Pitt's the Healthy Lifestyle Institute is developing innovative approaches for modifying lifestyle behaviors that detract from overall health. Photo credit: John Conroy

Let’s say you’re visiting your doctor for a routine physical and he tells you to go easy on the salt shaker, or shed a few pounds.

Okay, you get it—but what you might not get in that doctor’s appointment is a strategy for how to do this, and in a way that is specific to your lifestyle and the challenges you face.

Now, a new initiative housed within the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Education—called the Healthy Lifestyle Institute—is actively working on bridging that gap, and much more, by developing innovative approaches for modifying lifestyle behaviors that detract from overall health.

What’s so innovative about it? For one, it integrates a massive amount of health-related research endeavors (focused on physical activity, nutrition and lifestyle changes) from Pitt centers, departments, laboratories and related divisions. “The institute harnesses the collective efforts of top researchers, clinicians and thought leaders throughout the Pitt community, and brings these thoughtful minds together under the same umbrella to collaborate and share ideas that will potentially make a substantial impact on the wellbeing of our society,” explains John Jakicic, the institute’s founding director and chair of the School of Education’s Department of Health and Physical Activity. “Essentially, the goal is to help Americans live healthier and happier lives.”

The initiative’s multi-pronged approach not only allows for the integration and training of health care providers, it aligns with health-based community initiatives as well. Furthermore, and perhaps most critically, it gives individuals direct access to the tools they need to make lasting health and lifestyle changes.

“Take, for example, the issue of smoking cessation,” Jakicic cites. “The institute is bringing resources together across many content expertise areas to solve this health issue. Pulmonologists [who focus on the respiratory system] are working together with addictive behavior specialists and others to test-pilot new intervention strategies.” The institute’s research will examine how biological factors such as genetics influence lifestyle behaviors, as well as how these factors impact chronic diseases and negative health outcomes.

Here’s that idea broken down into simple terms: Currently, your MD might tell you, “My recommendation is to stop smoking, and before you leave my office, I’ll give you some medication to help you.” With the institute’s new approach, that same doctor might instead say, “My recommendation is to stop smoking, and before you leave my office, I’ll give you a tool do to so. This tool will help you understand under what circumstances you’re smoking and what your specific triggers are.” Maybe that tool is an app, or an online program. In any event, the goal is to get to the crux of the individual’s reasons for wanting to smoke and guide them through situations that trip them up, and prevent them from succeeding.

Pittsburgh as a national prototype

University officials envision the institute becoming a leader in the development of behavioral modification interventions, a resource for understanding how lifestyle factors impact health, and a model for how universities can communicate internally.

“It’s pretty clear that what we have going on here is ahead of the curve in a big way,” Jakicic says. “This is important because the major research centers that are doing research on what is healthy gets translated into meaningful relationships for how to get care.”

“Precision health” medicine

Key to the success of the institute’s mission will be the implementation of new initiatives to enhance research capacity. “We still need research,” Jakicic comments. “We still need to understand how to do some of this stuff . . . We’re taking data in a research context, putting teams together and testing it out so the initiatives are based upon evidence, instead of just ‘maybe it’s a good idea.’”

These initiatives—or, centers and programs to be installed within various schools—will bring new technologies into Pitt laboratories, improve understanding of biological influences on human behavior and foster collaborative efforts between Pitt and the broader community. Additionally, the institute will forge collaborative pursuits with nonprofit organizations and public schools throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.

“The talent base here at the University of Pittsburgh is uniquely suited to address important and impactful clinical questions related to lifestyle factors, and bring the type of national impact that we are envisioning,” Jakicic adds. “The Healthy Lifestyle Institute will put the University of Pittsburgh and the City of Pittsburgh in a position to respond rapidly and effectively to future areas of scientific and clinical need regarding the application of lifestyle approaches to improve health.”

It’s all leading to a specific field of medical research and personalized care called “precision health,” which harnesses the power of technology and big data, and translates it into information focused on predicting and preventing disease, not just treating it. So in the future, when your physician tells you to eat healthier or exercise more, you’ll know how to do so in a way that is better suited to you.

Gina Mazza

Word provocateur. Creative alchemist. Journalist. Nonfiction author. Book editor. Dance enthusiast. Intuitionist. Unexpurgated spiritual diarist. Learn more @ www.ginamazza.com.