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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 healthy.

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%.

Good Health in a Bad Economy

Twelve ways to protect your health in a recession.
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