Healthy behaviors improve your odds for longer life
Eat right. Don’t smoke. Stay active. Can you give me some motivation to keep up these healthy behaviors?
I think I get your message. This column frequently presents information from scientific studies about healthy lifestyle. But information alone may not be enough to change behavior — and it’s hard to change behavior, particularly when you enjoy it. Information doesn’t equal motivation.
I’m not an expert on how to motivate people, but here’s how I motivate myself. I ask myself what I want from life. In terms of health, I want to live as long as possible, free of suffering and with my faculties intact. Then I’ll be able to love and be loved, and to enjoy the things I most enjoy, for as long as possible.
So the next question is: How do I get there? And I don’t mean how do I guarantee I’ll live a long life, free of suffering and decrepitude. Because there are no guarantees in life, only odds. You want to know what the odds are that you’ll achieve your goals, and what you can do to improve your odds. At least that’s what I want to know.
How do I find out what my odds are, and how to improve them? I believe in science. I don’t believe that any single scientific study is infallible, no matter how impressive it seems. But I believe that the collective information from many well-done studies is the best, and maybe the only, way I’ll ever learn what I need to know.
For example, in a recently published study, a research team followed nearly 17,000 men and women, aged 17 years and older, for 18 years. They meticulously collected information on the lifestyle, the illnesses, and the life or death of the study participants. In other words, they studied more than 300,000 years of human experience.
They compared study participants who ate a healthy diet, got enough physical activity, drank alcohol in moderation and never smoked to those who engaged in none of these healthy behaviors. The first group lived an average of 11 years longer. It’s just the latest study that says that the lifestyle we call “healthy” really is good for our health.
There’s more good news. The same healthy lifestyle practices that cause you to live longer make those extra years healthier. Healthy lifestyle does not just prolong your decrepitude.
Even more good news: You don’t have to banish all unhealthy practices from your life, always and forever. What matters is your usual behavior. Take me, for example. Does Doctor K always follow the healthy lifestyle advice he gives in this column? Some questions answer themselves.
Information motivates me — and so does emotion. If family and friends encourage me along the path I’ve chosen, and if I don’t want to disappoint them, I’m more likely to follow that path. I hope this advice will help you find the motivation you need to stay healthy.
(This column ran originally in November 2014.)
Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School.)