How to Live a Healthy Lifestyle
You may hear the term “healthy lifestyle” and wonder what exactly it is. It’s in each pamphlet you bring home from the doctor’s office and every television show about health. A healthy lifestyle seems like a vague, ideal way of life that is out of reach.
We know it is what we should strive for, but sometimes it seems impossible. We wish for a healthy lifestyle, but what exactly does a healthy lifestyle mean? Is it attainable? In this article, we look at how to live a healthy lifestyle, and show you that it is not always as hard as it seems.
The Truth About American Health
Before starting a discussion about how to live a healthy lifestyle, we may have to talk about the lifestyle an average person realistically lives. Is it healthy? Unfortunately, it is not.
The following statistics from the Health and Human Services (HHS) show that:
- Two-thirds of adults do not perform the recommended amount of weekly exercise.
- More than 95% of adults get less than 30 minutes of daily physical activity.
- Most Americans consume less than the federally recommended amount of whole grain, vegetables, and fruits.
- 78 million U.S. adults are obese.
- About 40% of Americans smoke, with about 15% of those smokers do it daily.
Americans are not known for their wholesome diets or healthy habits. But, with a little bit of effort by everyone, that can change.
What Is a Healthy Lifestyle?
The often-cited 2016 Oregon State University study regarding healthy lifestyle behaviors defined a healthy lifestyle as:
- A good diet.
- A moderate amount of exercise.
- A body-fat percentage in the recommended range.
- A non-smoker.
The Oregon State University study highlighted the links between the four healthy lifestyle elements and cardiovascular disease risk. Using cardiovascular biomarkers, the researchers determined that participants who met more of each of the four healthy lifestyle criteria were less likely to have high levels of cardiovascular disease biomarkers. In short, the healthier the lifestyle, the less likely the person was to have heart disease.
Fighting Against Terminal Illness
Healthy lifestyle choices can also reduce cancer and diabetes risk and prolong life. According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes account for 65% of all deaths.
These diseases shorten life expectancy and often impact a person’s quality of life. At the core of these numbers is the fact that, in most cases, these premature deaths are preventable through healthy lifestyle changes.
The Oregon State University study’s four elements (diet, exercise, weight maintenance and not smoking). These are what every doctor would recommend for their patients. As simple as the list sounds, however, a healthy lifestyle may not occur naturally. The recommendations may sound achievable, but the influences in our day-to-day lives make meeting these elements difficult.
Sadly, healthy life changes are not initiated until later in life. The Oregon State University study found that adults 60 years old and over were less likely to smoke and more likely to eat a healthy diet than young adults. Adults 60 years old and over had fewer healthy characteristics than adults ages 20 to 39 due to their age, yet were more likely not to smoke and consume a healthy diet, and less likely to be sufficiently active.
Across all ages, only 2.7% met all four healthy lifestyle criteria. The most significant percentage (34%) met two criteria, while only 16% had three. There were 11% who met none of the healthy lifestyle elements at all. Nevertheless, it is never too soon or too late to implement healthy lifestyle changes.
Diet: You Are What You Eat
There is some truth to the saying “you are what you eat”. What is taken into the body is what it uses for energy and to build new cells. Giving the body the highest quality food gives it the best building blocks to make cells.
Despite the body’s need for nutritious food, the typical American diet well exceeds recommended levels for added sugars, refined grains and saturated fats. Salt, a leading factor in high blood pressure, also surpasses the recommended levels in many American daily diets. Most adult diets consist of 3,400 milligrams per day of sodium, exceeding the federal guidelines of 2,300 milligrams per day.
Eating a healthy diet is not about extreme diets or overnight changes. Contrary to popular belief, a nutritious diet is not about strict limits or deprivation. Healthy food does not have to be tasteless, expensive, or time-consuming to make. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers healthy eating guidelines to establish better eating habits.
The fundamental points of the guideline are the following:
- Remaining, not exceeding, your daily calorie requirements.
- Incorporate vegetables, fruits, whole grains and low-fat or fat-free dairy products.
- Avoid fats like saturated fats, trans fats and cholesterol.
- Consume foods low in sodium.
- Reduce the intake of added sugars.
The American diet contains many processed foods. Although people typically think of packaged food and fast-food as processed food, the food that restaurants cook can also be processed foods.
Processed foods are so common that avoiding them completely can be difficult. However, eating them less often or eating smaller amounts of processed foods can still have positive benefits. Small changes in diet, done slowly and consistently, can make a big difference in your health.
Physical Activity: 30 Minutes Each Day
Both adults and children in America do not get the recommended amount of physical activity issued by CDC guidelines. When it comes to aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities, 80% of adults do not get enough. What’s more, even children do not receive enough exercise, with one-third of them playing video games for at least three hours each day.
An inactive lifestyle can raise a person’s risk of premature death by changing how the body functions. Metabolism slows to match inactivity, burning fewer calories, and gaining weight. An insufficient amount of exercise can also reduce adequate blood circulation, increase inflammation, encourage bone loss and weaken muscles. These changes can lead to chronic diseases and disorders like stroke, heart disease, diabetes and hormonal disorders.
Physical activity can start with small and simple acts. Walking briskly for a half hour each day can be an adequate exercise regime for most people. Working up to a longer or faster walk, or jogging, is even better. The key is to start with small goals. Think walks around the block (rather than a marathon) and work your way up to more strenuous exercises.
Weight: BMI or Waist Circumference
When combined with a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle can increase chronic conditions like obesity from excessive weight gain. With office work and television, our modern lifestyle promotes a sedentary existence, creating a greater number of obese people in the past four decades.
For example, the percentage of obese American adults in the U.S. was 15% in the 1970s. In the late 2000s, that percentage increased to 34%. Because obesity leads to chronic disorders, it is estimated to cost the U.S. $190.2 billion annually.
Maintaining a healthy weight can prevent chronic disorders and obesity. There are two primary ways to determine a healthy weight. Through a Body Mass Index (BMI), a person can gauge whether they meet healthy weight guidelines for their height and age. BMI calculators can help individuals figure out BMI, with lower ranges indicating lower body fat and higher ranges indicating more body fat.
Waist circumference is another method to determine whether an individual is at an unhealthy weight. Here are a few of the following indicators that show excess weight via waist circumference:
- For adult males, a waist circumference of more than 40 inches can signal excess weight.
- For adult females who are not pregnant, waist circumference more than 35 inches may show excess weight.
The BMI and waist circumference tools screen for excess weight, but they do not make up for the comprehensive assessment that a health professional can perform. A visit to a clinician can provide a better idea of your health status.
Stress Reduction and Mental Health
Everyone experiences occasional stress, even young children. Stress is a part of life, and not all stress is bad. It’s the feeling that pushes people past the finish line and gets them to meet a deadline is a form of stress.
Daily life always has some pressure from work, family, or other activities. Running late for the bus or meeting with your boss can be stressful, but not typically overwhelming or traumatic. In these cases, stress is necessary and expected.
On the other hand, the stress that occurs due to adverse events, happens repeatedly, or stems from trauma can carry health risks. When it comes to long-term stress, the body does not have the time to relax and return to its baseline functioning. It remains alert and on-guard, always keyed up and expecting the worst.
This type of stress can impact the immune system, disrupt the digestive system, pressure the cardiovascular system and affect mental health. Combined with a sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy eating, over time, chronic stress can be deadly.
Fortunately, there are things people can do to manage stress and take care of mental health:
- Recognize the signs of chronic stress, such as irritability, sleep changes, feeling depressed, low energy and increased alcohol or substance use.
- Find ways to soothe or lower stress, like meditation, muscle relaxation, or breathing exercises.
- Stay connected with the people around you and nurture the relationships you have with other people.
- Seek help for your mental health. Treat your mental health the same way you would treat your physical health—when you feel something is wrong, consult with a professional.
Taking care of your mental health is as important as taking care of the body. There is a mind-body connection that requires an equilibrium between both to function well.
As an example, stress can impact the immune system, and a disrupted immune system can result in poor mental well-being. The body can influence how your mind works, and vice-versa. A healthy lifestyle means caring for both your mind and body.
Habits for a Healthy Lifestyle
It’s the small habits that people pick up that merge into the term “lifestyle”. A healthy lifestyle means that most of the habits we have resulted in positive gains, like adequate nutrition, regular exercise and consistent sleep. Healthy habits give the body the best chances to fight off disease and slow aging as realistically possible.
Unlike healthy habits, unhealthy habits speed up the aging process and increase the risk of disease. Smoking, excess alcohol, drug addictions and regular overeating can hinder the body’s ability to function and compromises the immune system, making the body much more susceptible to illness.
Using previous research data, an article published in Harvard Health recommended that healthy habits were worth cultivating. Establishing healthy habits prolonged life expectancy and serious illnesses. The data suggested five healthy habits integrate into daily life:
- Make a healthy diet the goal for every meal. In general, consume a diet high in vegetables, fruits, nuts and whole grains. Incorporate healthy fats like omega 3 fatty acids. Stay away from highly processed foods as much as possible and limit red meat consumption, sugary snacks and beverages, trans fats and sodium.
- Maintain a healthy body weight, with a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9.
- Avoid smoking. If you smoke, quit. There are no health benefits to smoking.
- Obtain at least 30 minutes a day of moderate to brisk walking. Exercise more if possible.
- Limit alcohol intake to 5 grams to 15 grams per day for women, and 5 grams to 30 grams per day for men. These amounts equal to about 12 ounces of beer or 5 ounces of wine.
Wellness Checks and Adequate Healthcare
Working towards a healthy lifestyle might take some help, and that is why wellness checks and adequate healthcare are a vital part of a healthy lifestyle.
Regular health checkups provide time for physicians to spot any changes before they become chronic conditions. Screening for illnesses and mental health issues also occur at health checkups, enabling physicians to treat any healthcare concerns.
It’s much simpler and less costly, to prevent illness rather than to treat it. Finding a health professional you can trust and collaborating with them regarding maintaining a healthy lifestyle can keep your body in top shape.
Attending wellness checkups, keeping to the recommended vaccine schedule, and adhering to health guidelines offer you the best chances for a healthy life.
Is a Healthy Lifestyle Possible? Yes!
Going back to the four essential elements of a healthy lifestyle, you can see that they are not complicated or out of reach:
- A good diet
- A moderate amount of exercise
- A body-fat percentage in the recommended range
- A non-smoker
They do, however, require some action on the part of the individual. A healthy lifestyle does not occur on its own and it does not happen overnight. It takes active participation on the part of the individual to make small and consistent changes to their lifestyle.
Even a small decision to choose water over soda at each meal can start the ball rolling to a new, improved and healthier you. Creating a healthy lifestyle through small changes can get you started on your way to good health.
- CDC (Healthy Eating for a Healthy Weight)
- CDC (Assessing Your Weight)
- NIH (5 Things You Should Know About Stress)
- PubMed.gov (The mind-body connection: not just a theory anymore)
- Harvard Health Publishing (Five healthy habits net more healthy years)
- Harvard Health Publishing (Why your annual check-up is still important to your health)