Brain and Body

Only 2.7 Percent of US Adults Achieve All Four of These “Healthy Lifestyle” Behaviors

March 24, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

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How do you fare?

If you’re feeling bad about pigging out on a tub of ice-cream or skipping gym day, researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Mississippi have some news that may put your mind at ease — only 2.7 percent of the American adult population achieves all four of the basic behaviors that health experts say would constitute a “healthy lifestyle” and protect against cardiovascular disease.

The four behaviors — a good diet, moderate exercise, a recommended body fat percentage, and being a non-smoker — are essentially the basic health advice that doctors give to millions of patients all over the world. Unfortunately, the US seems to have gotten a painfully failing grade on staying on top of them.

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"The behavior standards we were measuring for were pretty reasonable, not super high," said Ellen Smit, senior study author and associate professor in the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences, in a press release. "We weren't looking for marathon runners."

The results are based on a large study group of 4,745 people from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, and instead of just relying on self-reported information, the researchers included a number of other measured behaviors.

To measure the participants’ level of activity, people wore accelerometers to determine their levels of movement, with goals of completing 150 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous activity each week.

Further, body fat was measured with sophisticated X-ray absorptiometry instead of simply basing measurements on weight and height, and blood samples were taken to verify that a person was a non-smoker. The researchers defined a healthy diet as being in the top 40 percent of people who ate foods recommended by the USDA.

Then, these lifestyle characteristics were compared to “biomarkers” of cardiovascular health — some, more simple, like blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels, and others, more intricate, like fasting triglycerides, C-reactive protein, and other data that can provide evidence of cardiovascular risk.

The results, published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, revealed that many people achieved one or more of the basic healthy lifestyle goals, but barely any achieved all four.

"I would expect that the more healthy lifestyles you have, the better your cardiovascular biomarkers will look," Smit said.

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Compared to none, having three or four healthy lifestyles was indeed associated with better cardiovascular risk biomarkers. Even having just one or two healthy lifestyle behaviors was linked to better cardiovascular health than having none.

The researchers found that just 2.7 percent of US adults had all four healthy lifestyle behaviors, 16 percent had three, 37 percent met two of the criteria, and 34 percent only met one. The rest met none.

Further findings showed:

  • 71 percent of adults did not smoke
  • 38 percent ate a healthy diet
  • 10 percent had a normal body fat percentage
  • 46 percent were sufficiently active

Women were more likely than men to eat a healthy diet and not smoke, but they were less likely to be sufficiently active. Further, adults over the age of 60 had fewer healthy characteristics than adults aged 20 to 39, yet they were more likely to consume a healthy diet and not smoke.

All in all, these statistics should serve as a wake up call — just 2.7 percent of people achieving all four healthy lifestyle behaviors is pretty awful in terms of general public health.

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

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