Susan Dudley, PhD & Isabel Platt
Updated July 2013
Modern medicine offers amazing treatments against a wide range of diseases. Today, people can overcome and survive health conditions that would have been fatal only a few decades ago. Nevertheless, most of us would agree that preventing disease – and not getting sick in the first place – is still far better than having to undergo those treatments.
Disease is more likely to develop under certain circumstances. To the extent that we can control those circumstances, we have a better chance of staying healthy. And it turns out that this isn’t always as complicated as most people assume.
Following just seven simple principles can make a big difference in helping us maintain our overall health and lowering the probability of developing many of the diseases that are most debilitating and dreaded, like cancer, heart and lung diseases, stroke, and diabetes.
1. Avoid tobacco and tobacco smoke
Diseases related to cigarette smoking alone account for almost 1 of every 5 deaths in the United States each year.[i] The greater the total lifetime exposure to tobacco smoke, the greater the risk of developing smoking-related diseases such as lung cancer and emphysema.
The message is clear: don’t smoke, and keep away from the second-hand smoke produced when people near you are smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes. Also avoid other tobacco products, such as snuff or chewing tobacco.
Quitting tobacco has major and immediate health benefits. Even if you’ve tried and failed before, keep trying until you succeed. For help, call the National Cancer Institute’s smoking cessation quitline at 1-877-44U-QUIT or visit NCI’s smoking cessation Web site at smokefree.gov. The CDC provides a list of other resources to help you quit.
2. Limit alcohol consumption
Alcohol is the third leading cause of death in the US.[ii] These deaths result from drunk driving and other risky behaviors, and also from diseases caused by alcohol, including liver diseases and cancers of the breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, prostate, and liver. For example, women who consume more than 3 alcoholic drinks per week are 30% more likely to develop breast cancer than those who do not drink.[iii]
The Department of Agriculture’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends drinking alcohol only in moderation, which they define as having no more than 1 drink per day for women, and no more than 2 drinks per day for men.[iv] This definition refers to the amount consumed on any single day, not an average over several days.
For more information on how alcohol can affect your health, visit the CDC website.
3. Eat a healthy diet
Although surveys confirm that most Americans believe they have healthy eating habits, obesity and other diet-related chronic diseases are on the rise.[v] [vi] A lack of nutrients may lead to diseases such as osteoporosis and anemia, while eating unhealthy foods can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and other life-threatening conditions.
An ideal diet depends on a person’s age, sex, and activity level. In general, the US Department of Agriculture recommends diets that are low in sodium, solid fats, cholesterol, and added sugars, and high in nutrient-dense foods including fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat milk products, seafood, lean meats, eggs, beans, nuts, and seeds.[vi]
Unhealthy food is easy to find, especially in the form of canned and processed foods. To avoid unhealthy amounts of sodium, fats, and sugar, it is important to monitor the nutrient labels on the foods we buy at the supermarket.
4. Control your weight
Roughly two-thirds of Americans are overweight and nearly one-third qualify as obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.[vii] Surveys show that while most of us can recognize when others are overweight, we don’t pay attention to our own weight problems or those of our children. Being overweight makes us more vulnerable to many medical problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis, severe lung and breathing problems, and endometrial, breast, and colon cancers.
While many physicians say that anyone can lose weight by eating less and exercising more, this simplified method does not work for everyone. However, there are many other ways to regain control over your weight. An important step is switching to a healthier diet, which includes choosing lower calorie foods, eating smaller portion sizes, cooking foods that are lower in fat, and paying careful attention to what you order at restaurants. Some restaurants list “heart healthy” choices, and many large chain restaurants provide information about calorie and fat content.
When you consistently choose lower-calorie, healthier foods, it may seem like you are able to eat more over the course of a day. These nutrient-dense foods allow you to consume fewer calories and get important nutrients including calcium, iron, potassium, and vitamins. For more information about “nutrient-dense” foods, read this article.
Overweight and obesity are determined by calculating body-mass index (BMI), which is based on height and weight. However, having a high BMI does not necessarily mean that you are at an unhealthy weight. Physical activity, genetics, and other lifestyle choices play a more important role in determining your body’s health.
If you want to try counting calories as a way to control your weight, try out the daily calorie needs calculator at cancer.org. You can also download the MyFitnessPal mobile app to log your daily calorie intake and exercise routine.
5. Exercise every day
Adding 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise to your daily routine can reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, colon cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Research indicates that exercise helps control weight, contributes to healthy bones, muscles, and joints, reduces falls among older adults, and helps to relieve arthritis pain. Exercise also reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression and is associated with better sleep.[viii]
Everyone can benefit from regular physical exercise, and regardless of age or fitness level, it’s never too late to start. You don’t need to be an athlete, and the activity you choose doesn’t need to be strenuous, involve a gym membership, or be competitive. The point is simply to get moving, elevate your heart rate, and keep it elevated during the course of the activity period.
Most people believe that they are getting more exercise in the course of their daily lives than they actually are. Experts advise adults to engage in moderate-intensity physical activities – like walking, biking, swimming, mowing the lawn, or dancing – for at least 30 minutes on 5 or more days of the week. Alternatively, experts advise vigorous-intensity physical activity – like high-impact aerobics, jogging or running, uphill biking, or swimming laps – for at least 20 minutes on 4 or more days per week. In addition to aerobic activities, it is important to include muscle-strengthening activities that include lifting weights, doing sit-ups, or doing yoga.[ix] If you can’t do all that, remember that any exercise is better than none at all. Find ways to exercise as you go about your daily tasks. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Walk instead of driving as much as you can. Start slow and build up to longer exercise sessions.
Read here to learn how to begin an exercise routine that works for you.
6. Limit your sun exposure
Although the sun is a good source of vitamin D, too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause skin cancer.
Skin cancer is by far the most common cancer type in the US, with more than 2 million people diagnosed annually.[x] In addition to dangerous basal and squamous cell cancers, about 60,000 new cases of malignant melanoma – the most serious form of skin cancer – are diagnosed each year, as well as more than 9,000 deaths from the disease.[xi]
Skin cancer can be prevented by consistently using sun protection (even on cloudy days) and avoiding artificial sources of UV radiation such as tanning beds and sun lamps. To learn more about sun safety, read this article.
7. Take advantage of effective disease screening
In spite of our best efforts to stay healthy, we may all develop diseases. But early detection can make a tremendous difference in how well diseases are treated. The US Preventive Services Task Force recommends several screening tests including mammograms, pap smears, colonoscopy, and cholesterol and blood pressure checks to detect and treat early signs of disease.
Making it happen
It is important to make an honest assessment about your health habits, because deciding where you realistically need to concentrate your efforts is essential to improving your health.
Take these suggestions one step at a time, and remember that improving your health comes with a great deal of effort, willpower, and a real commitment to make long-term changes in your health. Remember that you don’t have to do it all at once, and that an occasional lapse doesn’t mean you can’t start again. Every change becomes easier as it becomes more firmly incorporated into your familiar routine.
The resources listed in each of the sections above can provide you with some valuable assistance to get started and keep moving toward a healthier lifestyle and longer life. The results will certainly be worth the effort.
[i] Smoking and Tobacco Use: Tobacco-Related Mortality. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/health_effects/tobacco_related_mortality/. Accessed July 12, 2013.
[ii] Alcohol and Public Health: Fact Sheets–Alcohol Use and Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/alcohol-use.htm. Accessed July 12, 2013.
[iii] Alcohol Consumption Increases Risk of Breast Cancer Recurrence. American Association for Cancer Research. Available at: http://www.aacr.org/home/public–media/aacr-press-releases/press-releases-2009.aspx?d=1703. Accessed July 12, 2013.
[iv] Dietary Guidelines for Anericans 2010 – DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf. Available at: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf. Accessed July 12, 2013.
[v] IFIC Foundation 2008 Food & Health Survey. Available at: http://www.foodinsight.org/Content/6/IFICFdn2008FoodandHealthSurvey.pdf. Accessed July 12, 2013.
[vi] Dietary Guidelines for Anericans 2010 – DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf. Available at: http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2010/DietaryGuidelines2010.pdf. Accessed July 12, 2013.
[vii] FASTSTATS – Overweight Prevalence. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/overwt.htm. Accessed July 12, 2013.
[viii] Exercise: 7 benefits of regular physical activity. Mayo Clinic. Available at: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/exercise/HQ01676. Accessed July 12, 2013.
[ix] Physical Activity for Everyone: Guidelines: Adults | DNPAO | CDC. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/everyone/guidelines/adults.html. Accessed July 12, 2013.
[x] Skin Cancer Facts – SkinCancer.org. Available at: http://www.skincancer.org/skin-cancer-information/skin-cancer-facts. Accessed July 12, 2013.
[xi] CDC – Skin Cancer Statistics. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/statistics/. Accessed July 12, 2013.