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Healthy lifestyles not high on most people’s list

Fewer than 3 percent adhere to recommendations

Karen Miller
Healthy lifestyles not high on most people’s list
(Photo: Thinkstock/Stockbyte/Comstock)

For years health professionals have exhorted their patients to adopt four behaviors all in the name of good health: don’t smoke; follow a healthy diet; maintain a healthy weight and exercise regularly. These behaviors are associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease as well as type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Unfortunately, according to a study published recently by the Oregon State University and the University of Mississippi, not many people got the memo.

The researchers analyzed a study group of almost 5,000 people who participated in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a program of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The NHANES survey is unique in that it combines interviews and physical examinations. For instance, to verify smoking status, blood samples were taken to look for cotinine, a by-product of nicotine. Participants wore an accelerometer, a device that measures the quantity and intensity of movement.

The results were discouraging. Only 2.7 percent of the participants achieved all four basic behavioral characteristics that constitute a healthy lifestyle. Thirty-seven percent could claim two of the behaviors; 34 percent had one while only 16 percent had three. Eleven percent never managed to master even one.

Not smoking edged out all the other behaviors, while body fat percentage came up short. Seventy-one percent of the participants did not smoke, and only 10 percent were within an acceptable weight.

The results varied by gender, age and ethnicity. Women and people 60 and older were more likely not to smoke and eat a healthy diet, but tended to be less active. Healthy eating plans were more common in Mexican American adults than in white and black adults.

Apparently healthy lifestyles do have an impact. The researchers found a correlation between healthy behavior and risk factors for cardiovascular disease. For instance, those who had three or four healthy lifestyles also had lower cholesterol levels. The good news, according to the researchers, is having at least one or two healthy behavior characteristics, compared to none, was associated with better levels of risk factors.

According to the News and Research Communications of Oregon State University, Ellen Smit, the senior author on the study, was struck by how few people accomplished all the goals. “This is pretty low, to have so few people maintaining what we would consider a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “This is sort of mind boggling. There’s clearly a lot of room for improvement.”