Two thirds of American adults say their health is good. Yet about half have one or more preventable chronic diseases. Think heart disease. Think diabetes. Think cancer.
Such conditions may be aggravated by overweight or obesity. Two thirds of Americans also grapple with those.
Maybe the ultimate irony is that, on some level, we all “know” the answer to preventing these problems and generally improving health. You hear it time and again from health care providers, public health officials and in all manner of media – and now reiterated by the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in their report to the US government.
That answer? Diet and exercise – “a nearly universal prescription for better health,” as one post about the report put it.
Much modern illness is lifestyle related. This we know, too. And it’s costing us, individually and as a society. As the committee noted,
High chronic disease rates and elevated population disease risk profiles have persisted for more than two decades and disproportionately affect low-income and underserved communities. These diseases focus the attention of the U.S. health care system on disease treatment rather than prevention; increase already strained health care costs; and reduce overall population health, quality of life, and national productivity. Other less common, but important, diet-and lifestyle-related health problems, including poor bone health and certain neuropsychological disorders and congenital anomalies, pose further serious concerns.
So the committee recommends first a shift in overall dietary patterns, particularly with respect to increasing intake of vegetables and fruit. As MedicalXpress noted,
Vegetables and fruits were, in fact, the only characteristics of diets “consistently identified in every conclusion statement across health outcomes” as having strong science for promoting health. Less evidence—or less conclusive evidence—also was shown for dietary patterns that feature whole grains, low- or non-fat dairy, seafood, legumes and nuts.
Indeed, the committee’s recommendations seem quite in line with Michael Pollan’s famous rule for healthy eating: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. It’s hard to go wrong with that. (Browse our past posts on diet and nutrition.)
Then there’s the matter of exercise. The committee’s advice?
- Spend at least 2.5 hours each week in moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, or 1.25 hours each week in vigorous aerobic activity.
- For weight control, at least 1 daily hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity may be needed.
- Limit sedentary activity. Replace it with aerobic and strengthening exercises.
Truth be told, this isn’t too much to ask considering that our bodies are designed to move. Your body wants to move, bend and twist. That’s part of what keeps it in good working order. Exercise also supports good mental health and brain function.
You don’t even need a gym membership or fancy equipment to get started. A walk or jog around your neighborhood can be great exercise, alone or with a friend. You’ll find more ideas for low/no cost at-home exercise here and here and here and here.
It’s also important to keep moving through your workday, as well. Unfortunately, many jobs keep us seated for most of the time. Dr. Mercola offers these good tips for not getting completely locked in at your desk:
- Stand Up
If you’re lucky, your office may be one that has already implemented sit-stand workstations or even treadmill desks. Those who used such workstations easily replaced 25 percent of their sitting time with standing and boosted their well-being (while decreasing fatigue and appetite). But if you don’t have a specially designed desk, don’t let that stop you. Prop your computer up on a stack of books, a printer, or even an overturned trash can and get on your feet….
- Get Moving
Why simply stand up when you can move too? The treadmill desk, which was invented by Dr. Levine, is ideal for this, but again it’s not the only option. You can walk while you’re on the phone, walk to communicate with others in your office (instead of e-mailing), and even conduct walking meetings.
- Monitor Your Screen Height
Whether you’re sitting or standing, the top of your computer screen should be level with your eyes, so you’re only looking down about 10 degrees to view the screen. If it’s lower, you’ll move your head downward, which can lead to back and neck pain. If it’s higher, it can cause dry eye syndrome.
- Imagine Your Head as a Bowling Ball
Your head must be properly aligned to avoid undue stress on your neck and spine. Avoid craning your head forward, holding it upright instead. And while you’re at it, practice chin retractions, or making a double chin, to help line up your head, neck, and spine.
- Try the “Pomodoro Technique”
You know those little tomato-shaped (pomodoro is Italian for tomato) timers? Wind one up to 25 minutes (or set an online calculator). During this time, focus on your work intensely. When it goes off, take 5 minutes to walk, do jumping jacks, or otherwise take a break from your work. This helps you to stay productive while avoiding burnout.
Here are even more ways – 101, to be exact – to get more physical activity into your day.
The concept of a healthy life is simple: diet and exercise. As the advisory committee put it,
Overall, the evidence base on the links between diet, physical activity, and health has never been as strong or more compelling. The strength of evidence on “what works” to improve individual and population lifestyle behaviors for health also has never been more robust, with solutions and models of “best practices.” Furthermore, the increasing convergence of research evidence showing that healthy dietary patterns not only reduce disease risks and improve health outcomes but are associated with food security and sustainability provide a further, convincing rationale for focused attention on prevention and individual and population health promotion.
Nothing in the advisory committee’s recommendations is surprising. The surprising part may be only that more people don’t do what needs to be done.