Are you living a healthy lifestyle?
Be honest. While this question may seem straightforward enough, it’s a little more complicated than it appears.
The reality is, only 2.7 percent of us are living a healthy lifestyle in the United States. “But that doesn’t make sense,” you say. “Just look around. Of all the people I interact with and see each day, most look healthy.”
But looking healthy and actually living a healthy lifestyle can be two very different things.
You see, a healthy lifestyle consists of four behavioral characteristics that researchers say work in tandem with one another to protect us against cardiovascular disease, cancer, and type-2 diabetes.
The trick is, you have to practice all four. And very few of us do that.
These findings come from a study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings conducted by researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Mississippi.
They examined the health characteristics of a large study group – 4,745 people – from the national Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. There’s a great deal of confidence in the findings because the team analyzed measured behaviors, rather than relying on self-reported information.
They looked at how many adults succeed in four general characteristics that model a healthy lifestyle: being sufficiently active, eating a healthy diet, being a nonsmoker, and having a recommended body fat percentage.
Let’s look at each of these in turn.
On the high end of the scale of healthy behavior, 71 percent of us are non-smokers. This is probably the easiest characteristic to measure. You either do or you don’t smoke. And while the researchers used blood samples to determine whether you sneak a puff now and then, all you have to do is look yourself in the eye, and say “yes” or “no.”
Almost half of us, 46 percent, are reasonably active. According to the markers of the study, this also isn’t a terribly high bar to achieve.
The participants wore an accelerometer, a devise that measures actual movement, and all they had to do was achieve 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each week. This amounts to only 20 minutes a day of brisk walking, slow bicycling, cleaning the house, and the like.
Only 38 percent of us eat a healthy diet, defined as being in the top 40 percent of the population who eat foods recommended by the USDA. This is a standard healthy diet consisting of whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, lean meats, few added sugars, and the like.
This, too, is a relatively low bar. Yet only about a third of us can be described as eating a healthy diet.
Bringing up the rear, you will pardon the expression, is our body fat. Only 10 percent of us have a normal amount of body fat, defined as 5 to 20 percent for men and 8 to 30 percent for women.
Now most of us don’t have the whole-body dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry scanner used by the researchers to measure body fat sitting around in our closet. We do have a mirror, however.
My recommendation is you stand in front of it and ask this basic question, “Are you overweight?” Like the smoking question, a simple yes or no will suffice.
It is also highly recommended that you do not take this test while inebriated, as alcohol is known to skew the results. Especially, to our embarrassment, if the test is taken in a bar while looking for love.
“The behavior standards we were measuring for were pretty reasonable,” according to Ellen Smit, senior author of the study and an associate professor in the Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences,. “Not super high. We weren’t looking for marathon runners.”
Remember, the trick is to achieve all four of these healthy lifestyle characteristics simultaneously, and only 2.7 percent of us can make that claim. Sixteen percent of us have three, 37 percent have two, 34 percent have just one, and 11 percent have none.
“This is pretty low,” says Smit, “to have so few people maintaining what we would consider a healthy lifestyle.”
Lest you miss the point, “it’s sort of mind boggling,” she continues. “There’s clearly a lot of room for improvement.”
You would think that eating a healthy diet, engaging in moderate physical activity for just a few minutes each day, being a non-smoker, and not being overweight isn’t that hard.
But that fact that these basic behavioral norms reinforce one another – where the absence of even one limits the effectiveness of the others – means we do need to work hard to overcome the bad habits many of us have.
If we don’t eat well we will probably be overweight. If we’re overweight we may find it difficult to get up and move around regularly.
If we smoke … well, that will flat out kill you, so don’t do it.
The most effective way to develop a new habit is to start simply and slowly.
Pick what for you is the lowest hanging fruit and make a small adjustment for the better. Then stick with it for 30 days.
Years ago, for example, when I was overweight, I decided I would ride a stationary bicycle each morning for 15 minutes. There was barely any resistance. The point was to just get up on the thing and move.
A month later riding that bike first thing in the morning had become a habit. From there I increased the resistance, thus making the effort required more difficult, and, over time, I lost weight and got in better shape.
If you eat poorly, pick your favorite fruit and resolve to eat one serving every day for the next month. From there you can add vegetables. And eliminate more highly processed foods.
These basic lifestyle characteristics are simple habits that can be difficult to achieve if you’ve ingrained “bad” behaviors into your daily routine.
But change we must. Because this is the 2.7 percent we all should join!