Believe it or not, there was a time in optometry when you might see your eye doctor smoking in the office during the eye exam. Many moons ago, Chairside columnist, Montgomery Vickers, O.D., saw a fellow optometrist do just that. It’s probably safe to say the patient felt the burn when the doctor inserted her contact lenses, and it’s highly unlikely he communicated that tobacco use is a major risk factor for age-related macular degeneration.

Dr. Lange promotes a healthy lifestyle after office hours too. His jersey reads, “Get the edge, take the pledge, sports for life and pledge to become tobacco free.”
Today, that scenario would never happen, but patients will notice fast food wrappers strewn about the office or a smoky scent emanating from your jacket. They’re looking to see if your words are matching up with your actions—and if they’re not, they’ll be the first ones to detect it.

“I truly believe that all health care providers have a responsibility not only to their patients but also to themselves when it comes to healthy lifestyle choices,” says Dr. Vickers, who runs a private practice in St. Albans, W.Va. “We cannot expect patients to be responsible if we are not responsible.”

Michael Lange, O.D., C.N.S., shares this belief. With 11 Lange Eye Institute locations in Florida, he employs O.D.s and M.D.s who all “walk the walk.” Dr. Lange feels it’s crucial to hire staff members who are big proponents of living a healthy lifestyle.

“It’s important for an optometrist to be a role model to their patients,” he says. “It’s never too late to adjust your diet, your lifestyle and your exercise regimen.”

Work Up a Healthy Appetite
An extreme sports enthusiast and certified nutritional specialist, Dr. Lange definitely leads by example. “At 50, I’m in the best shape of my life,” he says. “When I wake up in the morning after a long run or a motocross event, I’m a little sorer than I was when I was 20, but I can hang with anybody that is half my age in any sport, and that’s all due to proper nutrition, diet and exercise.”

Dr. Lange discusses all of those elements during his patients’ eye exams because he feels if you keep the body healthy, the eyes will be healthier too. He recommends specific dietary changes and supplements that can improve vision-related issues and overall health. He’s also been sharing these tips with millions of listeners on his syndicated radio show, “Ask the Doctor,” for the past 20 years. “I became a certified nutritional specialist so I would have more credibility when I talk about nutrition,” he says. “I back up everything I talk about with clinical science and personal experience.”

Even if you’re not in tip-top shape, it’s never too late to change, as Dr. Lange says. A fitness fanatic in college, Dr. Vickers ran seven to eight miles regularly, but later it became difficult to find time for work, family and exercise, so the running was out.

Dr. Lange keeps his eyes protected even while navigating a class four rapid. He’s developing a line of sunglasses for extreme sports, designed specifically for mountain and road biking, motorcycling, skiing, snow boarding, white water rafting and kayaking, hunting, competitive shooting, off-shore boat racing and fishing.
“On top of that, we ate out a lot with the kids for about 15 years,” he says. “I gained about 35 to 40 pounds—I was having back problems, knee problems and concerns about my blood pressure and cholesterol.”

When their kids set their wedding dates, it motivated him and his wife to get back on track. They started by meeting with a nutritional specialist and eating portion-controlled meals as part of a weight loss system. “This guy is talking about portion control, and I’m thinking, ‘I watch Dr. Oz, I know that,’” Dr. Vickers recalls. “But when you look down at your plate and you see half a hoof on one side and an antler on the other, it makes you wake up.” 

But it wasn’t just about the dieting for them; it was about making long-term lifestyle changes.

“We started getting more active because we felt better and had more energy,” Dr. Vickers says. He and his wife started doing 10-minute DVD workouts at home because it fit easily into their schedules. Taking just 10 minutes three times a day, five days a week, quickly adds up to the nationally recommended 150 minutes per week of moderately intense activity.

These days, Dr. Vickers says he’s very proactive about discussing obesity and weight issues if he feels that it’s harming a patient, which he rarely did when he wasn’t working out. “A lot of times, patients would come in and say, ‘Wow, she’s been feeding you.’ But when I got back on the right foot, they started to say, ‘Wow, you look great, have you been working out?’” he recalls. “We have to be healthy ourselves so that our patients can trust what we’re saying because they know we’ve been there and back.”

Time to Butt Out?

When he’s not seeing patients or doing research, Dr. Lange loves to hit the throttle at the motocross park. Motocross hits almost every muscle and a 45-minute “moto” or practice session is an exciting way to get plenty of cardiovascular exercise.
Personal experience has also helped Dr. Vickers to talk more openly with patients about tobacco use. After losing a family member to lung cancer caused by smoking, he’s been adamant about bringing up smoking cessation.

“It’s not just a nasty habit—it’s really an addiction. It means more to some people than their children, their grandchildren and even their own lives,” he says. “They need our support and encouragement, and I think it’s our responsibility to talk with them about it.”

Dr. Lange is also an advocate for staying tobacco-free. He even promotes it at the mountain bike park, wearing a jersey that reads, “Get the edge, take the pledge; sports for life, pledge to become tobacco-free.” It’s not just about patients’ lung health, it’s important for their eyes too because smokers are at increased risk for developing cataracts and age-related macular degeneration and can experience more severe dry eye because smoke is a significant irritant.

“My patients get sick of hearing it, but I tell them if you don’t stop smoking now, you may to the grave earlier and you may go to the grave visually impaired or even blind,” Dr. Lange says.

Getting Screened on Schedule
While staying up to date with eye exams may seem like a no-brainer, the number of optometrists who aren’t getting their own eyes checked is substantial. Results from a 2007 Review of Optometry online poll revealed that as many as one-half (51%) of respondents had not had a full eye exam in three years or more. And only one in three O.D.s (32%) who responded had an exam in the previous year.

Basic Tips for a Healthy Lifestyle
You give your patients these suggestions all the time, but are you taking your advice?
• Don’t smoke or use tobacco.
• Limit how much alcohol you drink.
• Eat a healthy, balanced diet.
• Exercise regularly.
• If you’re overweight, figure out a healthy weight loss plan.
• Stay up to date with health screenings, especially your eye exam.
• Limit stress as much as possible.
• Take a break and do something you enjoy at least once a day.
• Get adequate sleep. 
Even though he’s very conscientious about checking out his health, Joseph Sowka, O.D., admits he used to be one of the guilty parties. “I go to my internist three times a year, I get blood work done, I see my dentist and dermatologist every six months, I work out five times a week, but before I developed a cataract, the last time I had a comprehensive eye exam was years ago,” says Dr. Sowka, a professor at the NOVA Southeastern University College of Optometry and chief of Advanced Care Service and director of Glaucoma Service. “When I received eye care, it was piecemeal—a refraction here, a pressure check there, a fundus exam a few months down the road.”

Even though he had LASIK correction and his vision is fine now, Dr. Sowka knows he’s still at higher risk of retinal detachment because he was a high myope and should probably be getting his eyes checked twice a year. “To be honest, eye care is more inconvenient for me somehow because when I’m at work, I’m at work, and I don’t want to take the time for a full exam,” he admits. In the future, he hopes to stay more on top of it.

“I’m not averse to going to an internist, so it shouldn’t be a big deal to schedule an annual eye exam; in fact, when you’re at a multi-doctor practice, it’s pretty easy,” Dr. Sowka says. “I just need to treat it like another physical exam, setting aside the time in my schedule in advance.”

Striking a Balance
For Christine Sindt, O.D, it’s important to set aside time not just for her physical health, but also for her emotional well-being. “It’s not just about controlling the amount of time you’re at the office; it’s about aligning that time with what’s important to you,” says Dr. Sindt, director of the Contact Lens Service and associate professor of clinical ophthalmology at the University of Iowa. Early in her career, she put pressure on herself at work but it came at a large sacrifice—she wasn’t getting home on time and she was putting her work before the people who mattered in her life.

After that, she made a conscious decision to get home on time, and she actually found the more she did that, the more she was able to accomplish in her work. “I think a healthy work-life balance breeds happiness, and when you have that, you don’t feel quite as stressed,” Dr. Sindt says.

“As caregivers, it’s important for optometrists to take care of themselves as well as other people,” she says. “It’s not selfish to take care of yourself—because it’s what’s best for you, your patients, your employees and your family.”