Healthy lifestyle: 5 keys to a longer life - Harvard Health (2024)

Healthy lifestyle: 5 keys to a longer life - Harvard Health (1)

How is it that the United States spends the most money on healthcare, and yet still has the one of the lowest life expectancies of all developed nations? (To be specific: $9,400 per capita, 79 years, and 31st.)

Maybe those of us in healthcare have been looking at it all wrong, for too long.

Healthy lifestyle and longevity

Researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health conducted a massive study of the impact of health habits on life expectancy, using data from the well-known Nurses' Health Study (NHS) and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS). This means that they had data on a huge number of people over a very long period of time. The NHS included over 78,000 women and followed them from 1980 to 2014. The HPFS included over 40,000 men and followed them from 1986 to 2014. This is over 120,000 participants, 34 years of data for women, and 28 years of data for men.

The researchers looked at NHS and HPFS data on diet, physical activity, body weight, smoking, and alcohol consumption that had been collected from regularly administered, validated questionnaires.

What is a healthy lifestyle, exactly?

These five areas were chosen because prior studies have shown them to have a large impact on risk of premature death. Here is how these healthy habits were defined and measured:

1. Healthy diet, which was calculated and rated based on the reported intake of healthy foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, whole grains, healthy fats, and omega-3 fatty acids, and unhealthy foods like red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, trans fat, and sodium.

2. Healthy physical activity level, which was measured as at least 30 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous activity daily.

3. Healthy body weight, defined as a normal body mass index (BMI), which is between 18.5 and 24.9.

4. Smoking, well, there is no healthy amount of smoking. "Healthy" here meant never having smoked.

5. Moderate alcohol intake, which was measured as between 5 and 15 grams per day for women, and 5 to 30 grams per day for men. Generally, one drink contains about 14 grams of pure alcohol. That's 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.

Researchers also looked at data on age, ethnicity, and medication use, as well as comparison data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Wide-Ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research.

Does a healthy lifestyle make a difference?

As it turns out, healthy habits make a big difference. According to this analysis, people who met criteria for all five habits enjoyed significantly, impressively longer lives than those who had none: 14 years for women and 12 years for men (if they had these habits at age 50). People who had none of these habits were far more likely to die prematurely from cancer or cardiovascular disease.

Study investigators also calculated life expectancy by how many of these five healthy habits people had. Just one healthy habit (and it didn't matter which one) … just one… extended life expectancy by two years in men and women. Not surprisingly, the more healthy habits people had, the longer their lifespan. This is one of those situations where I wish I could reprint their graphs for you, because they're so cool. (But if you're very curious, the article is available online, and the graphs are on page 7. Check out Graph B, "Estimated life expectancy at age 50 according to the number of low-risk factors.")

This is huge. And, it confirms prior similar research — a lot of prior similar research. A 2017 study using data from the Health and Retirement Study found that people 50 and older who were normal weight, had never smoked, and drank alcohol in moderation lived on average seven years longer. A 2012 mega-analysis of 15 international studies that included over 500,000 participants found that over half of premature deaths were due to unhealthy lifestyle factors such as poor diet, inactivity, obesity, excessive alcohol intake, and smoking. And the list of supporting research goes on.

So what's our (big) problem?

As the authors of this study point out, in the US we tend to spend outlandishly on developing fancy drugs and other treatments for diseases, rather than on trying to prevent them. This is a big problem.

Experts have suggested that the best way to help people make healthy diet and lifestyle change is at the large-scale, population level, through public health efforts and policy changes. (Kind of like motorcycle helmets and seat belt legislation…) We have made a little progress with tobacco and trans-fat legislation.

There's a lot of pushback from big industry on that, of course. If we have guidelines and laws helping us to live healthier, big companies aren't going to sell as much fast food, chips, and soda. And for companies hell-bent on making money at the cost of human life, well, that makes them very angry.

Follow me on Twitter @drmoniquetello


Impact of healthy lifestyle factors on life expectancies in the US population. Circulation, April 2018.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, What is a standard drink?

The population health benefits of a healthy lifestyle: Life expectancy increased and onset of disability delayed. Health Affairs, August 2017.

The combined effects of healthy lifestyle behaviors on all-cause mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Preventive Medicine, September 2012.

Changing minds about changing behavior. Lancet, January 2018.

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Final Determination regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (trans fat)

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act- An Overview

Image: AlexSava/Getty Images

Healthy lifestyle: 5 keys to a longer life - Harvard Health (2024)


What are the 5 guidelines for a healthy lifestyle? ›

  • Limit Unhealthy Foods and Eat Healthy Meals. Do not forget to eat breakfast and choose a nutritious meal with more protein and fiber and less fat, sugar, and calories. ...
  • Take Multivitamin Supplements. ...
  • Drink Water and Stay Hydrated, and Limit Sugared Beverages.

What is the Harvard diet may be the standard for living a long and healthy life? ›

The Harvard diet encourages you to alternate between water, tea and coffee to pair with your meals, especially with little to no sugar. Additionally, they suggest reducing milk and dairy consumption to one to two servings a day and juice to one small glass per day.

What is a healthy lifestyle Harvard medical School? ›

Those lifestyle habits are: Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and unsaturated fatty acids, and low in red and processed meats, sugary drinks, trans fats, and sodium. Not smoking. Getting at least three-and-a-half hours of moderate-to vigorous physical activity each week.

Which 5 healthy habits could help you live a decade longer? ›

The researchers calculated that people who adhered to five things—drink no more than one glass of alcohol per day (two for men), maintain a healthy body weight, eat a high-quality diet, abstain from smoking, and exercise at a moderate-to-vigorous pace (think a brisk walk, at least) for 30 minutes or more a day—had a ...

What are the keys to longevity? ›

Wise Choices
  • Get moving.
  • Eat a healthy diet. Get tips at (USDA)
  • Pay attention to weight and shape.
  • Don't smoke or use tobacco.
  • Keep your brain active.
  • Be good to yourself.
  • Get regular medical checkups.
  • Drink only in moderation if you drink alcohol.

What's the best breakfast to eat? ›

The healthiest breakfast foods include a protein, healthy fat and source of carbohydrates, according to Smolen. For a healthy breakfast, consider eating foods like oatmeal with nut butter, avocado toast with an egg, chia seed pudding or a greek yogurt parfait with nuts and berries.

What is the best diet for long life expectancy? ›

People “who more carefully followed any of the healthy eating patterns—which all share a focus on consuming more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes—were also less likely to die from cancer, cardiovascular illness and respiratory and neurodegenerative disease,” the study's authors concluded.

What are 10 healthy lifestyles? ›

10 Healthy Habits:
  • Eating a Balanced Diet. ...
  • Drinking Enough Water Daily. ...
  • Regular Exercise. ...
  • Practicing Safe Sun Protection. ...
  • Practicing Good Sleep Hygiene. ...
  • Strength Training and Stretching. ...
  • Getting Regular Exposure To Fresh Air and Nature. ...
  • Incorporating Omega-3 Fatty Acids Into Your Diet.

What are the best habits for a healthy lifestyle? ›

13 healthy habits to start today
  • Get some exercise. We all know exercise is awesome for health, from fighting obesity to boosting energy. ...
  • Eat a balanced diet. ...
  • Get sufficient sleep. ...
  • Stay hydrated. ...
  • Limit screen time (or at least be mindful of it) ...
  • Socialize with friends and family. ...
  • Adopt a growth mindset. ...
  • Spend time in nature.
Sep 6, 2023

What are the six pillars of lifestyle medicine? ›

Current evidence demonstrates improvement in neurocognitive decline by applying the six pillars of LM, which include plant-based nutrition, physical activity, stress management, avoidance of risky substances, restorative sleep, and social connections.

What are the 5 things to do everyday for a long life? ›

Want to live a longer life? Research says you should do these five things.
  • Avoid smoking. Low risk is defined as never smoking.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Low risk is defined as a Body Mass Index in the range of 18.5 to 24.9. ...
  • Exercise regularly. ...
  • Consume moderate amounts of alcohol. ...
  • Maintain an overall healthy diet.
Aug 21, 2018

How to live 90 years healthy? ›

4 Top Ways to Live Longer
  1. Don't smoke. Although your best plan to live longer is to adopt all four lifestyle factors, if you had to choose one, the researchers say, this is it. ...
  2. Maintain a healthy weight. ...
  3. Get up and move. ...
  4. Make healthy food choices.

How to live 100 years healthy in 100 ways? ›

100 Wonderful Ways to Live to 100
  1. Stop Smoking. ...
  2. Put Down the Takeout Menu.
  3. Try to Keep Your Marriage Friction-Free.
  4. Brush Those Pearly Whites.
  5. Enjoy a Cup of (Greek) Joe.
  6. Get Your Mediterranean Diet on.
  7. Optimism/Positive Attitude. ...
  8. Make Healthy Changes in Your Life (starting today)
May 10, 2016

What is the most unhealthy habit? ›

6 unhealthy habits to break right now
  1. Smoking. This may be the most obvious one, and you are likely well aware of the side effects of cigarette smoking. ...
  2. Not getting enough exercise. ...
  3. Not getting enough sleep. ...
  4. Drinking mindlessly. ...
  5. Not drinking enough water. ...
  6. Eating late at night.

What guideline is part of a healthy lifestyle? ›

To ensure a healthy lifestyle, WHO recommends eating lots of fruits and vegetables, reducing fat, sugar and salt intake and exercising.

What are the 7 healthy eating habits? ›

8 tips for healthy eating
  1. Base your meals on higher fibre starchy carbohydrates. ...
  2. Eat lots of fruit and veg. ...
  3. Eat more fish, including a portion of oily fish. ...
  4. Cut down on saturated fat and sugar. ...
  5. Eat less salt: no more than 6g a day for adults. ...
  6. Get active and be a healthy weight. ...
  7. Do not get thirsty. ...
  8. Do not skip breakfast.

What are the 8 components of a healthy lifestyle? ›

Wellness comprises of eight mutually co-dependence dimensions: emotional, physical, occupational, social, spiritual, intellectual, environmental, and financial.

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