“I’m always amazed at the fact that the best preventatives have no pills, no side-effects and no cost,” says Professor Peter Elwood. He’s seen this over and over again as his long-term study of a group of men has now shown that five simple, healthy habits can reduce cancer risk by 1/3. And that’s not all the healthy habits can do: heart disease and dementia risks drop as well.
So why are people still turning to pills, quick-fix diets and extreme, pricey solutions? “The trouble is the benefits are a long way in the future for most people. So they think, ‘If I do this, I have to do it for 20 years.’ But people would feel better if they lost a bit of weight, if they stopped smoking. It’s just such common sense.”
Elwood, at 87 years old, is still hard at work in the lab and in the media, trying to make people aware of the way their daily habits can influence their health. Still, you’d be surprised by how many people can’t seem to stick to the five habits he’s outlined as healthy — and has the science to back up.
So, take a look: Are you doing all five of these things? No matter how healthy we think we are, Elwood notes, there’s always room for improvement. If you’re not smoking, for example, but are downing a beer most weeknights, you can feel smug about the smoking, but you could still improve your health by skipping the booze more nights than not. How healthy are you, and where can you improve?
1. NOT SMOKING
This is the most obvious of the five habits Elwood’s research highlights, and he notes that when he began surveying about these habits 35 years ago, smoking was more popular. Now, fewer people are smoking, but he says that on the flipside, obesity has gone up, as has unhealthy eating. The percentage of people reporting bad habits or behaviors has remained roughly the same but our vices have shifted.
2. EATING HEALTHY
This habit is harder to quantify exactly, for obvious reasons. When dealing with a study group that’s half a million subjects, Elwood says, it’s hard to get full dietary workups or truly define what healthy eating really means. In general, it means adding more whole foods to your diet and eliminating processed ones. As a runner, you already have a good idea of what’s healthy and what’s not: Skip the tortilla chips and opt for veggies.
3. REGULAR EXERCISE
Elwood believes that of the five habits, this is the the most challenging for people. Elwood notes that even if we exercise, we can always do a little more. We’ve become an extremely sedentary population — even if you’re regularly going on runs or have a yoga practice and are hitting your training goals, you could add more low-impact, low-intensity activity, like walking, to your day. “The more you move, the better,” he adds.
4. KEEPING A HEALTHY BMI
We all know BMI — the height-to-weight ratio — is not perfect, especially if you’re a strength-training, muscle-heavy athlete. But it’s a great place to start. Elwood notes that none of these habits is more important than the other: “For someone with diabetes, I’d say for that person, the healthy eating is probably the most important; while for someone with heart disease, exercise might be the most important habit. But I don’t like saying that any one habit is better than the others,” he notes. Luckily, on this particular habit, if you’ve dialed in exercise and healthy eating, a healthy BMI should follow.
5. LIMITING ALCOHOL INTAKE
I saved this habit for last, because often for healthy athletes, this is the last bad habit to break. When you eat healthy, exercise regularly, maintain healthy weight and don’t smoke, a couple glasses of wine with dinner can seem like a reward for maintaining your healthy lifestyle. But Elwood says the reduction of alcohol — which can lower your cancer risk by a solid 8% — is something we can all do better with. Again, you don’t need to give it up entirely to consider yourself complying with this healthy habit but, as he says, the more you can limit alcohol, the better.