You are here

Proof That Healthy Living Really Does Pay Off


You know you should be eating healthfully and exercising, but when you’re young you may feel disconnected from the long-term rewards. Now, a new study from the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine finds that living a healthy lifestyle in your 20s leads to a HUGE health payoff in your 40s and demonstrates that your lifestyle is far more powerful than your genetics.

In the study the researchers analyzed data from over 3,000 people between the ages of 18 and 30 and followed them in time. The scientists tracked how well the participants adhered to five lifestyle factors:

1. Maintaining a lean body mass index (BMI)
2. No excess alcohol intake
3. No smoking
4. Eating a healthy diet, and

5. Engaging in regular physical activity

At the beginning of the study, when the participants' average age was 24, nearly 44 percent had a low cardiovascular disease risk profile. Two decades later, only 24.5 percent fell into that category. But 60 percent of those who hung in with all five healthy lifestyle factors reached their 40s at low risk, compared with fewer than five percent who didn’t meet any of healthy lifestyle criteria. The really big news is that even people with a family history of heart problems were at low risk at middle age if they started living a healthy lifestyle when they were young.

When I was in my 20s I was already a health professional, and had worked in cardiac rehab, so I was highly aware of how my daily habits impacted my future health risk. But today, in my private practice, a lot of my young clients put off healthy changes, thinking, “I’ll worry about that in my 30s.” And because many are much more focused on weight than health, they may continue to smoke or nix healthy high carb foods like whole grains and fruit. If you’re one of them, but you’re motivated to take charge of your health, here are two simple but powerful diet changes you can start with today:

Eat one extra serving of fruit each day
Statistics show that roughly 70 percent of U.S. adults don’t eat the recommended two servings of fruit each day, but squeezing in just one more serving can lower your risk of cancer by six percent. Make fruit the first thing you eat every morning. Instead of reaching for coffee, first munch on a mini banana or even a golf ball sized portion of unsweetened dried fruit, which is the equivalent of one cup fresh. One of my favorites is dried figs–just two provide about 20 percent of all the fiber you need for the day and they’re chock full of minerals including calcium and magnesium.

Squeeze in one extra serving of veggies
When it comes to vegetables, almost 75 percent of adults down the minimum recommended three servings every day, and just one additional serving can lower the risk of heart disease by as much as 11 percent. Stock your freezer with frozen spinach, broccoli, green beans, etc. and make them a staple of every meal. Just steam or microwave and season by tossing with a small dollop of pesto (basil, sundried tomato, roasted red pepper, artichoke…) or misting with an herb-infused oil. One of my favorite quick combos is broccoli with sundried tomato pesto.

What’s your take on this topic? If you’re in your 20s now, do you ever think about how today’s habits will affect you twenty years from now? Are you ready to commit to healthier habits? Please tweet your thoughts to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S. Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.



Add a comment