Family of four biking on a trail together in spring

4 healthy lifestyle habits you need to adopt (based on Vanderbilt research)


January 11, 2018

There are many things you can do for long-term health. These are 4 good habits for a healthy life.


So many little choices, when added up, nourish and protect health — everything from eating whole grains rather than refined carbohydrates, to wearing seat belts, to getting a flu shot.

A group of Vanderbilt researchers who work with an employee wellness program wondered which healthy lifestyle habits were most likely to keep people in good health over the long term. They created a study that followed Vanderbilt employees’ health habits for 10 years, as reported during voluntary health assessment surveys. The idea was to discover which behaviors were most likely to prevent serious health problems (diabetes, cancer, heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or stroke) — not to mention death.

The study began in 2003 with 10,248 people who reported on their habits regarding 10 health-related behaviors. The study ran from 2003 through 2012. Just more than 2,700 people participated in all 10 years. The results reflect the group that remained in the study for the full period, and at the conclusion only counted people who developed a certain health condition (for example, high cholesterol) after the initial 2003 self-reports.

The results, published in 2016, found that the most common conditions the group developed during the study were high cholesterol, high blood pressure (hypertension), obesity and diabetes. But not everyone developed those problems.

The study discovered these four healthy lifestyle habits were most associated with avoiding those health problems:

1. Eating a low-fat diet.

When it came to healthy eating habits, employees who ate the most fat were the most likely to develop hypertension, obesity, diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol. “Low-fat” for the study’s purposes indicated a lower overall fat consumption — saturated (not heart-healthy) and unsaturated fats (heart-healthy) together.

Marissa Wertheimer, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., suggests using the U.S. Department of Agriculture ChooseMyPlate guidelines for shaping healthy eating habits. Also, writing down everything you eat and drink — either on a health app or on paper — has been proven to help people lose weight and maintain weight loss, Wertheimer said. It can help you spot whether you’re taking in too much red meat, full-fat dairy products and other sources of saturated fat.

“Every meal is an opportunity to move toward a healthy eating pattern,” she said.

2. Staying physically active — especially with regular aerobic exercise.

The study found that, “compared to sedentary people, those who exercised four days per week were less likely to develop … diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol.”

The American Heart Association recommends that adults get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise every week to keep heart and blood vessels healthy. That’s roughly 30 minutes per day, five days per week. To burn off excess weight, many adults need more physical activity than that. Strength training (for example, lifting weights or doing resistance training such as pushups and lunges) two to three times per week also helps keep bones and muscles strong.

Because physical activity is important for health throughout life, it’s best to find exercise that you love, so getting your 150 minutes in every week will feel like a joy, not a chore. Walking is an excellent, inexpensive, do-anywhere activity, but there are so many other ways to be physically active. If you hate the gym, try streaming workout videos on your computer or iPad from home. If you do better working out with a group, there are all types of fitness classes, from indoor cycling to yoga. Boxing, inline skating, burning off stress on a rowing machine — there are many ways to stay moving. Find something that you look forward to so you don’t get bored, burn out or give up. And it’s OK to break up exercise into short bursts rather than 30 minutes or more at a time.

3. Not smoking.

Nonsmokers had much lower risk of developing chronic health problems, the study noted. Smoking was an especially significant risk factor for strokes and death.

Smoking causes or worsens so many health problems, including diabetes and heart disease, among other lesser-known problems. Quitting cigarettes improves health surprisingly quickly — the first effects (a lowered heart rate and blood pressure) kick in just 20 minutes after your last puff. Studies show that a smoke-free lifestyle and a healthy diet can make a seven-year difference in life span versus people who smoke, said Lisa Connor, R.N., B.S.N., C.D.E., one of the study’s authors.

Even if you’ve tried to quit smoking before, but returned to your cigarette habit, Connor says, “don’t quit trying!” Most smokers make multiple attempts to quit before they’re finally successful. And while some people quit tobacco cold turkey, research shows that the most effective strategy for quitting smoking is to use nicotine replacement products (such as nicotine gum or the skin patch) and/or prescription medication; and to join a support group. The Tennessee Tobacco Quitline, 1-800-784-8669, can help you create a quitting strategy that’s best for you.

4. Getting enough sleep.

Adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. Recent research has revealed so many ways in which a full night’s sleep benefits health. Getting by on inadequate sleep — with or without caffeine — can affect mood, weight, stress, memory and much more.

There are many things you can do to improve sleep. Setting a regular bedtime that allows for those 7 to 9 hours of shuteye is a big first step. Beyond that, Connor advises people to limit caffeine late in the day; establish a before-bedtime routine that’s relaxing; change the settings on your phone and other devices to reduce the blue light you’re exposed to a night — or better yet, leave anything with a screen, including TV sets, out of the bedroom until morning. The blue light they emit, plus any noises, are distracting when you’re trying to fall asleep and can wake you up once you’re out.

Wearable health and fitness technologies can provide great feedback on the actual quality of your sleep, Connor said. And if you have symptoms of sleep apnea, talk to a doctor about a sleep evaluation and treatment for this common problem.

Learn more

No matter how strong your lifelong health, at some point you may have to deal with a cold, the flu or an injury. If you need us, Vanderbilt Health operates a variety of walk-in clinics in Middle Tennessee, including some with Williamson Medical Center, to take care of everything from sprains and sport injuries to flu shots, fevers, coughs and rashes. Search locations and learn more about the conditions treated there.

Use our online flu tool to decide whether self-care at home or a visit to your healthcare provider is in order.