You’ve decided to take matters into your own hands by taking responsibility for your own health. That feels good, right? Better health means a better immune system and a bigger chance of a long and happy life. So now you want to find out what the biggest factors are.
There is no one thing that will instantly transform you into a healthy person. Good health is made up of a lot of different factors that are intimately connected. So in order to be really healthy, you need to get a handle on all of them.
What are the most important healthy-living factors? There’s so much information out there, it can be overwhelming, but here are the six factors that have the most impact on your health and longevity.
Healthy Living Factor 1: Give up smoking
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death. So even if you eat right and work out every day, as long as you smoke, you are doing no good for your health. If you are a smoker, the very best thing you can do for your health is to quit.
Tobacco contains nicotine, which is a hard drug. That means that it is physically addictive. Which explains why most people have a difficult time quitting smoking by going "cold turkey".
Healthy Living Factor 2: Healthy diet
The question “What is a healthy diet?” isn’t easy to answer. There’s a lot that goes into that, and it depends on your personal constitution. However, there are some general rules that apply to all of us:
Give up red and processed meats
Red meat contains important nutrients, including protein, vitamin B-12, zinc and iron. However, you don't need to eat red meat to get these essential nutrients. You can get the same amounts — and in some cases even more — from poultry, fish, eggs, and nuts, as well as by following a plant-based diet.
There is a growing number of studies in which a link between intakes of red and processed meats and disease risk has been found. These include the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer (particularly colorectal cancer), independent of other lifestyle factors. For all of these diseases, mortality also increased with higher intakes of meat, and in particular processed meat. On the other hand, plant-based diets which exclude or contain low intakes of red meat, including vegan, vegetarian, Mediterranean, Portfolio and DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, are associated with improved health outcomes.
So, if you are a carnivore and want to improve your health, research shows it’s best to reduce red meat intake, preferably to zero.
Eat more fruits and veggies
It is well known that eating more fruits and vegetables is good for your health. But still, most people don’t eat nearly enough of them, so it’s worth repeating the message: eat more fruits and veggies! And the beauty of these foods is: they have no adverse side effects, they have only positive effects. There’s just one thing to beware of: no one fruit or vegetable will provide you with all the nutrients you need. But as long you eat a wide variety of them, your tummy* will thank you.
As a rule of thumb, try to eat at least 2 pieces of fruit and 300 grams of vegetables per day, every day.
*Disclaimer - some tummies, for example those that have been through chemo, have poor microbiome or are over-sensitive (like some with gluten intollerances/diverticulitis etc.), can get wind, cramps and diarrhoea when juicing and eating the recommended amount of fruit and veg. In those cases, introduce gradually and reduce slightly if diarrhoea occurs, then reintroduce. Also, in those cases, consuming only cooked/prepared (as opposed to raw) fruit and vegetables, is a better choice.
Moderate your alcohol intake
There is some evidence that a moderate consumption of alcohol might have health benefits for certain people. There is also some evidence that red wine might be better than other alcoholic drinks (due to high concentrations of antioxidants and certain micronutrients), but it's not definite.
“Moderate” means a maximum of two glasses per day for men, and one glass per day for women. More than that will with certainty have a negative effect on anybody’s health. Also, alcohol is considered a hard drug, meaning that it is physically addictive. And it is, for certain, poisonous to the liver.
So, in conclusion: if you drink alcohol, be careful not to drink more than what we have mentioned above. And if you don’t drink alcohol, there’s no reason to start.
Healthy Living Factor 3: Body weight
A healthy body weight is generally defined as a BMI (Body Mass Index) that lies between 18,5 and 24,9. You can easily calculate your BMI, using the following formula:
BMI = kg/m2 where kg is your weight in kilograms and m2 is your height in metres squared.
Example: I am 1.77m and I weigh 68 kg. So my BMI is 68/3.1329 = 21.7
Of course there are some differences for men and women, and for different ages, but as a rule of thumb, BMI is a good indicator for healthy weight. If your BMI is 25 or higher, you’d better start doing something to lose weight. And that begins with changing the way you think about food and what you eat.
Healthy Living Factor 4: At least 30 minutes of physical activity per day
Many of us spend a big part of our day sitting down. This is not what we are build for (literally) and leads to all kinds of problems. Generally, the more you move the better it is. Most experts recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate physical activity per day.
What constitutes moderate activity?
For example: brisk walking, water aerobics, riding a bike, dancing, doubles tennis, pushing a lawn mower, hiking, rollerblading, etc.
Doing any of these activities for 30 minutes per day will reduce your risk of:
- heart attack,
- high blood pressure,
- osteoporosis and fractures,
- colon and breast cancers,
- dementia (memory loss).
But even if you manage to do that, you’ll still have to get up and move as much as possible. So if you have a job where you sit all day, getting up once per hour and moving for just 2 minutes is going to give you a big health advantage. Just walk around, take the stairs up and down, do 10 jumping jacks… any movement is fine, just as long as you move your body for 2 minutes before resuming your work.
Healthy Living Factor 5: Reduce stress
Stress is the body’s natural defense against predators and danger. It causes the body to flood with hormones that prepare its systems to evade or confront danger. We commonly refer to this as the fight-or-flight mechanism.
When we face a challenge or threat, we have a partly physical response. The body activates resources that help you either stay and confront the challenge or get to safety as fast as possible.
The body produces larger quantities of the chemicals cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine. These trigger the following physical reactions: increased blood pressure, heightened muscle preparedness, sweating and alertness.
These factors all improve your ability to respond to a potentially hazardous or challenging situation. Norepinephrine and epinephrine also cause a faster heart rate.
Environmental factors that trigger this reaction are called stressors. Examples include noises, aggressive behaviour, a speeding car, scary moments in movies, or even going out on a first date. Feelings of stress tend to increase in tandem with the number of stressors and/or how we perceive them (but that will be explained in more detail later).
Stress slows down some normal bodily functions, such as the digestive and immune system. The body can then concentrate its resources on breathing, blood flow, alertness, and the preparation of muscles for sudden use.
The body changes in the following ways during a stress reaction:
- blood pressure and pulse rise,
- breathing speeds up,
- digestive system slows down,
- immune activity decreases,
- muscles become more tense,
- sleepiness decreases due to a heightened state of alertness.
All this is good and effective. The problem arises when stress becomes chronic. Unfortunately, that is something that happens to almost all of us in today's society. We all have 101 things to do, deadlines to make, places to go, people to see… This leads to chronic stress, with many negative consequences for our health. Because it means that the points mentioned is the last paragraph are now a continuous occurrence.
How you can reduce stress
There are several things you can do to reduce stress:
Exercise - there is a growing body of evidence supporting the idea that exercise reduces stress. Talk to any runner and they will confirm this. Move your body and forget your worries. Especially when you exercise outdoors.
Practise breathing exercises. Meditate. Also yoga and massages can be of great benefit.
Healthy Living Factor 6: Enough good quality sleep
We have a tendency to consider the time we spend sleeping as a waste of time. While in actual fact, enough good quality sleep is as important to your health as good nutrition and exercise.
- Numerous studies have found that insufficient sleep increases your risk of developing serious medical conditions, including obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
- Lack of adequate sleep over time has been associated with a shortened lifespan.
- Lack of sleep is a major cause of fatal motor vehicle accidents and industrial accidents.
For some in-depth information on this topic, go to the Get Sleep website the medical department of the University of Harvard put together and/or read the book “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker.
Just start with one step and take it from there
It’s no use trying to change all your habits overnight. You’re setting yourself up for failure that way. Try the opposite approach: changing only one thing and only a tiny little bit. But stick with that. Then change something else. Once again: only a tiny little change.
Continue to do so every week, and we guarantee that over the course of several months, you will see big changes happening in your life!
>>> To learn why making small changes is guaranteed to work, read on: Using This Method To Change Your Habits Will Guarantee Success
Red Meat and Health: Evidence Regarding Red Meat, Health, and Chronic Disease Risk (Kate Marsh, Angela Saunders, Carol Zeuschner, 2017)
Red Meat and Colorectal Cancer (Nuri Faruk Aykan, 2015)
Heart Failure Risk Effects of Red Meat, Processed Red Meat, (and Enhanced Red Meat?) (Edward Weiss, 2014)
Meat consumption and risk of breast cancer in the UK Women's Cohort Study (Faye Taylor, Victoria Burley, Darren C Greenwood, Janet Elizabeth Cade, 2007)
Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat (Véronique Bouvard, Dana Loomis, Kathryn Z Guyton, Yann Grosse, Fatiha El Ghissassi, Lamia Tallaa, Neela Guha, Heidi Mattock, Kurt Straif, 2015)