Why is a Healthy Lifestyle Important?

Improving our health is as important as ever during the COVID-19 crisis.

While focusing on coronavirus, let’s look at the big picture

A healthy lifestyle is so important. An emphasis on improving our health is as important as ever during the COVID-19 crisis. It’s a valuable time to focus on our heart health to reduce our COVID-19 risk factors. We can benefit during the crisis and the rest of our life.

Exactly how much do we benefit? We can answer that with an exciting new study from Europe. Researchers followed over 100,000 people and correlated lifestyle factors with disease-free life years.

How much did a healthy lifestyle help?

Nearly 10 years of disease-free life could be gained by following a healthy lifestyle

This is not just extra years of longevity. This is quality years of life without disease!

Does this apply to you? Probably.

The study followed people with no chronic diseases for 12.5 years. There’s no reason to expect different results even in people who already have a chronic disease. In fact, a healthy lifestyle can reverse many chronic diseases.

Exercise is associated with many health benefits. Specifically, regular physical activity can increase the number of years you live without disease. It can also help during coronavirus to reduce your risk of hospitalization and severe COVID-19 infection.
Physical activity is key to a healthy lifestyle to add disease-free years of life.

So what was the optimal lifestyle profile?

The following lifestyle profile was found to statistically correlate to disease-free life and year gains:

  • BMI (body mass index) lower than 25.
  • 2 of the following:
    • Never smoking.
    • Physically active (defined below).
    • No to moderate alcohol consumption (See below for more information).

What does “disease-free” mean?

Disease-free years were those years lived without:

  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • Cardiovascular disease:
    • Coronary heart disease, heart attacks, heart failure, stroke.
  • Respiratory diseases:
    • Asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Cancer.
  • Dementia.
Smoking is associated with many health problems, including lung disease and cancer. Quitting smoking today can decrease your changes of developing serious health conditions. Quitting can also help during coronavirus to reduce your risk of hospitalization and severe COVID-19 infection.
As cool as it looks, smoking can seriously hurt the years you live without chronic disease.

How strong was the correlation between healthy lifestyle and years gained?

A linear and dose-dependent relationship was observed. Each “point” of healthy lifestyle resulted in ~1 extra year of disease-free life.

Comparing the “best” and “worst” lifestyle profiles showed a difference of roughly 9-10 years! Those with the best lifestyle profiles reached 70.3 years old disease-free!

Notable findings and limitations

This study translates something hard to measure (lifestyle) into something meaningful (years of life). Most studies provide percentages to measure benefit from an intervention, but that can be hard to interpret meaningfully. For example, what does a 13% decreased risk of cancer mean to you?

Instead, this study provided years of disease-free survival. We can all appreciate the value of 10 years. Furthermore, it wasn’t just years of longevity, but disease-free years.

The importance of healthy weight or BMI

This data suggests optimal weight is the most important lifestyle factor. This makes sense because obesity is well known to correlate to pulmonary disease, cardiometabolic dysfunction (diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.), and cancer.

Body mass index less than 25 is associated with more disease-free years of life lived. BMI is strongly correlated to other health conditions, including heart disease and cancer. A healthy BMI can also help during coronavirus to reduce your risk of hospitalization and severe COVID-19 infection.
BMI < 25 appears to be the most important factor in preventing chronic disease.

Limitations

The following important lifestyle factors were not studied:

  • Diet
  • Sleep
  • Environment
  • Mindset/mental health

Had these factors been included, the effect of lifestyle would likely have been even higher!

Genetics

It is important to note that genetics weren’t included. This shows the importance of our lifestyle independent of our genetics!

Bringing it back to coronavirus: the importance of healthy lifestyle

The same risk factors for predicting severe COVID-19 infection are those that predict early mortality. The lifestyle profiles studied in this research can also help us against COVID-19 because they address the same risk factors. What better time to focus on our lifestyle during the COVID-19 crisis where our efforts will help us be safer during the crisis and thereafter!

Reference:

Nyberg ST, Singh-Manoux A, Pentti J, et al. Association of Healthy Lifestyle With Years Lived Without Major Chronic DiseasesJAMA Intern Med. 2020;180(5):760–768. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.0618


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The information provided in this post in intended for general education. It is not medical advice. While I make every effort to provide the most up-to-date information, please note that new data is continuously becoming available and may change the conclusions I present here.



Alcohol

The initial study was performed counting “no alcohol intake” as “less healthy” than “moderate alcohol intake”. This is a very controversial topic as alcohol is a carcinogen and contributes to many other diseases. In their revised statistics, the researchers included “no alcohol” use in the optimal lifestyle category (along with “moderate use”). The results were unchanged (see chart below). Bottom line: this does not suggest that people not drinking alcohol should start drinking alcohol for health benefits.

It was unexpected and unfortunate that this detail was difficult to find in the study.

Lifestyle factors defined

  • BMI:
    • Less than 25.0 (optimal).
    • 25.0 to 29.9 (intermediate).
    • Greater than or equal to 30.0 (poor).
  • Smoking:
    • Never smokers (optimal).
    • Former smokers (intermediate).
    • Current smokers (poor).
  • Physical activity – meeting WHO recommendations:
    • Greater than 2.5 hours of moderate activity/week or ≥1.25 hours of vigorous activity/week (optimal)
  • Alcohol consumption (1 drink = 10 grams ethanol):
    • No alcohol or 1-14 drinks/week (women) or 1-21 drinks/week (men) drinks per week
    • Greater than or equal to 15 drinks/week (women) or 22 drinks/week (men).

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