Think You’re Healthy? Think Again

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walking men in the city

Despite the billions of dollars Americans spend on gym memberships, diet programs and low-fat food options, less than 3 percent of us meet the definition of a healthy lifestyle – or so says a recent paperout of the Mayo Clinic. But before throwing in the (sweaty) towel on achieving optimal health, let’s explore how the researchers defined a healthy lifestyle – and how you can move into that elite 3 percent.

For the study, researchers evaluated survey data of 4,745 American adults to find out how many people are sufficiently active, eat a healthy diet, don’t smoke and have a recommended percentage of body fat. Here’s what they found:

  • 71.5 percent did not smoke
  • 37.9 percent consumed a healthy diet
  • 9.6 percent had a normal body fat percentage
  • 46.5 percent were sufficiently active
  • 2.7 percent had all four characteristics
  • 11.1 percent had none of the four characteristics

While many people accomplished multiple lifestyle goals (16 percent had three characteristics, for instance, and 37 percent had two), it’s surprising how few met all four – and how many met none! So, the researchers also examined the association between having different combinations of these characteristics and several biomarkers for cardiovascular disease. For example, they asked: What is the disease risk for someone who exercises enough and is a nonsmoker, but who also eats poorly and has excess body fat?

While the complete breakdown of these findings is complex, it’s important to note that the data are not a series of arbitrary numbers and dividing lines between categories, but instead represent the difference between good overall health and elevated disease risk. The researchers concluded that, while attaining multiple healthy lifestyle characteristics is important, you should talk to your doctor about which improvements will have the most meaningful impact on your personal health.

In the meantime, here’s what you can do to meet these goals and mitigate your chances of suffering from cardiovascular disease:

1. Stop smoking.

This is the most clear-cut behavior change you can make: If you smoke, stop. Of course, this is easier said than done. But, there are countless smoking-cessation programs available, so talk to your doctor about the best choice for you.

2. Get moving.

The research team defined “sufficient activity” as performing 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each week. This recommendation is in line with the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. It’s important to note how attainable this goal really is. A 30-minute walk during lunch or after dinner each weekday does the trick. If your schedule doesn’t allow for 30-minute activity bouts, you can break this down into three 10-minute walks each day. Remember, the study was not looking for athletes or even fitness enthusiasts, but rather everyday folks who reached a baseline of activity each week. Set up a personal plan to reach this baseline, and then put it on your calendar so it becomes routine.

3. Eat a balanced diet.

To determine whether people were eating healthfully, the research team looked at what people reported eating over 24 hours periods. The data were then used to compute a “Healthy Eating Index” score, and people who scored in the top 40 percent were determined to be adhering to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

While nutrition is a complex and ever-changing science, it is pretty simple to find out where you stand in terms of your eating habits. Using the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s online SuperTracker, you can enter your age, gender, height, weight and physical activity level to get an individualized eating plan to meet your caloric needs. Within seconds, the SuperTracker gives you a good estimate of how many calories a day you need and how many servings you should eat from each of the five food groups. The tool also allows you to track your nutrition intake and compare it to recommendations, track your physical activity, monitor your goals and look up nutrition information for thousands of foods. SuperTracker is also available as an app.

4. Get your body fat in check.

In this study, a “normal” body fat percentage was defined as being between 5 and 20 percent for men and between 8 and 30 percent for women. Given that only 9.6 percent of those surveyed had thisrecommended body composition, this measure is clearly a very challenging lifestyle goal to meet. The key to achieving and maintaining a healthy level of body fat isn’t about short-term dietary changes; it’s about a lifestyle that includes healthy eating, regular physical activity and balancing the number of calories you consume with the number of calories your body uses.

Americans are constantly receiving advice about their health from doctors, friends and magazine articles. The value in this study is that it provides concrete goals to improve your health. No one is saying it’s easy – if it was, more than 2.7 percent of us would meet all four metrics of health. That said, small improvements matter and the results can accumulate and make a meaningful difference rather quickly.

Of course, the more healthy lifestyle goals you achieve, the lower your disease risk. But making improvements below the defined thresholds is also valuable. While you may not eat perfectly, eating better is an important step in the right direction. And, speaking of steps, even if you don’t reach 150 minutes of activity each and every week, adding more steps to your day and finding new and creative ways to become, and then stay, active can be life-changing – and perhaps even life-saving.

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