You've heard it all before: Don't smoke, get fat, drink to excess, or skip breakfast. But how much do these health habits really factor in? Well, actually, quite a lot. In terms of healthcare costs, new research shows that medical spending averages $1,400 more a year for an obese person than for someone at a healthy weight, according to a study published today in the journal Health Affairs. As obesity rates continue to increase, so do many of the chronic conditions that go along with obesity: heart disease, diabetes, cancer. These conditions age us more rapidly and shorten lives.
So what can we do? Two new studies published in the Journal of the American Medical Association identify specific health habits that help us live younger by avoiding heart failure and high blood pressure. The first study, involving nearly 21,000 male physicians, found that those who followed four or more healthful lifestyle approaches had a 10 percent chance of developing heart failure, compared with a 21 percent chance for those who didn't follow any. In the second study, of more than 83,000 female nurses, good health habits led to a nearly 80 percent lower risk of developing high blood pressure, compared with those who smoked, didn't exercise, and ate poorly. The studies "underscore that healthy lifestyle will help prevent cardiovascular disease and greatly enhance health," Veronique Roger, a professor of public health at the Mayo Clinic, wrote in an editorial that accompanied the studies.
1. Follow a sensible diet. Women in the nurses' study who followed basic tenets of a hypertension-lowering diet called DASH were—no great surprise—more likely to avoid high blood pressure. This diet includes a high intake of fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy products, and whole-grains; it has a low intake of sodium, sweetened beverages, and red meat. Men in the heart failure study who ate four or more servings a day of fruits and vegetables had about a 15 percent lower risk of heart failure than those who didn't.
2. Maintain a healthy weight. Keeping your weight at a healthy body mass index below 25—less than 156 pounds for a 5-foot-7 person—was found in both studies to be a factor in preventing heart risks. In fact, body mass index was the most powerful predictor of hypertension in the nurses' study. Approaches like weighing yourself every day and keeping a food diary can help you lose weight or maintain a healthy weight over the year. Here are four easy ways to prevent mindless eating.
3. Exercise vigorously on most days of the week. Moving fast enough to build up a sweat five or more days a week for at least 30 minutes is a habit that dramatically lowers the risk of both high blood pressure and heart failure. While leisure activities like walking are certainly good for you, getting your blood really pumping nearly every day has the biggest benefits. This is a tall order, but the effort may be worth it if you really want to live younger. Here are 6 ways to motivate yourself to get off the couch.
4. Eat breakfast cereal. Having at least a serving a week of breakfast cereal lowered a man's risk of heart failure. Whether the reason is just getting a breakfast—previous studies have shown that skipping the morning meal is unhealthy—or whether it's due to eating cereal as opposed to, say, bacon and eggs, isn't known from the study findings. Let's just say, it's a good idea to have a daily bowl of your favorite cereal in the morning.
5. Use pain relievers sparingly. Avoidance of nonsteroid anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen was associated with a reduced risk of hypertension in the nurses' study. Women who took NSAIDs on a daily basis had the highest risk—about 50 percent greater—than those who used them less than once a week. Use of acetaminophen and aspirin were also associated with greater hypertension risks, though women with established heart disease typically still get more benefits than risks from a daily baby aspirin.