Think You're Living a Healthy Lifestyle? Chances Are, You're Not

Shockingly few Americans meet the criteria for living healthy, according to new research.
(Photo: Betsie Van Der Meer/Getty Images)
Mar 24, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

This should put just about every health ed teacher in the U.S. in tears. Ask anyone who can remember being even half awake during junior high health class what makes for a healthy lifestyle, and chances are you’d get some combination of the same four answers: eat right, exercise, don’t smoke, and maintain a healthy body weight. But just because we know how to live healthy doesn’t mean we’re doing it.

Even if your stereotype of the average American is less CrossFit than Homer Simpson fit, less six-pack abs than, well, plain old six-pack, you may be shocked by how few of us maintain what medical science has long told us is a healthy lifestyle.

Take a wild guess. Twenty percent? Ha! That would probably mean you’ve actually seen someone taking advantage of the fitness center at any hotel you’ve ever stayed at as you’re making a run to the snack machine, when chances are you haven’t.

Ten percent? Still wildly off the mark.

Related: The Diet of the 1980s May Be Why Americans Are So Fat Today

Try 3 percent. And that’s rounding up. To be precise, a paltry 2.7 percent of Americans are living a healthy lifestyle.

In a study published this week in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, researchers looked at a broad swath of American adults who had participated in a massive health and nutrition survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and crunched the numbers to see just how many of us are living up to the admonishments of our former health ed teachers.

All four factors—maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly, abstaining from smoking, and keeping your weight in check—have been shown to reduce a person’s risk for heart disease, not to mention a variety of other ills. No surprise: Those participants who met all four healthy lifestyle criteria were shown to have lower blood pressure and lower levels of things like blood glucose and LDL cholesterol, or so-called bad cholesterol.

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Good luck finding those hale and hearty folks. You’re significantly more likely to run across Americans who meet none of the criteria, which researchers found to be more than 11 percent. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle, with approximately 37 percent of Americans meeting at least two of the criteria.

Participants were deemed to be eating healthy if they scored higher on the Health Eating Index developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and to be sufficiently active if they clocked at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week. Normal weight was defined as a body mass index of 5–20 percent for men and 8–30 percent for women.

Of the four healthy lifestyle categories, the most Americans, 71 percent, were nonsmokers. But while a substantial number ranked as eating a healthy diet (almost 38 percent) and even more met the criteria for sufficient physical activity (more than 46 percent), less than 10 percent weighed in at a normal body weight.

Beyond suggesting that health researchers may need to come up with a new definition of “normal,” that so many Americans appear to be eating right and exercising may suggest we also need new definitions of a healthy diet and the right amount of physical activity.