Only 2.7 percent of U.S. adults hit the four key metrics of living a healthy lifestyle — abstaining from smoking, eating well, exercising and maintaining a healthy body fat percentage — according to a disheartening new study.
The study’s lifestyle benchmarks for health weren’t particularly high. Being smoke-free, exercising moderately and eating USDA recommended foods don’t seem like particularly difficult marks to hit. So why do so many Americans fall short of living healthy lives?
“That is the million dollar question,” Ellen Smit, a senior author of the study and an associate professor at the Oregon State University College of Public Health and Human Sciences, told The Huffington Post.
“We did not look at why few Americans have healthy lifestyles in this study, but I can speculate that it may be a mix of factors,” Smit said, citing lack of time to exercise, needing a car to commute, not having time to cook, the marketing of unhealthy food, and the lack of access to healthy foods and safe places to exercise in some communities as possible contributing factors.
The study included 4,745 people from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and the researchers chose the metrics they did because they’re considered important lifestyle markers for chronic disease prevention. Of the four metrics, being physically active or having a normal body fat percentage were most strongly correlated with biomarkers of good health, such as healthy levels of total and good (HDL) cholesterol.
Among the study participants, 72 percent of adults were non-smokers, 38 percent ate a healthy diet, 47 percent were moderately active and 10 percent had a normal body fat percentage.
“The low percent of adults with normal body fat may be a big contributor to not hitting all four metrics,” Smit said. Although the vast majority of Americans fell short of achieving all four healthy living marks, many managed to maintain a somewhat healthy lifestyle. Sixteen percent of participants achieved three healthy lifestyle characteristics; 37 percent of achieved two; 34 percent achieved one. Only 11 percent of participants failed to achieve any healthy characteristics at all.
In general, women were more likely to eat healthy and be nonsmokers, but were less likely than men to be sufficiently active. Older adults tended to be nonsmokers and to eat healthily, but were more likely to have a high body fat percentage and to be inactive. Mexican-Americans were more likely to eat healthy than other racial groups, and non-Hispanic black adults had the fewest healthy lifestyle characteristics of any group.
While access to healthy, affordable foods and safe areas to exercise aren’t a reality for all Americans, for those who do have access, lifestyle changes can drastically change their health outcomes. Here’s how you can improve the four key areas of health the new study says we all fall short in:
1. Quit smoking once and for all
For the 17 percent of U.S. adults who still smoke, quitting can mean massive health gains.
A full 90 percent of lung cancers are smoking-related, and cigarette smoking accounts for 30 percent of all cancer deaths, killing more Americans than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, AIDS, homicide and illegal drugs combined, the American Cancer Society reports.
Once you do kick the habit, health gains are almost immediate. Within 24 hours of your last cigarette, your risk for heart attack decreases, and within 48 hours, your sense of taste and smell perk up. (Ready to quit? These 17 actionable smoking cessation tips can get you started.)
2. Start — and keep — an exercise routine
In addition to exercise’s anxiety-easing and mood-boosting mental health benefits, even the moderate kind provides major physical health benefits.
Regular physical exercise can increase your energy levels and endurance, increase your strength and help you to maintain a healthy weight. Best of all, exercise helps ward off diseases and health conditions, such as stroke, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, depression, some cancers and arthritis and falls, according to the Mayo Clinic.
And if you’re still having a hard time motivating yourself to get off the couch, try the U.S. surgeon general’s recommended exercise to reduce the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes: walking. In fact, according to a 2013 study, brisk walkers who covered the same distance as runners enjoyed comparable health benefits and disease risk reduction.
“People are always looking for an excuse not to exercise, but now they have a straightforward choice to run or to walk and invest in their future health,” study author Paul Williams told the American Heart Association in 2013.
3. Make your eating goals about health, not perfection
Per the government’s 2015 dietary guidelines, we should all be eating more whole foods, reducing our added sugar and sodium intakes, and limiting how often we consume meat, especially the processed kind.
While that’s easier said than done, stocking your freezer with ready-to-cook meals, including herbs, grains and vegetables and prepping your meals for the week on Sundays, can go a long way toward warding off tempted to order takeout midweek. Since sleep deprivation can lead to high-calorie cravings and late-night snacking, make sure you’re getting the requisite seven to nine hours of sleep per night that the National Sleep Foundation recommends for adults.
Finally, keep in mind that it’s fine to eat pleasurable foods, as long as you don’t overdo it. “The people who fail at traditional diet programs tend to be all-or-nothing,” nutritionist Lisa Young previously told HuffPost. “It’s impossible to be perfect all the time, so getting rid of that perfectionistic mentality is healthier at the end of the day.”
4. Lower your body-fat percentage with regular exercise
Surprisingly, where you carry your body weight says a lot about your health. Those who retain weight around the midsections (“apple-shaped” people) tend to be at higher risk for disease than those who retain weight at the hips (“pear-shaped” people).
For a rough proxy of your body-fat percentage, calculate your waist-to-hip ratio. For men, the ratio should be no higher than 0.90, for women, no higher than 0.83.
For people who fall outside of the normal body-fat range, getting enough exercise is crucial for addressing visceral fat, the type of fat that you can’t necessarily see and that collects around your organs, increasing your risk for cardiovascular disease.
“Exercise disproportionately targets visceral fat,” Gary R. Hunter, a professor of human studies at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, told the New York Times in 2015. Research bears this out. A 2010 study published in the journal Obesity found that sedentary women who began a moderate exercise regimen lost 10 percent of their visceral fat during the year-long study program.