4 Steps to a Healthy Lifestyle

Test yourself: How do your habits measure up?

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Think you're leading a healthy lifestyle? Aside from occasionally veering off the path, most of us think we do a fair job of maintaining our health with good (or at least OK) eating habits and physical activity whenever we manage to fit it in. But is that enough to be considered "healthy?"

According to a recent study, very few adults actually meet the criteria for a healthy lifestyle. The study, published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, showed that only 3% of American adults got a perfect score on what the authors say are the four basic criteria for healthy living. Just 13.8% met three of the criteria; 34.2% met only two criteria. Women scored slightly better than men.

See how well you measure up on the researchers' four keys to healthfulness:

  • Do you smoke?
  • Are you able to maintain a healthy weight (a BMI of 18-25), or are you successfully losing weight to attain a healthy weight?
  • Do you eat at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily?
  • Do you exercise 30 minutes or more, 5 times a week?

The good news is that these behaviors should not be foreign to you, as all but one are an integral part of the Weight Loss Clinic. Numbers 2 through 4 are the foundation of the WLC program, habits that we continually discuss, write about, and recommend.

Everyone knows smoking is bad for your health. If you are one of the lucky ones who never became addicted to nicotine, pat yourself on the back. Smokers, I hope you are working diligently to kick your habit. It's impossible to underestimate the importance of a smoke-free life for your health -- as well as for the sake of those around you.

4 Steps and More

While those four habits are indisputably important for a healthy lifestyle, some may argue that more factors should be taken into consideration. What would be on your list?

Just for fun, I came up with my own personal top 10 list of healthy behaviors (beyond the four basics) that contribute to wellness and satisfaction with one's lifestyle:

  • Brush and floss daily to keep your teeth and gums healthy and free of disease.
  • Get a good night's rest. Well-rested people not only cope better with stress, but may also have better control of their appetites. Research has shown that a lack of sleep can put our "hunger hormones" out of balance -- and possibly trigger overeating.
  • Enjoy regular family meals. This allows parents to serve as good role models, can promote more nutritious eating, and sets the stage for lively conversations. Being connected to family and/or friends is a powerful aspect of a healthy life.
  • Smile and laugh out loud several times a day. It keeps you grounded, and helps you cope with situations that would otherwise make you crazy. Read the comics, watch a sitcom, or tell jokes to bring out those happy feelings.
  • Meditate, pray, or otherwise find solace for at least 10-20 minutes each day. Contemplation is good for your soul, helps you cope with the demands of daily life, and may even help lower your blood pressure.
  • Get a pedometer and let it motivate you to walk, walk, walk. Forget about how many minutes of activity you need; just do everything you can to fit more steps into your day. No matter how you get it, physical activity can help defuse stress, burn calories, and boost self-esteem.
  • Stand up straight. You'll look 5 pounds lighter if you stand tall and tighten your abdominal muscles. Whenever you walk, think "tall and tight" to get the most out of the movement.
  • Try yoga. The poses help increase strength and flexibility and improve balance. These are critical areas for older folks especially, and both men and women can benefit.
  • Power up the protein. This nutrient is an essential part of your eating plan, and can make up anywhere from 10%-35% of your total calories. Protein lasts a long time in your belly; combine it with high-fiber foods and you'll feel full on fewer calories. Enjoy small portions of nuts, low-fat dairy, beans, lean meat, poultry, or fish.
  • Last but not least, have a positive attitude. Do your best to look at life as if "the glass is half full." You must believe in yourself, have good support systems, and think positively ("I think I can, I think I can?") to succeed.

It's All about You

Your list of healthy lifestyle behaviors may be different from mine. The most important thing to remember is that you can make a difference in your health and well-being. Take charge of your life, and be mindful of small behavior changes that can make your lifestyle a healthier one.

Published Aug. 5, 2005.


SOURCES: Archives of Internal Medicine, April 25, 2005.

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