Almost all Americans are failing in simple healthy behaviors

Unhealthy eating
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A meager 2.7% of US adults meet all 4 of the basic characteristics that constitute a “healthy lifestyle” and protect against heart disease.

How hard can it be? Eat a healthy diet, maintain normal body fat, get enough activity and don’t smoke. These are the four barometers that researchers measured in a group of 4,745 American adults in an effort to estimate the prevalence of healthy lifestyle characteristics and to compare that to cardiovascular disease biomarkers.

Apparently, it's hard. Fewer than three people out of 100 met all four benchmarks defined for healthy behavior. And the standards weren’t incredibly high.

“The behavior standards we were measuring for were pretty reasonable, not super high,” said senior author Ellen Smit. “We weren’t looking for marathon runners.”

For example, a healthy diet was outlined as being in the top 40 percent of people who ate foods recommended by the USDA. Activity goals were defined at 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity a week – which amounts to a little more than 20 minutes a day of walking briskly, biking slowly, cleaning, etc.

The numbers for smoking were relatively good – 71 percent of the participants did not smoke. Only 10 percent had a normal body fat percentage, 38 percent ate a healthy diet, and 46 percent were sufficiently active.

Only 2.7 percent of the adults had all four healthy characteristics; 16 percent percent had three, 37 percent had two, 34 percent had one, and 11 percent had none.

“This is pretty low, to have so few people maintaining what we would consider a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “This is sort of mind boggling. There’s clearly a lot of room for improvement.”

The behaviors were selected because they are the predominant ones associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease – among a host of other diseases like cancer and type 2 diabetes. Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and is responsible for 17 percent of national health expenditures. Between 2010 and 2030, total direct medical costs of cardiovascular disease are projected to triple, from $273 billion to $818 billion, according to the American Heart Association.

The team found that meeting three or four of these healthy benchmarks, compared to none, was linked to better cardiovascular risk biomarkers. Even just having at least one or two healthy lifestyle characteristics, compared to none, was associated with better levels of some cardiovascular risk biomarkers. Which goes to show that doing whatever you can helps.

This study was published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

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