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  • Joe Hall

Healthy Living with Dr. Michelle Tollefson

Dr. Michelle Tollefson is board certified in Obstetrics and Gynecology and currently focuses on women's wellness here at St. Luke's. We sat down with her to find out more about her free Lifestyle Medicine series (which kicks off this Thursday!) and why she's so passionate about women’s healthcare, lifestyle medicine, and teaching people to lead healthier and happier lives.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

I have three wonderful kids (Kaitlyn, 14; Luke, 6; and Blake, 3), a great husband, and a Portuguese Water Dog puppy named Cosmo. I grew up in Loveland, then went to college and medical school at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. After my obstetrics and gynecology residency, I returned to Colorado to join a large Ob-Gyn private practice. Although I loved delivering babies and doing surgery, I wanted more time with my family and decided to leave obstetrics and focus more on teaching and office gynecology.

I’ve been at St. Luke’s for the past 10 years, while also teaching in Denver. I developed the Lifestyle Medicine IDP program at Metropolitan State University of Denver, which is the first undergraduate Bachelor of Science degree in Lifestyle Medicine in the country (although Lifestyle Medicine is now being taught in over half of all U.S. medical schools). I’m guest faculty for the Harvard Institute of Lifestyle Medicine, have done wellness coach training, and recently became board certified in Lifestyle Medicine. I currently co-chair two American College of Lifestyle Medicine working groups: one focused on pre-professional lifestyle medicine education and the other focused on women’s health-related lifestyle medicine. Teaching others about healthy lifestyle behaviors is truly my passion.

What led you to a career in medicine and, specifically, women's wellness and Lifestyle Medicine?

I’ve always been interested in health and knew that I wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember. My mom even saved some of my kindergarten artwork, in which I drew myself as a future doctor. I grew up with sisters and was fascinated with women’s health while in medical school. Helping women optimize their health, across their entire lifespan, both through conventional medicine and healthy lifestyle behaviors has always been my primary goal. Now, I have the opportunity to share this knowledge on a larger platform through my work with the American College of Lifestyle Medicine.

What exactly is Lifestyle Medicine?

Lifestyle Medicine is the use of evidence-based lifestyle therapeutic approaches, such as a healthy diet, regular physical activity, adequate sleep, stress management, avoidance of risky substance use and other non-drug modalities to prevent, treat, and oftentimes, reverse lifestyle-related chronic disease. Lifestyle medicine places an emphasis on healthy lifestyle behaviors to prevent and sometimes help to treat chronic diseases, along with medication.

I haven’t heard of “Lifestyle Medicine” before. Is this some new fad?

No, Hippocrates is often credited with saying, “let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” What mother hasn’t told her children about the importance of eating their fruits and vegetables, going outdoors to play, and getting a good night’s sleep? However, even though the clinical guidelines for many lifestyle-related diseases (such as hypertension, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes) emphasize the importance of healthy lifestyle behaviors, we know that behavior change is incredibly difficult. Wellness coaching and lifestyle medicine work hand-in-hand to assist patients with making these powerful and often underappreciated lifestyle behavior modifications. Lifestyle medicine focuses on assisting patients with adopting healthy lifestyle behaviors that align with their values, goals, and individual health needs.

Is Lifestyle Medicine backed with scientific research?

Yes! Lifestyle Medicine is evidence-based medicine. It’s not a new diet fad or an exercise craze. We have a mountain of evidence supporting the importance of healthy eating, physical activity, stress reduction, tobacco cessation, and social connections, but this message is very difficult to convey during office visits where so much needs to be done in a short amount of time. Also, medical training does not emphasize the importance of nutrition, exercise, and stress management. The average physician, like myself, received 19 hours of nutrition education throughout the 4 years of medical school! In addition, most haven’t been taught how to help people with behavior change. I was initially taught how to diagnose, treat and give education.

However, if knowledge were enough to lead to healthy living, you wouldn’t see so many unhealthy health care providers. I still struggle with choosing healthy food options after a long stressful day when Girl Scout Thin Mints are in my cupboard. Today’s fast paced, 24-7, technology-driven world makes it much easier to eat processed fast food, spend most of our day sitting, and live with chronic stress than it does to cook meals from whole foods, get lots of physical activity, and relax between a few daily stressors. We have to make it a priority to use lifestyle as medicine and modify our environment to support healthy lifestyles. Lifestyle medicine empowers patients with the knowledge that their genes are not their fate. Epigenetics and the research on telomeres (the ends of chromosomes) is showing us that lifestyle behaviors (healthy eating, physical activity, connection, and managing stress) can greatly impact our chances for a long, health-filled life.

What kinds of topics will you be exploring in the monthly Lifestyle Medicine series?

We will explore a variety of healthy lifestyle topics that I believe most everyone will enjoy and benefit from, such as Embracing Stress: A Toolbox of Techniques (in April), The Joy of Movement (in May), and more! I’ll share the latest research, give you practical tips and tricks to implement healthy behaviors, and leave time for questions and sharing. My goal is to create a community of St. Luke’s patients (and their friends) who want to gather monthly as we walk the wellness journey together.

How have your own habits and lifestyle changed since you started studying (and teaching!) lifestyle medicine?

I wish that I could say that I never get stressed, always enjoy exercise, and love kale, but that’s not the case. I still struggle with stress, but after teaching an entire course about stress and sleep every semester for about 10 years, I now know more than I could ever imagine about how to deal with the stress that inevitably comes our way. I still hate to sweat, but rather than going to the gym, I’ve figured out how to incorporate more enjoyable movement into my daily routine. Also, after many years of avoiding veggies, I can now say that I’ve learned some fabulous ways to make whole-food, plant-based meals that are wonderful! I’m still experimenting, and sometimes these experiments are total flops, but I eat healthier, move more, and am better at dealing with stress (on most days) than I was in the past. I love sharing what I know with others and also being honest about behavior change being hard.

Join Dr. Tollefson for the kick-off of our monthly Lifestyle Medicine series this Thursday, April 4th, from 10:30-11:30am, where she'll be talking about stress management and guiding you through the process of making your very own stress ball to take home.

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