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Metabolic Syndrome: A New Focus for Lifestyle Modification

By Tammy Petersen, MSE

Cardiovascular disease is still the number one cause of morbidity and mortality in the United States and much of this burden of disease can be linked to poor nutrition and a dramatic increase in sedentary lifestyles.

Personal Trainers have the opportunity to do more than just help people they train become more active. Physical activity should not be the only approach to encouraging a healthy and balanced lifestyle. We need to be prepared to also help our clients implement lifestyle behavior changes related to stress, family history of coronary heart disease, obesity, smoking, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

A look at what is being called metabolic syndrome will help you understand why, even though increasing physical activity levels is the overall best thing you can do for any client, there are other ways to guide them to a healthier lifestyle. Sometimes you may be able to help them make the changes yourself, and sometimes you will need to refer them to another health professional like a doctor or dietician for guidance. Either way, knowing how to help them, or when to turf them to someone who is more knowledgeable than yourself is important. So first lets get familiar with the syndrome and the clinical criteria that the doctor uses to diagnose it. Your goal is then to help your client understand and make the necessary changes, so that they don’t progress to cardiovascular disease and the almost certain heart attack heart that will be the end result. 

Cardiovascular disease is still the number one cause of morbidity and mortality in the United States and much of this burden of disease can be linked to poor nutrition and a dramatic increase in sedentary lifestyles, leading to overweight and obesity. This increase in weight leads to an increase in the incidence of type 2 diabetes, and blood pressure and cholesterol problems, which are all well-established cardiovascular disease risk factors. The National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Adult Treatment Panel (ATP) III has updated the recommendations for the evaluation and management of adults dealing with high cholesterol, renewing its emphasis on the importance of lifestyle modifications for improving cardiovascular risk. The NCEP has coined the term “therapeutic lifestyle changes” (TLC) to reinforce both dietary intake and physical activity as crucial components of weight control and cardiovascular risk management.

As well as focusing attention on the LDL cholesterol (also called bad cholesterol) levels the NCEP also identified the metabolic syndrome as a secondary target of therapy. The importance of lifestyle modifications in the treatment and prevention of cardiovascular disease has heightened and caused growing awareness of this condition. The metabolic syndrome (also called insulin resistance syndrome and syndrome X) is characterized by decreased tissue sensitivity to the action of insulin (pre-diabetes), resulting in a compensatory increase in insulin secretion. This metabolic disorder predisposes individuals to a cluster of abnormalities that can lead to such problems as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and stroke. According to Daniel Einhorn, MD, who is cochairman of the American College of Endocrinology (ACE) and the American Association of Clinical Endocrinologists (AACE) Insulin Resistance Syndrome Task Force and medical director of the Scripps Whittier Institute for Diabetes in La Jolla, California, the prevalence of the syndrome has increased 61% in the last decade. He says that it is crucial for medical professionals to identify patients at risk and follow these patients closely and counsel them about making lifestyle changes to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

GUIDELINE: According to the NCEP, the criteria for metabolic syndrome includes at least 3 of the following 5 clinical factors

Clinical criteria for the metabolic syndrome

Risk factor

Defining level

Abdominal obesity

Waist circumference
>40 in (>102 cm)
>35 in (>88 cm)

Fasting triglyceride level

>150 mg/dL

HDL cholesterol level

<40 mg/dL
<50 mg/dL


>130/ >85 mm Hg
or taking antihypertensive medication

Fasting glucose level

>110 mg/dL or diabetes

Source: Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults. Executive Summary of the Third Report of the National Cholesterol Education Program (NCEP) Expert Panel on Detection, Evaluation, and Treatment of High Blood Cholesterol in Adults (Adult Treatment Panel III). Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health; 2001. NIH publication 01-3670.

Using 1988-1994 data (NHANES III) the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 47 million Americans have metabolic syndrome. And, in 2000, more than 97 million adults were considered obese, and more than half the population is now overweight. This epidemic is not likely to plateau because childhood obesity is also increasing at an alarming rate. The explosive increase in the prevalence of obesity observed in the past decade suggests the current rate of metabolic syndrome is now likely higher than that estimated by NHANES III.

Millions of Americans at risk for metabolic syndrome can sharply lower their chances of getting this disease by adopting a healthy lifestyle (stop smoking, low-fat diet, weight loss/maintenance and increased physical activity). Diet and exercise are the cornerstones of treatment in patients with metabolic syndrome. According to Robert Chilton, MD, (November/ December 2002 issue of Men’s Total Health Digest) without diet and exercise modifications, most patients will eventually fail and progress to type 2 diabetes within a decade and experience a heart attack about 10 years later. Dr. Chilton recommends a diet reduced in saturated fats (<7%), low in cholesterol (<200 mg/day), high in fiber (20-30gm/day) and reduced in simple sugars. Weight loss of only 5-7% (less than 15 pounds) can make a big difference in health markers like cholesterol and blood pressure. A program that includes exercise daily reaching 85% of heart rate for age is reported to benefit the patient too.  However, Dr. Chilton says, any exercise is better than none, and a target of 30 minutes every other day is a reasonable level for most patients.

A study by the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) found that there was a reduction of 58% in progression to diabetes when moderate life style changes were made. These changes were directed towards getting people to lose 8-10 pounds and becoming more active, mainly by walking briskly for 150 minutes per week. Other studies have been done by the DPP using a medication called metformin. It reduced the progression to diabetes by about 30%, but was not as effective as behavioral interventions and it didn’t work in all groups. The behavioral intervention, on the other hand worked across the board, regardless of age, body weight, or race and ethnicity. Another drug called acarbose has also been tested and found to reduce progression by about 33%. So, there are medications that can be beneficial, but nothing was as effective overall as the behavioral intervention used in the DPP. Consideration also needs to be given to the potential side effects of a medication used to prevent diabetes compared with lifestyle changes.

According to Frank Vinicor, MD, who is the director of the diabetes program at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the behavioral interventions used in these studies was quite intense and involved 16 interactions with individuals during the first year, with a whole series of very innovative and creative follow-up meetings. The interventions are being explored further to see if they can be made more practical, more feasible, and more economically possible. Another point is that, even within the DPP, a physician did not deliver most of the behavioral interventions. New recommendations from the CDC will call for involving trained nurses, dieticians, and other community health workers in the process.

Also according to Dr. Vincor, about 90% of people with diabetes receive their diabetes care from the primary care community and there is no reason to anticipate that things will be any different with pre-diabetes or metabolic syndrome. He believes the primary care community (internists and family practice physicians) will play a pivotal role in both the identification of people with pre-diabetes, as well as the initiation of therapy. And again he emphasizes, that does not mean that primary care doctors themselves have to do the counseling and behavioral intervention. Instead he anticipates they will make appropriate referrals to others in their communities.

As a fitness professional reading this, hopefully you are not asking yourself “so what?” but are instead seeing an opportunity to educate and motivate some of your current clients and to use your knowledge to help attract future clients. The medical community is good at diagnosing this syndrome, but not necessarily equipped to provide patients with the tools to be successful with the lifestyle changes they recommend. There exists a wonderful opportunity to build a partnership with physicians in your area. Most physicians will gladly refer patients to you for help with the all-important exercise and nutrition portion of the treatment program. In many cases, you have more knowledge in this area than the physician who has been trained in tertiary, not preventative, (i.e. most MD’s know very little about diet and exercise since they are not taught this in medical school) medicine.  Often times all that you will need to get a referral is for the doctor to be aware of your existence and to give them an easy way to get the patient to you. A short introduction letter outlining your qualifications, and showing your desire to help people make lifestyle changes, is a good start. A personal visit to your primary care doctor and others in your area is even better. But, be prepared to take up just a few minutes of their time to introduce yourself and leave your letter and cards.


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