“Five Steps to Live Longer” might sound like a clickbait headline on a social media site but it is the premise behind new research published in the journal Circulation.
Researchers used data from almost 125,000 Americans who participated in the Nurses Health Study, Health Professionals Follow Up-Study and National Health and Nutrition Examination Study between 1980 and 2014 to measure associations between lifestyle factors and premature death. Their analysis found that five lifestyle factors — eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy body weight, not drinking too much alcohol and not smoking — could add more than a decade to life expectancy.
Researchers estimated that study participants who did not adopt any of the healthy lifestyle behaviors at age 50 had a life expectancy of 25.5 years for men and 29 years for women. Participants who adopted all five low-risk behaviors had a projected life expectancy at age 50 of 37.6 years for men and 43.1 years for women. In short, living a healthy lifestyle has the potential to add 12–14 years to your lifespan.
“Each healthy lifestyle [habit] was associated with 2–3 years of prolonged life expectancy; the more healthy lifestyle factors, the longer the life expectancy,” explains study co-author Yanping Li, PhD, research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Let’s take a closer look at the payoff for each of the healthy behaviors:
EATING A HEALTHY DIET
Filling your plate with whole-grains, fruits, vegetables, fish and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids could allow you to add a few more candles to your birthday cake, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study. Researchers found that those who showed the largest increase in healthy eating patterns reduced their risk of death during the 12-year study period up to 17%.
Logging the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical exercise per week can add years to your life. One study found those who hit the exercise target lived as much as 4.5 years longer than their more sedentary peers. Researchers cited weight management; improved bone, muscle and joint health and reduced risk of certain diseases, including some cancers, as the key reasons for the association between exercise and longevity.
MAINTAINING A HEALTHY BODY WEIGHT
Being overweight or obese increases your risk for a host of health problems from Type 2 diabetes and kidney disease to high blood pressure and heart disease. It can also shorten your lifespan. Research published in the journal Nature found that every one-unit increase in body mass index (BMI) was associated with a seven-month decrease in life expectancy. In other words, a 5-foot-4 woman who weighs 140 pounds would only need to gain 5 pounds to increase her BMI from 24 to 25; an 11-pound weight gain would increase BMI to 26, according to the National Institutes of Health BMI chart.
NOT DRINKING TOO MUCH ALCOHOL
Although moderate consumption of alcohol has been associated with health benefits like lowered risk of cardiovascular disease, one study found drinking more than 100 grams of alcohol per week — the equivalent of seven drinks — lowers life expectancy. The research found that those who drank 350 grams of alcohol per week lived up to five years less than those who consumed fewer than 100 grams of alcohol per week.
READ MORE > WHAT A SERVING OF ALCOHOL LOOKS LIKE
The research is clear: smoking kills. Butting out — or never lighting up in the first place — could not only save your life, it could help you live a longer life. Smoking can cut 10 years from your lifespan, but quitting before age 40 can give you back that lost decade, according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
“Some of smoking’s effects do improve with time,” notes Dr. MeiLan Han, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Michigan and spokesperson for the American Lung Association.
While quitting helps decrease the risk of dying from lung cancer and coronary heart disease, it can cause permanent damage to the lungs. Your best bet: Avoid lighting up in the first place. If you are a smoker, take heart, advises Han.
“It’s never too late to quit,” she says.
If making multiple healthy changes feels overwhelming, Li advises, “Everybody should find the level that is most suitable for themselves. There will be a great pay back of prolonged life expectancy with each small step toward a healthier lifestyle.”