No matter how the laws change in Washington, D.C., preventive medicine
experts say the single best way to improve the nation’s health is simple: Stay
Preventable illnesses like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and
several leading forms of cancer make up a big chunk of health care spending,
costing billions of dollars. They rob millions of Americans of years of life
and blight the final years of others with sickness and disability.
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It doesn’t have to be that way. Consider evidence from a 2009 study of
23,153 adults who took part in the European Prospective Investigation into
Cancer and Nutrition. Volunteers who followed four tenets of good health
-- they didn’t smoke or get fat; they exercised and ate a healthy diet -- were
80% less likely to develop chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, cancer,
and heart disease. Their risk of developing type 2 diabetes was 92% lower than
the risk of people who shunned the familiar health advice. Their odds of having
a heart attack were 81% lower.
“Results like these prove again and again that the most powerful tools we
have to improve health are prevention,” says Wes Alles, PhD, director of the
Stanford Health Improvement program at Stanford University. “Yet we still have
trouble convincing people to make those healthy changes.” To craft your own
health care reform program, here’s what Alles and other experts say you should
do to get the biggest bang for your efforts:
1. Be More Active and Exercise
Exercise offers so many health benefits, it’s nothing short of a magic
bullet. Something as simple as a brisk walk for half an hour a day dramatically
reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and several forms of cancer,
including colon cancer, one of the leading killers.
“A lifetime of regular exercise improves brain function, allows people to be
active and independent in their later years, and adds years to life,” says
Steven Blair, PhD, professor of exercise science at the University of South
Carolina, who has helped shape federal exercise guidelines. “That addresses
most of the leading chronic health threats we face.”
A 2008 study by researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston showed
that regular exercise lowered the risk of dying prematurely by 30%.
2. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Easier said than done, according to findings from a new analysis of data
from state health departments.
Over the past five years, obesity rates climbed in nearly all states.
Indeed, not a single state in the U.S. saw a decline.
Losing weight and keeping it off is difficult. Yet studies show that losing
weight just a few pounds if you’re overweight will improve your health. If your
weight is normal, work to keep it there by reining in calories and exercising
frequently. A healthy diet includes abundant fruits, vegetables, and whole
grains. A good diet limits refined sugars and saturated fats. One easy way to
shed calories from your diet: drink water instead of sugary beverages. They
account for more and more calories in the American diet.