What Role Does Lifestyle Play in Our Health? (and what role do our genes play?)

Lifestyle and health can be a touchy subject. Just as anything in wellness, we have a responsibility to find the balance between what is happening to us and what is happening in our lives because of things we do.

My entire philosophy regarding working with people on their wellness revolves around that principle. We, are not, in most cases, the victims we sometimes believe we are. We have our genetic weaknesses. We are blessed with opportunities that have been marked on our DNA by several generations of ancestors (our parents on up)—this is epigenetics.

Oftentimes, people feel cursed by the fate of their genes. “Blood pressure problems run in my family, so I’m just destined to end up on medication.” If I had a nickel for every time I heard a variation of that statement….

Well, hopefully I’d still care enough to be talking about this, but maybe I’d be doing it from my beach house….

Over the years, and through much research done by very passionate and intelligent people, we’ve come to a point where we know that genetics provide somewhere between 10-20% of the input into what our “fate” is in health and wellness.

That’s right—10-20%. That means the rest of it is up to us and the choices we make.

We have a depth of lifestyle choices. Epigenetics is the study of how our lifestyle choices impact how our genes are turned on and off (well, it’s a little bit more complicated than that…but what you really need to know is that if your Dad has heart disease, it doesn’t mean you have to as well). Your lifestyle will place markers on your DNA. YOU have control over your health outcomes—80-90% of them. Sometimes life is still not fair, and healthy-acting people still get diseases.


Why not hedge your bets?

I’ve seen people do it in my corporate wellness coaching experiences.

I’ll tell you a story. A man, aged 40, had his cholesterol tested. It was high (270). The doctor wanted to put him on medication, but he wasn’t so sure about that (I’m not sure what his reasons were). He told me that his family ALL has high cholesterol—his parents, his siblings. They’re all on medication, and he’s not very happy about it but he believes it is his eventual fate.

My response is, “WAIT!”

{he thinks I’m crazy, but he listens}

I explain epigenetics, and tell him that maybe he can try to do it on his own for one year. I’ll help him–he can eat differently, and exercise more (he wasn’t exercising at all—he has a standing type of shop job, but he was not moving around very much).

He agreed, and we made a plan. He did a Couch to 5K plan. He added more healthy foods to his diet and took out the crap. He walks on his lunch break everyday. He ran a 5k, and then a 10k. He didn’t rush anything—just took it all day-by-day.

One year later (two weeks ago), his cholesterol was 170. He also lost 13lbs (he wasn’t overweight before, but he streamlined himself with all the running and not eating crap out of the vending machine).


In my everyday work, I interact with people regarding their health. I hear the pain and stress that health issues cause. I love helping people learn new information and gain a new perspective—one that empowers them to take control of their own health, rather than being a victim to it. I never promise that it will be easy—sometimes it’s simple in concept (i.e. eat better foods), but that doesn’t mean it will be easy to implement. I do promise people that if they put in the effort, they will yield benefits.

Readiness to change is another aspect of the story for another time…

Food, actions, and thought patterns determine 80-90% of your health. Go ahead and get mad at me, but it’s true 🙂

Then go read books by Dr. Mark Hyman, Dr. Junger, Kris Carr, Nina Planck, Catherine Shanahan and more… to figure out how to improve your life/health through your lifestyle.

p.s. I’d love to chat about it with you!

24 thoughts on “What Role Does Lifestyle Play in Our Health? (and what role do our genes play?)”

  1. Yep, you’re right. You’ve got to try your best and do what you CAN do. Problem is, there’s a lot of conflicting info out there, and people are very confused. Many people will follow what AHA or ADA says–and that’s as far as they’ll go. Or they’ll say, “My doctor says I NEED this statin/antacid/blood sugar med, etc.”

    But, as you know, Lisa, mainstream medical orgs are years behind cutting edge research. Everything has to be scientifically proven…over and over again…before it gets accepted.  And before most doctors are willing to recommend it to their patients.

    I think, frankly, most people just don’t want to do the research and take chances. They’d rather take the pill their doctor says they need. Which is often a bigger chance than they realize.


  2. PS–what Mark Hyman books do you recommend? I love him, have read a lot of his stuff but never any of his books! I loved his take on dairy.

  3. thanks for sharing that success story, lisa! that’s a real feel-good example.
    i am totally with you that 10-20% of our health is genetics and WE have control over the rest of our health because of the choices we make or don’t make. and i agree: if you take control, put in the effort, have resources and support – you can do it!!!

  4. great post about a great topic. I sometimes blame things on genetics, but as you just mentioned we each have a big role to play in our health. I am all about prevention and trying to get my family to see that too. That they can make changes now to help them later.

  5. Gina (Candid RD)

    What a wonderful story!  Good for that man for actually listening to you rather than just brushing you off and accepting his “fate”.  Such as inspiration.  I hope he can keep it up!
    Then there are people like my dad, who takes cholesterol meds but continues to not really care what he puts in his mouth (he goes through fazes….).  Obviously it drives me nuts.  He says it’s in our blood, but he could easily go off the meds (or decrease his dose) if he cared just a bit more.

  6. YES!! I wholeheartedly believe in the lifestyle part of the “being healthy” equation. Sure, genetics come into play, but a very small percentage, as you point out – the rest is up to us to shape our lives as we want to shape them. Excellent reminder that healthiness IS a lifestyle and it’s one that you can choose to own and embrace, and I hope more people WILL choose it vs. ignoring it entirely.

  7. Awesome, what a great story!  I definitely believe that we each play a big role in our own health.  I agree with Kathleen though, most people would take a “magic pill” than put in the effort to change themselves.  Sad.  

  8. Very interesting post! I myself have always kept a “10% genetics” number in my head because my family has a very great health history, yet I don’t want to let my guard down when it comes to all aspects of health, be it weight or cholesterol or cancer. Assuming that your genetics will put you in poor (or even good) health is a self-fulfilling prophecy…don’t assume, do!

  9. Amazing.  My MIL had high cholesterol and she made the same kind of changes with similar results…really inspiring, isn’t it?  (By the way, sorry I’ve been MIA lately…I just got back from vacation and I’m just now catching up on my blog reading!)

  10. This was a great post, Lisa. Many people think that they’re going to diabetes just because it’s in their genes, so they just don’t even try to avoid it and be healthier. I loved the story of your client and how he drastically lowered his cholesterol. My brother who is 37 has cholesterol, (just learned about it recently), and I was shocked. He’s not overweight and runs a lot. I’m going to see him tonight and ask him what he eats on a daily basis!

  11. Well I was pretty much going to tell you about my brother, but I see Lisa already did. Twins… lol Theis was very refreshing to read and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve written down those authors and hope to read some books by them soon 🙂

  12. I just listened to a seminar on Nutrigenomics yesterday actually!! The take away? Environment will trigger your genes. If you keep yourself in an environment that allows you to make positive health and wellness decisions you will do so. If you put yourself in an environment centered around poor eating habits etc. you will trigger your genes to react to such. Very interesting.

  13. I used to be careful how I approached this topic—not wanting to make anyone feel bad, but now I just put it out there because taking responsibility and becoming empowered to change/improve are essential!

  14. The issue I run into a lot is that the way of reducing cholesterol that the government recommends (i.e. Eating things like Cheerios) tends to not work. I’d say for your bro, he’ll need to look at the HDL and LDL in order to determine the magnitude of the issue (sometimes a high HDL can make things look worse than they really are!). I’ve read some things recently about other links to diet too…so hopefully he can get things squared away with some food changes!

  15. This is the same strategy I have…the genetic doom feeling really is a self-fulfilling prophecy that is propagated even further by the fact that environmental food/activity patterns are set for children very early (grown-ups tell me they’re doomed to be overweight because their whole family is…but what did that family eat together for decades?)…. I heart this topic 🙂

  16. If I had a nickel for every time someone joked with me about just giving them a magic pill….ugh! It’s so true—I understand the American mindset of wanting short cuts and instant results, but darn it, there are no free lunches 🙂
    Plus…a healthy lifestyle is fun if you let it be—I think all of us here are evidence of that!

  17. I love the UltraWellness Solution, the UltraSimple Diet, and the UltraMind Solution…I think he might have a new book coming out too. I met him at a conference, and he is amazing!

  18. Yes—this is all so spot on. It’s so frustrating…and at the same time I understand why people are confused! I always tell people that their wellness should be at least a part-time job 🙂

  19. Laura @ nevernotbeautiful

    Great post Lisa! I wish I could introduce you to a lot of people in my life… I love your views on this and you are so talented in explaining it in a way that’s easy to understand. 

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