8 Simple Steps to a Healthier Lifestyle

You’ve probably heard a lot about the importance of a healthy lifestyle and how it can help you lead a happier life—and possibly a longer one. But you don’t have to turn your world upside down to get there. In fact, there’s increasing evidence that some simple everyday steps may be surprisingly powerful.

“More and more, studies are showing that certain strategies can help reduce the risk of multiple diseases,” says Robert Ostfeld, M.D., founder of the Cardiac Wellness Program at the Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.

Case in point: People who didn’t smoke, ate a healthy diet, got sufficient physical activity, and drank alcohol in moderation were 63 percent less likely to die over almost two decades, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Regarding heart disease, a Harvard Medical School survey of 20,900 men found that those with the highest number of healthy habits cut their lifetime risk of heart failure in half compared with those who had the least healthy habits.

The right lifestyle can even cut the chance of coronary artery disease by 50 percent for people at high genetic risk, according to a study in the New England Journal of Medicine last November.

A healthy lifestyle can significantly reduce cancer risks as well. Studies estimate that adults who stay at a reasonable weight, are physically active, eat a healthy diet, limit alcohol, and don’t smoke are 36 percent less likely to be diagnosed with cancer and 40 percent less likely to die from it.

In addition, a study published in the American Journal of Kidney Diseases in 2015 found that those with chronic kidney disease who took similar steps slashed their risk of death by 68 percent in a four-year follow-up compared with others with kidney disease.

Here, how to use the power of a healthy lifestyle to enhance your quality of life.

Watch Your Weight

Being overweight may increase the risk of cancers such as breast, colon, and endometrial as well as osteoarthritis (OA), heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and eye diseases such as age-related cataracts. Research from the Harvard Medical School has also found that women with high levels of abdominal fat have lower bone mineral density.

Even a little weight loss can have benefits. If you have high blood pressure, losing 9 pounds can reduce systolic blood pressure by 4.5 points and diastolic by 3 points, according to a 2014 Cochrane review.

A 2016 study in Cell Metabolism, which looked at the effects of weight loss in 40 obese people, found that those who dropped 5 percent of their body weight substantially cut their risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. 

Make Smart Food Swaps

Making plant foods (produce, legumes, nuts, and whole grains) the centerpiece of meals can help ward off health problems. A 2012 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that swapping just one daily serving of red meat for nuts could cut the risk of dying early by up to 19 percent. In a study of more than 450,000 adults, presented at a 2015 American Heart Association meeting, those who followed a 70 percent plant-based diet had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke than those whose diets centered on meat and dairy.

So instead of always having animal protein, try substituting a plant-based protein such as black beans or soy. Swap processed meats such as cold cuts and fatty cuts of red meat for lean and unprocessed meat, poultry, and—better yet—fatty fish like salmon. Stick to 3-ounce portions and round out your plate with produce, whole grains, low-fat dairy, and small amounts of healthy fat, such as olive oil.

And skip that soda. Sugary soft drinks boost the likelihood of obesity and heart disease, and have been linked to knee osteoarthritis progression in men, according to a 2013 study in BMJ Open. Recent research published in the European Journal of Endocrinology found that having more than two soft drinks daily—with or without sugar—doubled the risk of type 2 diabetes. A study published in the Clinical Journal of the American Society of Nephrology found that nurses who consumed two or more diet sodas per day had decreased kidney function. 

Get the Exercise Advantage

Physical activity helps keep your heart and lungs working efficiently, reduces the risk of a host of illnesses, and may ease pain. For example, a Cochrane Collaboration review of 54 studies found that regular low-impact activity such as walking, cycling, swimming, or tai chi can relieve OA knee pain as much as medication.

Staying active has also been linked to small increases in bone mineral density. “It helps protect bones by strengthening surrounding muscles and improving balance, and both reduce risk of falls,” says Andrea J. Singer, M.D., clinical director of the National Osteoporosis Foundation.

The ideal amount for health, the CDC says, is 5 hours per week of moderate activity, such as brisk walking, or 2.5 hours of vigorous movement, such as jogging, along with resistance training (such as lifting light weights that work major muscle groups) at least twice per week.

But you can benefit from less. People over age 65 who walk, cycle, or even garden 4 hours per week cut their risk of an acute cardiovascular event like a heart attack by 30 percent, suggests a Finnish study presented last August at the European Society of Cardiology Congress. If you’re inactive, start with 10 minutes of activity several times per day and work up from there. Just get your doctor’s okay first. 

Stand When You Can

Several studies published in recent years have pointed out the health risks of sitting, which many of us do too often.

Take, for example, a 2015 American Cancer Society study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. The study found that women who spend at least 6 hours of their free time sitting have a 10 percent greater risk of developing cancer—notably multiple myeloma, ovarian cancer, or invasive breast cancer—than women who spend less than 3 hours per day of their free time sitting.

A 2015 University of Toronto review of research found that sitting for about 11 hours per day was associated with an 18 percent higher risk of death from cardiovascular disease, a 17 percent higher risk of fatal cancers, and a 91 percent higher risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

You might think that spending a few hours each week doing physical activities at the gym is the solution. But moving frequently throughout the day is most important.

If you usually sit for long stretches of time, say, while driving or watching TV, our experts recommend taking short “activity breaks.” Some research shows that moving around (or simply standing up) for a few minutes every hour helps bring blood sugar, for instance, closer to normal.

Sleep Enough, But Not Too Much

Getting 7 to 8 hours of sleep appears to be the sweet spot, helping to keep the immune system humming and reducing the likelihood of illnesses, falls, and car accidents. One example: People who get this amount of shut-eye are at the lowest risk for type 2 diabetes, notes a study published in Diabetes Care in 2015. And a 2013 Chicago Medical School study of more than 3,000 adults found that those who slept less than 6 hours per night were twice as likely to have a heart attack or stroke than those who got 6 to 8 hours.

“When you are sleep-deprived, your body secretes high amounts of [the hormones] cortisol and insulin, both of which impact risk of heart disease,” explains Bruce Rabin, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Healthy Lifestyle Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

But regularly sleeping much more than 8 hours may increase the likelihood of coronary artery disease and type 2 diabetes. If you often sleep too little or too much, see your doctor to rule out medical reasons or discuss ways to improve sleep, such as cognitive behavioral therapy. 

Break Bad Habits

If you smoke, try to quit. Thirty percent of cancer deaths can be attributed to tobacco, and smoking can harm your heart and respiratory system. It’s also linked to a higher risk of age-related macular degeneration and cataracts. Just a year after quitting, though, your added risk of heart disease is half that of a smoker’s; after 15 years, it’s the same as a nonsmoker. A decade later, your risk of lethal lung cancer is about half that of a smoker’s.

Skip e-cigs, too. They may be safer than tobacco, but their long-term health effects are still unknown. And the Food and Drug Administration has warned that some may contain toxic substances such as formaldehyde.

Drink moderately, if at all. New research suggests that the health benefits of a glass of wine may be overrated. A review of 87 studies published in 2016 in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that people who have less than a drink per week actually live the longest. If you imbibe, limit yourself to two drinks per day for men and one for women.

Handle Stress

When you’re chronically stressed, your body produces an overabundance of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which hike blood pressure and can damage artery walls over time, Rabin says.

These hormones are also linked to weight gain and higher blood sugar levels, risk factors for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

It’s difficult to avoid stress altogether, but coping strategies such as deep, slow breathing, aerobic exercise, and yoga, and unwinding with meditation, massage, or music can help you manage tension and reduce associated health risks. Choose the strategies that fit into your life easily.  

Avoid Air Pollution

Tiny specks of pollution in the air can cause big health problems, particularly when it comes to lung and heart disease.

Research has long linked air pollution to a higher risk of a heart attack in people who have been diagnosed with heart disease. But it turns out that the fine particles emitted by motor vehicles, factories, fires, and tobacco smoke cause inflammation and damage to blood vessels even in otherwise healthy adults, according to a recent study published in the medical journal Circulation Research.

An Israeli study published last June found that people who breathed in higher than average levels of such particulates in the previous three months had higher blood sugar and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and less “good” HDL cholesterol.

What can you do to protect yourself from dirty air? Check local pollution levels online, and on high-pollution days, spend time outdoors before or after rush hour, when pollution levels tend to be lower.

Take some smart steps to reduce pollutants at home, too. Vacuum regularly. Use HEPA air filters and air purifiers designed to reduce particles and filtered air conditioning that doesn’t draw from the outside. And don’t allow anyone to smoke in your home. 

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