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Make that a combo

A new study shows the benefits of a healthy lifestyle are greater than the sum of their parts.

You eat that brownie, but you'll work it off at the gym. You don’t exercise, but you are watching what you eat. You’ve made a lifestyle change, but are you shortchanging yourself?

Many studies link a healthy lifestyle change to reduced risk for chronic disease. But researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) go right to the heart of the matter: It's the combination of choices that makes the biggest difference.

Greater than the sum

The Harvard study1 included more than 77,000 women and spanned almost a quarter century. Researchers focused on four main lifestyle behaviors:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Getting regular physical activity
  • Never smoking.

Individual behaviors improved health. But when combined, the effects were unexpectedly dramatic. Researchers estimated that nearly three-quarters of participant cardiovascular deaths could have been avoided by engaging in all four lifestyle behaviors. The same was true for 44% of cancer deaths, and for more than half of all deaths from all causes.

The bottom line

The study suggests that the benefits of each behavior add up in specific ways. Hitting the gym after hitting the buffet won't erase all the ill effects of that pizza. The benefits of healthy eating go beyond whether you can fit into your jeans. Likewise, dieting to be "thin" doesn't give you the benefits of maintaining a healthy weight.

Your body is an engine. To keep it at peak performance, it needs the right fuel and proper maintenance. Here are some things to consider:

  • Calories. If you consume more than you burn, your body will store them as fat. But as important as "how many" is "from where". Are you eating a healthy diet? Is it supporting your blood sugar and energy throughout the day?

  • Nutrition. You could consume your total caloric intake in cupcakes every day, but you'd never be healthy. What you eat is crucial. Are you getting enough fiber? Vitamins? Protein? Healthy fats?

  • Exercise. Increasing your physical activity is always a great start. But it's easy to think that any movement is enough. But to maximize the health benefits, it has to be focused. Is the intensity high enough? Are you exercising for at least 30 minutes?

  • Weight. How you get there is important. If you're overweight, you're at risk. If you "diet" to be thin, you may be injuring your body in other ways that will lessen the benefits of a lower weight.

Since each healthy factor contributes to your overall health, it's important to include them all in your everyday routine. Rather than focusing on a single factor — like losing weight, for example — think of them as a means to better health.

"Our findings suggest that the combination of lifestyle factors has a substantially larger impact on survival than any single factor," said Rob van Dam, who led the study. "Even modest lifestyle changes, such as 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity (e.g., brisk walking) per day, significantly reduced risk of premature death."

The lesson: Back away from the brownie and lace up your walking shoes. Your lifestyle — and your life expectancy — will be dramatically better for it.


1 "Combined Impact of Lifestyle Factors on Mortality: Prospective Cohort Study in U.S. Women," Rob M van Dam, Tricia Li, Donna Spiegelman, Oscar H Franco, Frank B Hu, British Medical Journal, online Sept. 17, 2008.

GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention welcomes the opportunity to share this general information. However, this article is not intended to be relied upon as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.