Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Health Guidelines: Are We Making Them Too Complicated?

In an e-mail titled “Too Close For Comfort…..” my Colleague Doug Seals sent me a link of a satire laced piece from the Onion about how hard it is to get people to change their lifestyles based on “studies” and scientific data.   This Onion piece also intersects with some of the ideas in my last post related to the frustrating fact that guidelines frequently change as new information emerges.  Other colleagues have mentioned to me that the sheer volume of goals and guidelines that are being released are at best confusing.  That having been said, here are six health guidelines and ideas that have stood the test of time and are backed by solid evidence that is unlikely to change.

  1. Don’t Smoke.
  2. Be physically active and avoid sitting for prolonged periods of time.  150 minutes per week of moderate intensity (brisk walking) physical activity is the key number.  If you have even less time, here is a link to a brief high intensity work out you can do with minimal equipment.  Physical activity also blunts the impact of risk factors like high blood pressure, diabetes, and cholesterol on your health.  In addition to protecting you from cardiovascular disease and diabetes, physical activity is the one thing that seems to reduce the risk and even slow the progression of cognitive impairment as we age.
  3. Don’t get fat.  There are some caveats here but they are subtle and on a population wide basis medical problems associated with body weight really start to take off for people with BMIs greater than 30.
  4. Eat a bit better.   I don’t think most people have to be a fanatic about diet, but watch how much red meat, fried/fatty foods, and sugar you consume.  Eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  As I recently pointed out, do this and watch the pounds melt away.
  5. Don’t drink too much.   One or two drinks most days are fine and may in fact be good for your overall health.  However, more than that is a slippery slope.
  6. Stay engaged in life.  People who have a sense of autonomy over their own destiny and connections with others tend to live longer.  A bit of optimism is also a good thing.


Guideline Followers Live Longer and Age Slower

The figure below is from a 2010 paper that looked at the impact of four health behaviors (smoking, physical activity, drinking, diet) on survival over 20 years in about 5,000 adults from England and Scotland.  Here are two key points from the paper:

  •  “Those with 4 compared with those with no poor health behaviors had an all-cause mortality risk equivalent to being 12 years older.” 
  • “The combined effect of poor health behaviors on mortality was substantial, indicating that modest, but sustained, improvements to diet and lifestyle could have significant public health benefits.”

poor health


What constitutes healthy behavior is pretty straight forward.  If we address these six issues as individuals, via public health measures, and implement things like sin taxes and risk adjusted insurance premiums; our individual and collective health will improve dramatically.




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