Transitions Clinic Network (TCN) hosts a monthly Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) column. This column is a space where we can answer questions regarding healthcare in reentry. Our goal is to provide information and empower individuals to prepare them for healthy reentry. In our last column, we talked about medications to treat opioid use disorders (MAT). For this column, we will discuss chronic health conditions and how you can impact your health with diet and exercise.
What is a chronic health condition?
Do you or someone you know have diabetes, heart disease, cancer, asthma, or another medical diagnosis being treated by a health professional? These are all examples of chronic diseases that impact physical health. Conditions labeled “chronic” last a year or longer and require ongoing medical attention. Some chronic conditions can improve or be cured, while others can last the person’s lifetime. Most people who are incarcerated are living with at least one chronic health condition.
How do you know if you have a chronic health condition?
Chronic conditions are diagnosed by health professionals. A health care provider can do tests to check out new symptoms, so let them know if something new is bothering you. Chronic diseases can also be discovered through routine health check-ups called screening. You should be screened for chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and some cancers as part of your routine medical care, especially as you get older. You can ask your doctor inside and in the community about what screening tests you need to stay healthy.
How can my health provider help me treat my chronic health conditions?
It’s important to have regular check-ups with your doctor because discovering and addressing a problem earlier is better! You may need to see your doctor more often if you have a chronic disease. While some chronic conditions can be improved with changes in lifestyle (as discussed below), some chronic diseases require medications or additional treatment. Your doctor will discuss these treatment options with you.
What can I do to prevent or manage chronic health conditions?
There are multiple factors that play into someone developing a chronic condition
— family history (genetics), age, lifestyle choices, and/or environmental exposures. Some of these factors we cannot control, especially while incarcerated, but there are some daily choices that impact health that we do have some control over. As mentioned, one action you can take is to see a doctor regularly and take medications that are prescribed. In this column, we will also talk about diet and exercise. These lifestyle choices can help prevent disease or go alongside medications to help you live better with a disease. Here TCN’s Lead Community Health Worker, Joe Calderon, shares some healthy lifestyle tips from his time inside and his reentry journey.
Diet – Food fuels our bodies. Our bodies need a balance of protein, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, and minerals to function at its best. Eating a variety of foods that include the nutrients we need will help our bodies function optimally, while eating an unbalanced diet with excess calories, fats, salt, or sugar (such as fried foods or packaged, processed foods) can increase risk of conditions like obesity, heart problems, and diabetes.
In prison, it’s difficult to eat right. Healthy food choices are limited, especially if you don’t have money in your account or a job in the kitchen. When I was in prison, I lived off of eating Top Ramen. When I was diagnosed at age 29 with high blood pressure (hypertension), for the first time in my life I linked my health to what I ate. I was also aware that my grandfather died of a stroke and my pops of a heart attack at age 56. I wanted to eat healthier to prevent this for myself; one change I could make was using less of the noodle seasoning packet (which is high in salt) and adding more garlic. What you have access to dictates what you eat, but I encourage you to consider any small choices you can make to optimize your health. Some examples: eat those fruits/vegetables you have access to, consider portioning/limiting your snack foods, and drink plenty of water.
When you get out of prison, you will have more food options and be able to make more choices about what you eat. There is a saying that when students go away to college and begin eating on their own, they often gain weight: “The Freshman 15.” In my experience, this can definitely apply to reentry — without moderation, it is easy to overdo your food intake. Like the college freshman, you will have many options, but many of us are not youngsters anymore. The opposite problem might be not having enough to eat. Did you know that when you get out you can apply for the CalFRESH program to receive benefits for buying food? You will have to re-learn how to shop for food, prepare your meals, and decide what and how often to eat — things you maybe haven’t thought of in a while. You can start thinking now about how to set healthy habits.
Exercise – Being active has so many benefits for our health — stronger bones and muscles, improved flexibility and balance, lower blood pressure and cholesterol — and helps us cope with stress. Regular exercise prolongs the function of our bodies and minds. It is recommended that adults get 150 minutes of exercise a week, which is about 20 minutes per day. A well-balanced exercise routine includes a variety of activities — some that make the heart pump (aerobic), some that strengthen muscles and bones, and also some that stretch those muscles out!
From my experience in prison, there are three different ways people exercise: not at all, for a limited time (like to prep for family visits or right before parole — don’t lie!), and as a regular part of daily life. To prevent/manage chronic disease, it’s best to consider how to regularly be active. Like your diet, choices around movement are limited in prison — you are not in control of your space, time, or what equipment you have access to. Additionally, everyone’s ability to exercise is different and can be limited by health conditions or injuries. Consider what ways you can be just a bit more active each day, whether through stretching, push-ups, walking, running, etc.
When you get out of prison, you will be able to structure your own day and you can choose to make exercise part of your new daily norm. You could continue with activities you might be already doing inside, like strength training or running, or try out some new active hobbies, like cycling, swimming, or joining a gym or sports team. What’s worked best for me is to stay active with activities that I can sustain because I enjoy them and they fit in my lifestyle. And to stay positive!
Whether in prison or reentering the community, we all have to balance our health with other priorities each day. In whatever way possible, practice taking the best care of yourself where you are now, so you have that foundation when you hit the bricks. Little daily choices make a big difference!