updated 8/5/2005 7:29:29 AM ET 2005-08-05T11:29:29

All healthy habits are not equal. Since the media bombards us with so many different ways to improve our health, it’s easy to jump from one to another, or just give up.

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Although the right habits can pay good health dividends, several studies show that few Americans successfully focus on the habits that offer the most benefits.

One recent survey asked more than 153,000 Americans aged 18 to 74 how well they practiced four of the most important healthy habits.

The most widely adopted healthy habit was tobacco avoidance: 76 percent said they were nonsmokers. Forty percent reported a weight that put them in the healthy body mass index (BMI) range of 18.5 to 25.0. But only 23 percent reported eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables a day. And just 22 percent said they were physically active 30 minutes or more at least five times a week.

Since each of these habits brings health benefits, practicing even one is better than none. But, surprisingly, nearly 40 percent of those surveyed followed only one of these basic healthful habits. A meager three percent carried out all four of these widely recommended behaviors.

Reduced cancer risk
Two earlier studies, part of the Nurses’ Health Study, examined how well people met five good health criteria. These criteria were a healthy weight, nonsmoker, at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily, a healthy diet and a moderate use of alcohol. Since a healthy diet is made up of many habits, scientists in these two studies looked for a high-fiber diet low in saturated and trans fats, with limited sweets and refined grains.

Only three percent of the women in these studies met all of the standards, but those who did were far better off healthwise. The other women developed almost five times more heart problems and ten times more diabetes than they did.

Another large study looked at how people’s compliance with the former federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans affected their cancer incidence.

Post-menopausal women earned points for: a healthy weight; moderate or vigorous activity more than four days a week; limiting fat intake; eating a variety of vegetables, fruits and grains; three or more daily servings of whole grains; curbing sweets and sodium; getting adequate servings from all the food groups; and no more than one drink of alcohol a day.

None of the women had a perfect score, but twenty percent met at least six of the nine standards. Compared to those who practiced four or fewer of the recommendations, the healthy-habit group developed 15 percent less cancer.

The cancer risk of this same group of post-menopausal women was evaluated again in another interesting study. This time, the women were compared on the basis of how well they followed the dietary guidelines of the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) for cancer prevention. These guidelines differ somewhat from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The women were ranked according to nine points from AICR’s guidelines. The nine points covered: nonsmoking, maintaining a healthy weight and limiting adult weight gain, exercising moderately each day, eating at least five servings of vegetables and fruits a day, consuming adequate whole grains and other complex carbohydrates, limiting red meat, fat and sodium, and having no more than one standard alcoholic drink per day.

No woman achieved all nine guidelines. Most people met about four out of the nine. Only 10 percent met six or more, but those who did reduced their cancer risk by 31 percent.

In all of these studies, only a minority practiced most or all of the steps that promote good health. These people dramatically improved their chances of staying healthy. The rest of us should now focus on these habits that have the most impact.

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