestyle (defined by not exercising at least 3 times a week, for 30 minutes a session, for 3 months) immediately to a vigorous exercise routine, just like Donald running from his office to the train. It is best to start at a low intensity (the person can talk and sing during the activity) with a walking program and then work up gradually to moderate intensity activity.

Sedentary behavior itself is a risk factor for cardiac disease. So, coaches can help clients find ways to take breaks from sitting each hour, use treadmill work stations, use stand up work desks, use a portable peddler, or hold walking meetings, which are all ways to decrease sedentary behavior and increase movement throughout the day. This increased movement can also decrease stress. By holding walking meetings with clients, coaches can help clients incorporate more physical activity in the day, while enjoying movement for themselves as well: good for the coach and good for the client.


Researchers have investigated what diet is best for health. After examining many different diets including low carb, low fat, low glycemic, Mediterranean, and Paleolithic, they noted that limiting refined sugars, processed foods, and certain types of fats was a common healthy factor among all the diets. Given the medical evidence, lifestyle medicine physicians promote a whole foods, plant based diet, with or without seafood, poultry, and lean meats, as more of a garnish than a main part of the meal.

The Harvard School of Public Health offers a visual for a healthy plate, called the Harvard Healthy Plate. In this plate, one half of it is vegetables and fruits, one quarter is whole grains, and one quarter is healthy protein. By focusing on consuming 5-7 servings of vegetables and fruits a day, people are more likely to follow the Harvard Healthy Plate. Preparing afternoon snacks such as a handful of mixed nuts, a cup of carrots with hummus, or an apple with almond butter can help clients maintain a steady stream of glucose between meals, which will help keep clients energized and moods more stable.


Restful and regular sleep is essential for good health as well as productivity in the workplace. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults sleep for 7-9 hours each night. In fact, subjects in sleep studies are relegated to the sleep deprivation group when they sleep less than 6 hours.

Many clients, like Donald believe they can get by with very little shut-eye. But, sleep impacts our mood, attention, memory, reaction time, and energy levels. Common sleep disrupters include caffeine, which has a half-life of 4-6 hours. This means 12 hours after consumption a quarter of the caffeine is still active. Limiting coffee and caffeinated beverages to the morning hours will help clients fall asleep more easily. Alcohol is also known to disrupt sleep.

Alcohol is deceiving because it might help people fall asleep, but it can be responsible for early morning (2:00 am) awakenings. Setting up a routine for sleep involves keeping the bedroom like a cave: dark, quiet, and cool (60 – 67 degrees Fahrenheit). Avoiding screens and blue light (on phones and computer screens) near bedtime can help. If clients must be on the computer or phone close to bedtime, blue light blocking glasses or apps that filter the blue wavelengths from computer screens can be useful. Blue light blocks the release of melatonin, a hormone that helps signal the body to sleep. Restful sleep is an essential element of good health.

Considering lifestyle factors when counseling clients can help them to increase mood, lower stress, and increase productivity at work. Exercise, diet and sleep are inter-related: exercise leads to restful sleep, and restful sleep helps control unhealthy cravings. Lifestyle factors might just be the key to unleashing your client’s full potential at work and home.