You can’t change your genes, or even much of the environment around you, but there are lifestyle choices you can make to boost your health. Being informed and intentional about diet, activity, sleep, or smoking can reduce your health risks and potentially add years to your life.
This article looks at six lifestyle factors that are backed by the best evidence when it comes to your health over the long run. It shows you why they matter and how to begin making positive changes
Getting the Right Amount of Sleep
Getting the right amount of sleep, and doing so regularly, is first on the list. It’s often missed because people focus on diet and exercise, but the link between sleep and life expectancy is supported by research.
What surprises some people is that the relationship is a U-shaped curve. This means that too little and too much sleep can affect your lifespan.
A 2021 study of 1.1 million people in Europe and the United States found that 25% of people slept less than what is recommended for their ages. More than half of all teens don’t get enough sleep. Adults do better but have more insomnia and poor sleep quality.1
A good night’s sleep is important to recharge both the body and mind. It helps the body repair cells and get rid of wastes. It also is important in making memories, and sleep deprivation leads to forgetfulness.
Even if you intend to sleep well, health issues can disrupt your plan. Sleep apnea, for example, can greatly increase health risks.2
Sleep apnea affects millions of people, but it’s believed that many cases are being missed. Part of the reason is that symptoms like snoring, or waking up gasping for air, don’t happen in every case. Sleep apnea can present with a number of surprising signs and symptoms, such as teeth grinding and depression.
If you have any concerns, talk to your healthcare provider about a sleep study. There are treatments, like CPAP, that lower risk and improve quality of life. Changes in your sleep patterns can signal other health issues too, so see your healthcare provider for a checkup if anything changes.
Eating Well-Balanced Meals
A healthy diet gives you energy and lowers your risk for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other diseases. Some of these conditions have proven links to food and nutrition, as is the case with red meat and colorectal cancer.3
Taking steps toward a lifelong change in diet will help more than jumping on the latest fad diet does. You may have heard author Michael Pollan’s signature phrase: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Of those plants, choose a rainbow of colors to make sure you get all the nutrients you need.
One place to begin is with the well-regarded Mediterranean diet. It’s rich in many of the healthiest foods and naturally limits less healthy choices. The more you follow the Mediterranean diet, the lower your risk of a host of diseases.
A 2018 review looked at over 12 million people and the risk of over a dozen chronic diseases. The researchers found that people who chose a Mediterranean diet lowered their risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, and other diseases.4
The Mediterranean diet has a lot of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, “good” oils, and plenty of herbs and spices. It doesn’t have highly processed foods, refined grains, or added sugar.
Making Time for Physical Activity
Thirty minutes a day of physical activity protects heart health. It also lowers the amount of bone loss as you age, and with it the risk of osteoporosis. It’s so important that a 2021 study of colon cancer survivors found that living in a “green” community that is friendly for exercise reduced the risk of death.5
A 2017 review in Lancet found that people participating in moderate physical activity every day had a lower risk of heart disease and overall mortality, no matter what their income level.6
Best of all, physical activity is a low-cost way to boost your health and even save you money. Sometimes your health may limit your exercise options, but you can keep moving by washing your windows, mowing your lawn, sweeping a sidewalk, and other basic tasks.
Once you are past age 65, you may benefit by adding balance and flexibility exercises, but keep moving too. Whether you dance, garden, swim, or go biking, choose moderate-intensity exercise that you know you’ll enjoy.
Keeping a Healthy Body Weight
Obesity is associated with a shorter lifespan and a higher risk of many diseases. The good news is that just being somewhat overweight does not reduce your longevity. In fact, for those over age 65, it’s better to be on the high side of normal than the low side.
A 2018 study looked at body mass index (BMI) and mortality over a period of 24 years.7 The normal BMI is between 19 and 24. For those who were obese, a BMI of 30 to 35 meant a 27% increase in mortality. A BMI of 35 to 40 was linked to a 93% increase.
What weight is ideal? Among those who were overweight but not obese (BMI 25 to 30), mortality was only higher among those who smoked too. People with a BMI on the high side of normal (BMI 24, for example) had the lowest death risks.
There isn’t any real magic when it comes to keeping a normal body mass index (BMI). Eating a healthy diet and exercising daily are the true “secret” for most people.
If you’re struggling, talk with your healthcare provider. But keep in mind that fad diets don’t work, and your greatest hope for success lies in making long-term changes.
Not Smoking or Chewing Tobacco
Smoking accounts for some 480,000 deaths per year in the United States alone.8 Added to this are another 16 million people who are alive but coping with a smoking-related illness.9 If you want the chance to live well for however long you live, don’t smoke or chew tobacco.
The list of diseases and cancers linked to smoking is long. If you’re finding it hard to quit, and you think illness comes only later in life, it may help to think of more short-term goals. Perhaps it’s too expensive, or indoor smoking bans limit your social outings.
Or maybe the midlife concerns will help you! Smoking speeds up wrinkling of the skin. There’s also a link between smoking and erectile dysfunction in men. Quitting, or avoiding tobacco in the first place, will save lives but protect its quality too.
Limiting or Avoiding Alcohol
Despite the hype over red wine and longevity, alcohol should be used only in moderation, and for many people, not at all. Red wine has been found to offer some protective health effects, but there are other ways to get these benefits.
Red wine is rich in flavonoids, particularly the nutrient resveratrol. Resveratrol, however, is also found in red grapes themselves, in red grape juice, and even peanuts.
Moderate alcohol consumption (one drink per day for women, two for men) may lower heart disease risk. Yet a link between alcohol and breast cancer suggests that even this amount should be used with caution.
Women who have three drinks per week have a 15% higher risk of breast cancer and the risk goes up another 10% for every additional drink they have each day.10
Higher levels of alcohol can lead to health and other problems, including a greater risk for:11
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Some cancers
Moderate intake of alcohol may be part of a healthy lifestyle in special moments, as long as you have no personal or family problems with alcohol abuse. As long as everyone understands the risks, there are times you may drink a toast to your good health!
For a long, healthy life, the six key lifestyle behaviors are getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, being physically active, maintaining a healthy body weight, not smoking, and limiting alcohol.
These factors may seem like a part of the common-sense advice you’ve heard many times, but there’s a reason for that. They’re all backed by data, and new medical research continues to point in the same healthy direction.