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Monday Medical: Add years to your life with these 5 habits

Susan Cunningham/For Steamboat Pilot & Today

Five healthy habits

According to a recent study, following these five habits can extend life by a decade or more. Dr. Brian Harrington, a family physician in Steamboat Springs, outlines the habits below.

• Eat a healthy diet. Aim for at least five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, along with whole grains, healthy fats, lean meats and other whole foods. Watch calorie intake.

• Exercise. Do 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise daily. “It’s as simple as going out for a walk at lunchtime,” Harrington said.

• Maintain a healthy weight. A body mass index, or BMI, of 18.5 to 25 is ideal, but getting below a BMI of 30 makes a difference. “Obesity is important to address, as it leads to other risk factors, such as diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer,” Harrington said.

• Don’t smoke.

• Limit alcohol. Women should have no more than one drink per day, while men should quit at two. This study defined a drink as a 5-ounce glass of wine. “We don’t ever go so far as to say you should drink alcohol as part of a healthy diet,” Harrington said. “But it is OK in moderation.”

A new study based on three decades of data shows that eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy body weight, limiting alcohol consumption and not smoking make a big difference in lifespan.

“This is a strong study, as they’ve been following large cohorts of people for a long time. What impresses me is how major the impact is,” said Dr. Brian Harrington, a family physician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “There are dramatic benefits from these habits, and there are no pills, potions or gimmicks required.”

The Harvard School of Public Health study examined data gathered from nearly 80,000 women over a period of 34 years and nearly 44,000 men over 27 years.

When not following any of the five habits, life expectancy at age 50 was 25.5 years for men and 29 years for women. However, by following all of the five habits, life expectancy at 50 was 37 years for men and 43 years for women. That would bring men to an age of 87 instead of 75.5, and women to an age of 93 instead of 79.

Participants adhering to the five habits were 82 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease and 65 percent less likely to die from cancer, compared to people who did not follow the habits.

And, the benefits of these healthy habits aren’t all or nothing; taking on even one habit showed benefits.

“Every one of these habits has their own benefits,” Harrington said. “You can still improve your health significantly, even if you do not achieve all five goal areas at once.”

Though adopting these healthy habits can be challenging, it is doable. Harrington recommended determining where you are in the process — for instance, people just starting to think about giving up cigarettes may need facts on the benefits of not smoking, while those who have decided to quit may need ideas for winding down tobacco usage and dealing with cravings.

Involve the entire family, when possible: Eat a healthy dinner, or go for a regular family walk. Focus on near-term, achievable goals, such as losing a pound or two each week instead of 50 pounds at once. Consider financial benefits, such as eliminating the costs of cigarettes or hypertension medications.

And remember: Change requires action.

“Good intentions won’t do it,” Harrington said. “If you’re like me, you’ve had good intentions to lose 20 pounds for years. Make a plan, write it out and put it on your refrigerator door. Don’t set expectations too high, as you may be easily disappointed and give up. Have realistic goals, and know that if you do one thing, it plays into others. These habits can be reached by all of us.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.


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