A healthy lifestyle is about maintaining a disease-free condition. It's a way of living that lowers the risk of being seriously ill or dying early.
In our last two views of lifestyle—the typical lifestyle and the fitness lifestyle—you can see that each is benchmarking against a healthy lifestyle. A healthy lifestyle is a general context most people have for how they know they should be living.
In a "healthy" lifestyle, you've stopped unconsciously engaging in what causes disease, notably the food you are eating, inactivity, and lack of sleep.
You are now eating at least healthier than before; you are active and exercising, and you have awakened to the fact that sleep is essential, but chances are you still struggle with getting enough of it.
Some diseases are not preventable, as genetics are involved. Of course, many deaths, particularly those from type two diabetes, obesity, coronary heart disease, and lung cancer caused by smoking, can be avoided. Even with a predisposition (genetic tendency), if the disease-causing environment is not there, you don't get the disease.
Scientific studies have identified specific behavior types that contribute to the development of noncommunicable diseases and early death. Health is not only just about avoiding illness. It is also about physical, mental, and social wellness.
When a healthy lifestyle is adopted, a more positive role model is provided to other people in the family, particularly children trained mainly in unhealthy behavior (that means you) from an early age. You want to change your behavior and improve your health so that you and they can live longer lives.
You don't want to live distracted and held back by bodyweight, acute, and chronic disease conditions; which, are inevitable if you do not at least stick to "the Holy trinity of health."
- Get as much sleep as you need,
- Eat a genuinely healthy diet,
- Stay active, and exercise.
How is it that the United States spends the most money on healthcare and still has one of the lowest life expectancies of all developed nations? (To be specific: $9,400 per capita, 79 years, and 31st.)
The answer is simple:
We have too much-unmitigated stress of the wrong kind. It's gotten to the point that we are overstimulated and under recuperated, and overeating under nourishing food to cope with a life that's super busy but leaves us physically inactive. Whereby we cope with that stress in ways that create even more stress.
Mired in constant tiredness, and eventually, chronic fatigue, weight, mental and physical health complications descend further into chronic conditions, like osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease, and eventually cancer.
It's a series of vicious cycles that conspire into a downward spiral of factors that cause us to live unhealthy lifestyles challenging to change.
Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a massive study of the impact of health habits on life expectancy, using data from the well-known Nurses' Health Study (NHS) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS). This study shows they had data on a considerable number of people over an exceptionally long period. The NHS included over 78,000 women and followed them from 1980 to 2014. The HPFS included over 40,000 men and followed them from 1986 to 2014; over 120,000 participants, 34 years of data for women, and 28 years of data for men.
The researchers looked at NHS and HPFS data on diet, physical activity, body weight, smoking, and alcohol consumption collected from regularly administered, validated questionnaires.
What is a healthy lifestyle, exactly?
Five aspects of living healthy were chosen because prior studies have shown they significantly impacted the risk of premature death. Here is how these healthy habits were defined and measured:
- Healthy diet was calculated and rated based on the reported intake of healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, healthy fats, omega-3 fatty acids, and unhealthy foods like red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fat, and sodium.
- Healthy physical activity level, measured as at least 30 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity daily.
- Healthy body weight,defined as an average body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9.
- Smoking, well, there is no healthy amount of smoking. "Healthy" here meant never having smoked.
- Moderate alcohol intake, measured as between 5 and 15 grams per day for women and 5 to 30 grams per day. Generally, one drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol. That's 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.
Researchers also looked at data on age, ethnicity, and medication use, as well as comparison data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research.
Does a healthy lifestyle make a difference?
As it turns out, healthy habits make a big difference. According to this analysis, people who met the criteria for all five patterns enjoyed significantly, impressively longer lives than those who had none: 14 years for women and 12 years for men (if they had these habits at age 50). People who had none of these habits were far more likely to die prematurely from cancer or cardiovascular disease.
Study investigators also calculated life expectancy by how many of these five healthy habits people had. Just one healthy habit (and it didn't matter which one) … just one… extended life expectancy by two years in men and women. Not surprisingly, the more healthy habits people had, the longer their lifespan. This finding is very cool. If you're very curious, the article is available online, and the graphs are on page 7.
Check out Graph B, "Estimated life expectancy at age 50 according to the number of low-risk factors.")
It's huge. And it confirms prior similar research — a lot of previous similar research. A 2017 study using data from the Health and Retirement Study found that people 50 and older who were normal weight, had never smoked, and drank alcohol in moderation lived on average seven years longer. A 2012 mega-analysis of 15 international studies that included over 500,000 participants found that over half of premature deaths were due to unhealthy lifestyle factors such as poor diet, inactivity, obesity, excessive alcohol intake, and smoking. And the list of supporting research goes on.
So, what's our (big) problem?
As the authors of this study point out, we tend to spend outlandishly developing fancy drugs and other treatments for diseases rather than trying to prevent them in the US. Too many of us have gotten conditioned to think we catch illnesses when they are diseases of lifestyle. That is a big problem.
Experts have suggested that the best way to help people make healthy diet and lifestyle change is at the large-scale, population level, through public health efforts and policy changes. (Kind of like motorcycle helmets and seat belt legislation) We have made a little progress with tobacco and trans-fat legislation.
There's a lot of pushback from big industry on that, of course. If we have guidelines and laws helping us live healthier, big companies will not sell as much fast food, chips, and soda. And for companies hell-bent on making money at the cost of human life, well, that makes them angry.
What's the answer?
A lot more could be said about this, but you've heard it here—don't depend on top-down, corporate, or gov't interests to ever have your best interests at heart, for the most part.
A healthy lifestyle is a bottom-up activity, as only you care genuinely about your health; naturally, no one will care more than you.
Also, keep this in mind, a "healthy" lifestyle should be a given, not a goal. Your lifestyle should be healthy, period because all human performance depends on it.
You never learned the other lifestyle skills that make all the criteria of healthy living something you can get proficient in. Just telling you to eat a healthy diet and exercise, and get more sleep, is not the same as knowing how to and why you sleep, eat healthily, and exercise to achieve your goals.
We need to learn how to eat whole food nutrient-rich diet in the context of an entire lifestyle that promotes your energy, health, and performance.
Like exercise, eating whole food nutrient-rich diet will build tremendous momentum towards living a healthy performance lifestyle.