Healthy Lifestyle Choices Drastically Reduce Early Death Risk

Armen Hareyan's picture
Healthy Habits

There are plenty of things you can do to protect your heart health, such as maintaining a healthy weight, never smoking, eating a healthy diet or getting regular exercise. While any of those steps taken individually can improve your heart health, a new study finds that doing them all together may have a far greater impact on reducing the risk of premature death than any single lifestyle change.

During a 24-year period, more than 77,000 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study completed questionnaires about their health and lifestyle. During the study, almost 9,000 of the women participating in the study died, including 1,790 women who died as a result of cardiovascular disease.

Based on their analysis of the questionnaires, researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health found that 72 percent of these deaths could have been prevented if the women had eaten a healthy diet, maintained a healthy weight, participated in regular physical activity and had never smoked. The study was published in September in the British Medical Journal.

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"Our findings suggest that the combination of lifestyle factors has a substantially larger impact on survival than any single factor,” says Rob van Dam, Assistant Professor of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and the study’s lead author. “Clearly, avoiding smoking is of major importance for health, but regular physical activity, a healthy diet and weight management can result in large additional health benefits. Even modest lifestyle changes such as 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity (e.g., brisk walking) per day significantly reduced risk of premature death."

So how is a healthy lifestyle measured? Club Red asked Mary Lou Perry, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at UVA Health System’s Heart & Vascular Center, and Cindy Parnell, a registered clinical exercise physiologist at the UVA Heart & Vascular Center, for some answers.

A healthy weight: This study, Perry says, defined a healthy weight as anyone with a Body Mass Index (BMI) between 18 and 25. BMI is a measure of height relative to weight and is a reliable indicator of total body fat, she says. (Here’s a BMI calculator from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.) Although the study didn’t measure waist size, Perry adds, “healthy weight isn't so much about how much there is, but where it is. It's all about location, location, location. Carrying weight in the middle leads to inflammation and release of dangerous chemicals that increase cardiovascular risk.”

Healthy eating: The key elements of a healthy diet, Perry says, are generous amounts of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts, fish and chicken. Red meat should be eaten on rare occasions, and trans fats should be avoided entirely.

Regular physical activity: 30 minutes of moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk, on most days of the week will help boost your heart health, Parnell says, though as little as 10 minutes of exercise per day provides some health benefits.