Originally written for The Washington Post, August 21, 2018
There seems to always be a mad dash toward the next new thing when it comes to nutrition and fitness — whether it’s the latest exercise craze, superfood or diet regimen. But leaping from fad to fad isn’t exactly a well-reasoned strategy for improving our health. Nor is it a way to create changes that stick — which are the only ones that will have an impact.
If we’re going to generate enough motivation to create sustainable change, we need to have clear objectives and understand how and why our habits fulfill those objectives. That way, when relapses or difficult moments arise — and they always do — our deeper motivation and plan keep us anchored.
If your objective is to live a longer, healthier life, a new study conducted by Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health lays out five practices, none of which needs to involve a fad.
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The study, which appeared in the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation, analyzed data on more than 100,000 people, who were followed for up to 34 years. Researchers looked at life expectancy among those who engaged in five “low-risk lifestyle factors,” such as not smoking. The researchers concluded that, if practiced together, the five low-risk lifestyle factors could increase life span quite significantly, an average of 14 years for women and 12 years for men.
The five low-risk factors are the following:
1. Avoid smoking. Low risk is defined as never smoking.
2. Maintain a healthy weight. Low risk is defined as a Body Mass Index in the range of 18.5 to 24.9. BMI is a ratio of weight to height that, though imperfect, offers a quick and easy assessment of weight status.
3. Exercise regularly. Low risk is defined as moderate- or vigorous-intensity exercise for 30 or more minutes a day.
4. Consume moderate amounts of alcohol. Low risk is defined as one-half to one drink per day for women and one-half to two drinks per day for men.
5. Maintain an overall healthy diet. Low risk is defined as a diet with high intakes of vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, polyunsaturated fatty acids and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, and low intakes of red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fat and sodium.
Not only is the research topic compelling because of the large participant sample size and lengthy follow-up — documenting 42,167 deaths over 34 years — but also because it’s specifically focused on the outcome of life span. People make lifestyle choices for many reasons, but focusing on these five components can support someone who wants to increase their life expectancy.
“This study underscores the importance of following healthy lifestyle habits for improving longevity in the U.S. population,” said Frank Hu, chair of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School and senior author, in a news release that accompanied the study. “However, adherence to healthy lifestyle habits is very low. Therefore, public policies should put more emphasis on creating healthy food . . . and social environments to support and promote healthy diet and lifestyles.”
While public policy may change in the future, there are steps you can take now to implement change.
Begin by taking an honest look and assess how you score among these five parameters. For example, you don’t smoke, you exercise regularly, but you drink more than two drinks a day, your BMI is elevated and your diet isn’t always healthy. Or you’re low-risk for everything, but you only exercise two days a week. Be super specific. Note where you’re doing well and where you’re really struggling.
Once you get an idea of where you stand, choose just one area you want to focus on and one change you want to make in it. It’s common for us to jump in and try to fix everything at once, but success usually occurs through setting small, clearly defined goals and achieving them one by one. For example, if you know you’re drinking more than is recommended, but you don’t want to decrease intake right now, choose a different first step. Here are some first-step suggestions:
• If decreasing alcohol consumption is your focus, consider cutting out drinking at home. Or if social drinking is your main issue, set a goal for drinks per week to keep you accountable.
• If quitting smoking is your goal, perhaps the first step is to research smoking-cessation programs.
• If improving your diet interests you, start with adding one more vegetable and fruit to your daily diet.
• If exercise is your priority, add one 30-minute workout to your regimen to get you toward a daily routine.
• If losing weight is your focus, consider decreasing caloric intake by 250 to 500 calories per day.
Check in weekly to stay accountable. As that habit is incorporated into your regular routine, add more to your weekly agenda, so that slowly, but surely, you’re incorporating the five habits.
When bumps in the road occur, remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. You’re taking steps to create habits that could lead to a longer, healthier life. That focus is an important part of achieving the goal.