We Know What It Takes To Be Healthy, So Why Aren’t We Doing It?

A major new study has revealed the five habits that can add more than a decade to your life – following a healthy diet, controlling your weight, taking regular exercise, drinking in moderation and not smoking. Unexpected? No. But what’s truly surprising is just how few of us are actually adopting them…

Researchers at Harvard University used lifestyle questionnaires and medical records from 123,000 volunteers to calculate how much longer people would live if they followed these five healthy habits: not smoking; having a body mass index between 18.5 and 25; taking at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day; having no more than one 150ml glass of wine a day for women, or two for men; and having a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and whole grains and low in red meat, saturated fats and sugar.

The results were dramatic – compared with people who adopted none of the habits, men saw their life expectancy rise by 12 years and women by 14. And while the findings prove just how much our lifestyles can affect our lifespans, we’re already well aware of what it takes to be healthy – that’s what makes the study’s second finding so confusing: only 8% of the population follow all five habits.

So, in an age where we’re armed with more knowledge than ever, why are the majority of us still actively harming our health? Meir Stampfer, a co-author on the study and Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, blames part of the problem on nicotine addiction and the continuous peddling of unhealthy food, as well as poor urban planning, which can make it hard for people to exercise. But the rest, he puts down to a lack of personal responsibility.

The pressure to ‘do it all’ can stop us from adopting lifestyle choices we know we should.

And when it comes to taking that responsibility, as counsellor, life coach and mental health author Anna Williamson explains, our health-obsessed society could be hindering rather than helping us. “We run the risk of not taking all this advice seriously,” she told SL. “Every week we're being told one thing and the next week another – the constant barrage of headlines can feel overwhelming, and after a while our mind just 'shuts off' to the conflicting messages. The pressure to ‘do it all’ can stop us from adopting lifestyle choices we know we should, as it can feel like ‘one more stress’ to think about.”

Niels Eek, psychologist and co-founder of personal development and mental wellbeing app Remente, also believes the constant reminders of how we should be living could be leading us to make bad choices. “We know we ought to be making certain choices, so it’s no wonder Instagramming pictures of our green juices and gym sessions is commonplace,” he told SL. “However, this is often just a way of virtue signalling to others that you’re following a healthy lifestyle and can actually make it easier to justify other bad habits later (that you don’t post about), such as eating unhealthy food because you feel you deserve a treat.”

When we do decide to change our ways, it seems old habits really do die hard. And it’s all down to what psychologists call ‘learned behaviour’. As Eek tells us, while learned behaviour makes life so much easier, allowing us to move through the day without wasting mental energy on mundane tasks (for example, you don’t have to figure out how to use a toothbrush each day, you simply clean your teeth on autopilot), it’s also the reason unhealthy habits can seem like such hard work to break.

Start with smaller habit changes you can already apply today.

The solution? Start small. “If we start with a big challenge we often end up doing nothing, as we're so far away from the end goal that it feels impossible and therefore pointless,” Eek says. “The key is to break your goal down into manageable steps, starting with smaller habit changes you can apply today, and reward yourself for the progress you make. Eventually, the brain will be triggered by this development and want to do more of it.”

It’s a sentiment Williams agrees with: “Looking at a whole load of changes in one go will feel like a huge task, so just make one small, manageable change at a time. Check in each week with how that's working for you, tweak it if need be and when you're feeling ready, introduce another change.”

If you’re looking to adopt healthier habits but are finding it a struggle, Eek’s app, Remente, could be a good place to start. The free app combines psychology with brain and mental training to help users complete personal goals and lead healthier lifestyles. You can track your mood to figure out which behaviours and habits make you feel good or bad, and use this new self-awareness to set up an action plan full of small, easy-to-manage steps. It’s also filled with motivation tips and advice on how to change learned behaviours.

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