Despite knowledge, very few follow a healthy lifestyle

New research has shown that despite access to advice on healthy lifestyles and government campaigns to encourage people to adopt a healthier way of life, very few Americans are applying that knowledge to themselves.

The study by a Michigan State University epidemiologist Mathew Reeves, says this situation could have dire consequences.

The research used nationally representative data from 153,000 adults and found that only 3 percent undertook four basic steps that define a healthy lifestyle – not smoking, holding weight down, eating right and exercising.

Reeves, an assistant professor of epidemiology was surprised at how low that number was and says the results 'illustrate the extraordinarily low prevalence of healthy lifestyles in the U.S. adult population'.

Reeves and another epidemiologist Ann Rafferty of the Michigan Department of Community Health, analysed data obtained from the Behavioural Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), a national survey conducted in 2000 that looked at Americans’ health habits.

The results showed that 75 percent reported they didn’t smoke; 23 percent included at least five fruits and vegetables in their daily diets; 22 percent took part in regular physical activity, which is defined as at least 30 minutes of activity a day, five or more times a week; and about 40 percent maintained a healthy weight, which is defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or less.

According to Reeves women tended to follow more of the healthy lifestyle characteristics or HLCs, than men, as did whites compared with minority populations. But no one group, he said, came even close to what is necessary to lead a healthy life.

Reeves says it is important to note that the effect of following these lifestyles is greater than anything else medicine has to offer. He believes no doctor can guarantee to reduce by drugs the risk of diabetes or cardiovascular disease by 80 to 90 percent, which is what other studies have now shown a healthy lifestyle can do. He also says it is no longer just a commonsense theory but has been proven in epidemiologic studies that there are huge benefits in terms of increased life expectancy, reduced disease risk, reduced medical costs and improved quality of life.

The study says it goes beyond the issues of quality of life and life expectancy and is a challenge to the nation’s health-care system, as millions of people now going through adult life leading unhealthy lifestyles and a medical system that can treat illnesses and keep you alive longer than ever before, could be financially crippling for society.

Reeves says the million-dollar question is why are only a tiny minority of adults able to follow a healthy lifestyle when all of the HLCs defined in the study are achievable? He says a real paradigm shift will be needed to change the cultural norms in terms of how society views healthy lifestyles with radical changes in the environmental to help people incorporate more physical activity into their daily lives – bike paths, sidewalks and so on, and to eat a healthier diet.

In conclusion Reeves says society must be more proactive in challenging people to incorporate physical activity and other aspects of healthy lifestyles into their everyday lives, so that leading a healthy lifestyle is seen as a necessary expectation, and not something that is only followed by some tiny minority.

The research is published in the April 25 issue of the journal Archives of Internal Medicine.

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