FRIDAY, April 22, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Lynne Braun spends a lot of her time trying to encourage people to do right by their hearts and their health.
Braun, who works as a nurse practitioner at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and teaches at the university's College of Nursing, helps counsel people who are at risk for coronary heart disease as well as those who've had a heart attack or stroke and hope to avoid another occurrence.
Many clients, she said, expect her to use drugs to deal with their risk factors. "There's a whole group of people who feel medication is the magic bullet," Braun said. "They feel the medication is going to do all the work, and they don't have to contribute to that process."
But Braun disabuses them of that notion, letting them know that they'll have to do some work to bring themselves to good health. They will have to eat right, and they will have to exercise, she says.
"Lifestyle change is really the cornerstone for prevention," Braun said. "Whether you are trying to prevent risk factors from developing in the first place, or preventing a heart attack or stroke or preventing a second, lifestyle changes are key."
Though helpful, medications tend to target one risk factor -- such as high blood pressure or elevated blood sugar. But if people "eat a heart-healthy diet and engage in a regular physical exercise program, that will improve all of their risk factors," she said. "Overall, they'll be healthier."
Such changes are not easy, however, and Braun doesn't sugarcoat it.
"Lifestyle change, when one has engaged in certain less-healthy behaviors, is often very, very difficult," she said. "One of the first things I have to do is really assess their readiness for change. I will talk to them openly about that, and ask them directly. I tell them I know if they are willing to do this, their health will improve, but they have to be willing to make that change."
Diet in particular seems to be very challenging to change. "People tend to struggle with healthy dietary habits and overeating," Braun said. "It seems as though people adapt a little bit better to exercise. They can do a various amount of exercise and still exercise. It seems to be tougher for people to change their dietary habits. There are too many temptations around them."
Many times, she said, she has to help manage expectations to keep people motivated. Losing 50 to 100 pounds can seem like an unachievable goal, but people given a goal of losing 5 or 10 pounds in a month often succeed, she said, and that success then spurs further healthy habits.
"As soon as they start, very often they just start feeling better," Braun said. "Their energy levels improve, and even if they have a lapse, they know that they've done it. The fact that they've done it will often help them resume again. And oftentimes when they have the benefit of experiencing those small changes, it will give them the confidence to pursue larger changes."
Braun also does research and currently is working on a study involving about 300 black women who are being encouraged to walk more. The women have been given pedometers and are supposed to add 3,000 extra steps to their normal amount of walking every day. Some are receiving regular encouragement through personal counseling or automated messages, and others get encouragement only through monthly group meetings.
"Walking is great exercise," Braun said. "In fact, it is the standard form of moderate intensity exercise we recommend. Everyone can do it. It doesn't cost anything. No special equipment is required."
A companion article offers more on how to live a heart-healthier life.