This year marks my 20th as a pediatrician. Through these years, caring for thousands of children, I’ve been so fortunate to witness the vast majority grow into happy and healthy young adults. And, as the families who’ve worked with me since the beginning will testify, I’ve also evolved. Changes in how I practice are due, in part, to wisdom born of experience, but equally, I believe, as a reflection of the tremendous shift in children’s health.
I emerged from pediatric training extraordinarily capable of handling the most extreme emergencies. Put me in any acute care situation, I was your guy. I had a well established toolbox for any situation. Or so I thought. Once I started in primary care practice, I realized pretty early on that I was woefully unprepared for my chosen profession. Keeping children healthy, that was my main task; in fact, it was the very reason I chose (or was called to) pediatrics. I had no clue how to answer the most basic, common questions I faced. “Doctor, how and what do I feed my baby? He won’t sleep, what should I do? She seems to be getting sick all the time, can I do something to prevent this? He is not walking, she is not talking… now what?” I was also seeing a remarkable rise during my first decade of practice in the prevalence of many chronic conditions — autism, anxiety, ADHD, asthma, allergies, obesity, and diabetes. My approaches — simply mirroring the standard of care as I was trained in — were a carefully selected hodgepodge of quick-fix pharmaceutical solutions. This “one ill — one pill” paradigm stopped serving me, and my patients. The only credit I can take for changing course, upon reflection, is that I stopped long enough to listen to those particularly passionate families trying to teach me what physicians for thousands of years knew and, in the space of a couple hundred of years, forgot. The most effective, safe and cost-effective approaches to keeping our kids well remain the simplest and most accessible: a series of lifestyle prescriptions I began to call the “Rx Life” solution.
Why “Rx Life”? It was naturalist and author Rich Louv who I first heard co-opt the conventional prescription model, describing the healing power of nature as something doctors should literally prescribe for their patients. This was one of those “aha” moments for me, and I was immediately struck by the vast potential of his idea. What if we deliberately reframed the prescription model to teach children and families several simple yet incredibly powerful tools for living a healthy life? I thought about the basic approaches I discussed with my patients and their parents each and every day, the ones that I knew worked in practice. These lifestyle prescriptions are the pillars of an integrative paradigm that creates true health and wellness. Importantly, this approach is collaborative and actively encourages patient participation, putting kids back in control of their own health. I’ve profiled below the seven prescriptions I believe are critical in empowering families to make sustainable changes, inspiring all of us to create the future we deserve.
1. Rx Food: Eat real food, not a long list of processed ingredients mashed together. Teach your children that food comes from the earth, not from a can. Grow and prepare your own food. Cultivate a garden or a farm. Buy and eat locally-grown, chemical-free food. Teach your kids that eating is a mindful process, not only about ingesting calories but also about nourishing your body, mind and soul. Eating is and ought to be a community activity.
2. Rx Activity: Move your body. Start with something — any amount, as much as you are able, and build on that foundation. Get your heart rate moving and see what it feels like to be so active that even your hair sweats. Support school recess and encourage free, unstructured play.
3. Rx Rest: Make sleep a priority. Create opportunities for rest, especially for teens; they always need far more sleep than they get. Instill good sleep habits from the beginning. Create a quiet, calm place for restful activities. Take time to simply be. Unplug and recharge. Value downtime. Remind your kids — and yourself — that it’s OK to stop.
4. Rx Nature: Get outside. Take a hike. Go jump in a lake. Explore the nearest nature center or national park. Experience the transformative power of the natural world and refuse to suffer from nature deficit disorder.
5. Rx Mindfulness: Be here now. Pay attention to the process. Realize that the most important time is now, the most important person is the one you’re with and the most important thing to do is what you are doing right here, right now. Be willing to sit in the mud until it settles and the water clears. Accept that you will never make all the stress in the world disappear and help your children build their stress-coping toolboxes. Take time to look someone in the eyes, listen to her story, and let her know that you hear her.
6. Rx Creativity: Be silly. Dance like no one’s watching. Color outside of the lines. Build something with your own hands. Paint using every color you’ve ever known. Make up stories and tell anyone who will listen. Sing a song — any song — and sing out loud, proud and strong.
7. Rx Connection: Realize that we are all connected, and that our relationships make us stronger and healthier. Be courageous enough to be vulnerable, and let others see you for who you really are. Look through someone else’s eyes as if they are your own.
(originally posted for Thrive Global)