Researchers collect massive amounts of data on a large number of participants over multiple years, sometimes for decades, notating what they eat, if they smoke, how and when they exercise, etc. These are known as epidemiological studies. Though they have their limitations, they’re the foundation for many health recommendations. Scientists basically compare the individuals in the study who got sick and/or died during the course of the follow-up period with those who are still alive and healthy. The idea is to look for any striking difference – what did the folks who had good health outcomes do that the folks who died prematurely didn’t?
This treasure trove of data, as you can imagine, has been a gold mine for discovering associations of all kinds (i.e., lack of vitamin D and rickets). And I’ll cut to the chase. In study after study after study, five behaviors have consistently and reliably shown a clear and positive association with good health and long life: (1) Don’t smoke, (2) exercise, (3) don’t be overweight, (4) eat a healthy diet, and (5) consume alcohol in moderation or not at all.
“Exercise” is defined as about 30 minutes a day of activity that stimulates the heart rate while “overweight” is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of between 25 and 29.9. A “healthy” diet means different things to different researchers, but most researchers’ definitions include high amounts of omega-3s, low amounts of sugar, zero trans fats and hefty intakes of fiber, vegetables, fruits, beans and the other usual suspects. And “moderate drinking” means up to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men, while “not at all” means, well, not at all. (In other words, if you’re not currently drinking, don’t start to get the “benefits” of moderate alcohol intake – you’re already getting them.)
An observation: Amateur tennis players like me spend about 80% of their tennis energy worrying about details like racket size and string pattern and only about 20% of their time worrying about the things that actually make the greatest difference in their game – strokes, serves and footwork. We do the exact same thing with health.
We spend about 80% of our time worrying about details such as the proportion of protein to carbs to fat, whether to ban gluten, which form of coenzyme Q10 to take and whether saturated fat is good or bad, and we pay far less attention to the things that statistically have the greatest impact on our lives. Again, no one’s saying details aren’t important – they are. But as far as the effects they have on your overall health and mortality, they’re not even close to being as important as the five basic behaviors.
Which is why, whenever I speak, I urge people who are confused about health and nutrition advice to start by looking for bipartisanship in nutrition and health programs. (It’s hard to find these days, but it’s there.) There’s not a lot of stuff everyone in health and fitness agrees on, but these five behaviors are about as close as we’re likely to get from a crowd that includes vegetarians, power lifters, raw foodists and the keto crowd.
So emphasize the basics. These five behaviors will give you more bang for your buck than any supplement, food, juice, weight- loss program, keto supplement, biohacking diet, or anything else you can think of. That doesn’t mean those things aren’t important and can’t help you get the absolute best performance out of your body, mind and spirit. It just means they need to be built on a rock solid foundation and that’s what the five behaviors are. In terms of importance, they blow everything else out of the water.