So your doctor tells you that it’s time to lose some weight. You have to get your cholesterol under control and your blood pressure down. He wants you to eat better and exercise. He wants you to learn to manage stress more effectively. But as he’s telling you this, you notice his own elevated BMI, and you begin to wonder if he practices what he’s preaching. Do you take his advice seriously if it seems that he doesn’t adhere to the healthy lifestyle he’s suggesting for you?
It’s a common problem in today’s physicians’ offices. While treating patients and advocating the adoption of healthy habits, many doctors are actually unhealthy themselves. Often exhausted from dealing with the pressures associated with their profession, they don’t eat right or exercise and end up contending with a host of chronic diseases. It’s a problem because research shows that patients are more likely to follow preventative health measures if their physicians do so as well. Fortunately, these Atlanta doctors do, in fact, lead by example, walking the walk and living healthy lifestyles that serve as inspiration to their patients.
Shealynn Buck, MD
Making a Lifelong Health Investment
This past December, Dr. Shealynn Buck, executive director of DeKalb Medical Employee Health Solutions, wasn’t feeling her best. The single mother of two daughters, ages 11 and 14, had just turned 41, and while she was in generally good shape, she decided that she had to do something to reset her health. So she gave herself a full lifestyle makeover, starting with a transition to a plant-based diet.
“I had to ask myself what would work for me, and I know that I feel better when I’m eating foods that are from plants. I’ve never been a big meat eater, so it wasn’t that difficult to go to a full plant-based diet,” explains Dr. Buck, who not only is a medical doctor, but also a certified professional health and wellness coach. “I actually started eating a plant-based diet in high school, but it’s easier today than it was then. There are options today. I eat whole foods – nuts, grains, vegetables and fruits. I don’t eat meat, and I don’t do dairy. And by doing that, I lost five percent of my body fat.”
Truth be told, Dr. Buck didn’t have a lot of weight to lose. A fitness enthusiast who was inspired by her father, a long distance runner, Dr. Buck has always been physically fit. She began running as a stress reliever while attending Emory University School of Medicine in 1996. And today, in addition to her healthy diet, she enjoys everything from running and walking to dance classes and rock climbing. “Those are the two areas I am so passionate about – nutrition and fitness,” she says. “It’s about overall well-being. When you exercise and eat right, your mind works better. Your body works better. You sleep better. And I’ve been able to integrate that thinking into what I’m doing with DeKalb Medical.”
Hired in 2012, Dr. Buck is charged with creating programs that promote the long-term physical, mental and social well-being of the hospital’s employees, as well as employees throughout Atlanta. With her background, it’s a perfect fit. And while she currently does not see patients one-on-one, she understands the role that physicians play in transforming patients’ lives. “Health care providers are some of the unhealthiest people. It’s ingrained in us that someone else comes first,” she states. “But a drowning person can’t save another drowning person. We have to be healthy. We’re walking billboards. When health care professionals are healthy, they deliver better care and are more likely to convey healthy habits to their patients.”
Yet, she adds, “Doctors are human beings too. We have our own health journeys. I’m not picture perfect. My biggest struggle is stress management. But that helps me be more understanding about what people are going through. That compassion and empathy, bringing that human factor back to medicine, is crucial. It’s easy to write a prescription, but it’s tough to influence lifestyle change and behavior. We can show patients that investing in your health is the greatest lifelong investment you can make.”
Ralph Lyons, MD
All Things are Possible
It’s not unusual to see Dr. Ralph Lyons out on the road at 5 a.m. running. When he’s out there, he’s usually training for a 10K, a marathon or a Half Ironman event. “I know my schedule, and I don’t mind getting up early,” says the renowned physician, who has worked with Atlanta South Gastroenterology since 1989. “I’ve trained for marathons at 4:30 a.m. It isn’t easy, but if you find your passion, you’ll magically find time for it. If you have that passion, you’ll get up earlier or go to bed later to pursue it.”
Dr. Lyons discovered long distance running at Harvard University after a roommate said he thought the active med student could run three miles. Believing he could not, Dr. Lyons hit the road and easily cleared the distance – and loved it. In time, he decided to enter the Peachtree Road Race. During the event, he saw people smiling widely as they ran. “I realized that this is a celebration of life,” he recalls. “I’ve been hooked now for a long time. It resonates with my being.”
Seventeen years ago, Dr. Lyons joined the South Fulton Running Partners, the oldest black recreational running club in the country. He now runs six miles every Saturday and participates in a variety of races. “Running partners have more fun, and we take that to heart,” he says. “The glue that binds us is the fellowship and fun. It’s not about how fast one runs. Your value to the group depends upon passion and enthusiasm.” And for Dr. Lyons, those elements are coupled with determination. At 58, he’s fortunate to have avoided any major injuries and trains and competes whenever he can. “Sometimes I don’t know how I do it, but I think it’s about having a passion and a goal,” he notes. “I’m a goal-oriented person, and that drives what I do in both medicine and my athletic pursuits.”
In addition to keeping him healthy, Dr. Lyons believes that being a runner makes him a better physician. Not only can his body tolerate long days because of his endurance training, but he also is more alert and cheerful. Furthermore, his understanding of the psychology and physiology of exercise lets him connect with patients on a different, first-hand level. “You can help patients in a more realistic way instead of on a theoretical basis,” he explains. “You understand that when you’re an athlete, you’re more tuned to eating healthier and making healthier decisions, especially if you want to pursue your passion with proficiency. I tell my patients that healthy behavior can follow the passion, and that’s okay.”
What’s more, Dr. Lyons knows that his athletic success inspires his patients in many ways. “I hope it’s a motivating factor,” he concludes. “Running has shown me that happiness can be achieved independently of one’s occupation or economic position in life. I think of myself as an ordinary person, but I know I can be an example and show my patients that they can unlock their own potential. It’s never too late to start. Find what you’re passionate about, and all things are possible.”
Naima Cheema, MD
It Becomes Second Nature
Dr. Naima Cheema, who joined North Roswell Internal Medicine six years ago, isn’t a fan of fast workouts with loud music. As a busy physician and married mother of two, her life is already fast-paced enough. “I’m mentally exhausted after working all day, and I don’t want to have to rush or have a lot of noise around me,” she says. “I used to do cardio, but it doesn’t help you relax. I enjoy yoga so much more, with the slow transitioning, the breathing exercises and the soothing music. I love the stretches, and at the end, there are always five to 10 minutes of meditation. It’s the best part of my day. It’s a great way for me to de-stress.”
Once Dr. Cheema found a physical activity that she enjoyed, making it part of her lifestyle was easy. Today, she does yoga twice a week at Women’s Premier Fitness and adds in a third day of another type of exercise, such as tennis. “We are such creatures of habit,” she explains. “By doing something regularly, it can become second nature.” It’s a principle that she shares with her patients often, especially those struggling with their weight.
That principle is also something she understands personally. When she entered medical school, Dr. Cheema was overweight. In school, she says, “I learned more about chronic health issues like diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipemia, and I realized that there is a strong association between these health conditions and obesity.” From that point on, she started making healthier choices like controlling her portions and exercising regularly. Through those changes, she managed to lose nearly 50 pounds.
Dr. Cheema’s personal insight allows her to better guide her patients as the director of a medically supervised weight loss program. She says, “I understand the dynamics of weight loss. I understand that it’s hard.” Because she’s been there herself, Dr. Cheema knows a realistic approach can work wonders. She advocates healthy additions to your plate, rather than counting calories or cutting out food groups. “You have to eat what you need to survive. You need protein, fat and carbohydrates,” she asserts. “Counting calories is not practical,” she adds. “Instead, just cut back on the calories with portion control.” She recommends gauging an appropriate portion size by putting it on a quarter of a plate and eating just one serving.
These healthy practices that Dr. Cheema recommends to her patients are the same ones that are now second nature for her. Her easy rules of thumb are tried and true and have helped her maintain her weight loss over the years. “Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated,” she says. “Eat more fruits and vegetables, have desserts on weekends only, minimize fried foods and try to eat more grilled and baked foods.”
Since Dr. Cheema has been in her patients’ shoes, she is proof that simple lifestyle changes can work. “You can only preach what you practice,” she says. “If I’m 300 pounds, my patients won’t listen to me. You have to own your behavior. When you do, you can make the greatest difference in others’ lives.”