The path to a better, longer life may be shorter than you think
By now, everyone knows the drill: Quit smoking, eat better, exercise, and you’ll get healthier.
Now, two new studies uncover the wisdom in that tried-and-true advice. And they find that success may come quicker than most people realize.
In one study, Christian Roberts and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that lifestyle changes helped reverse serious heart disease risk factors in less than one month among 31 obese men they studied. That study was published online Jan. 10 in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
A second report — this time by Stephanie Chiuve and colleagues at Harvard University — found that men who followed five healthy habits had an 87 percent lower risk of getting heart disease than men who ignore these behaviors. The health habits included eating a prudent diet, exercising regularly, controlling weight, not smoking and drinking in moderation.
That study, which tracked more than 51,000 men for over 16 years, was published in the July 3 online edition of the journal Circulation
While both studies were done in men, the findings are expected to apply to women, said Chiuve. She noted that a separate study of women, published about five years ago, found that healthy behavior quickly reduced their risk of heart disease.
Following all five healthy habits is best, she says, but even if you change one or two habits, that’s good, Chiuve said. The most important one to change: smoking.
“Not smoking was associated with the lowest risk for heart disease,” Chiuve said. Next up was maintaining a healthy body weight — that means sticking to a body mass index (BMI) below 25. For reference, a person 5 feet 5 inches tall who weighs 145 pounds has a BMI of 24, for instance. Statistical overweight begins at a BMI over 25.
“The other three [factors] — exercise, eating a healthy diet, drinking in moderation were all equal,” Chiuve said, in terms of reducing heart disease risks.
Some changes can reduce risks particularly quickly, she said. “Within two weeks, eating a healthy diet can reduce blood pressure.”
Roberts’ group found relatively speedy results from healthy changes, too. In his study, he followed men who had recently entered a residential program for improving their health. They ate a high-fiber, low-fat diet, taking in more than 40 grams a day and less than 15 percent of total calories from fat. They also walked for about 60 minutes a day.
After just three weeks of this behavior, about half the men reversed their tendency to type 2 diabetes or a cluster of other heart risk factors — such as elevated blood pressure, insulin levels or high cholesterol — that together are called the metabolic syndrome.
“We measured 15 or 20 different things,” he said. “The lipids [such as cholesterol] tend to change very quickly,” he said.
“Body weight [reduction] has a much longer course,” he said. While many people focus on body weight reduction, thinking it’s the prime factor driving health-related changes, that’s not always so, Roberts said.
“Some people think the body weight [change] causes the cholesterol to drop. It’s not the body weight per se, but many other mechanisms. The cholesterol can drop independent of body weight,” he said.
Simply adding more fiber to the diet and taking out saturated fat, he said, could be beneficial for your lipid profile, as can regular exercise.
“An editorial written in concert with this paper suggests the concept that you have to change for several months is erroneous,” he said.
What is needed, he said, is to consider the changes a new life plan, not a temporary fix.
For more on heart-healthy lifestyles, visit the American Heart Association.