American Adults Fail at Healthy Behavior

By Crystal Shelton, Senior Scientific Researcher

Researchers at both Oregon State University and the University of Mississippi decided to investigate the U.S. adult population and their adherence to “a healthy lifestyle.” They set forth four basic parameters to define healthy behavior, all of which are known to protect against cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and other health problems. These included a good diet, moderate exercise, a recommended body fat percentage and being a non-smoker.

Giving additional value to this study, it was based on a very large study group. It examined 4,745 people from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, but also included several measured behaviors in addition to their self-reported information.  One of the measurements reviewed the participant’s actual level of movement, which was a goal of 150 minutes of activity per week. Blood samples were also drawn to determine if participants were non-smokers and body fat was physically measured. To determine if participants ate a “good diet”, they qualified if they were in the top 40% of people who ate foods recommended by the USDA.

Once the lifestyle parameters were established, these factors were then compared to certain biomarkers of cardiovascular health, including blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose levels, triglycerides, C-reactive protein and homocysteine. As expected, the findings of the study concluded that the healthier the lifestyle, the better reporting of cardiovascular biomarkers, essentially leading to better heart health. Additionally, having 3 or 4 healthy lifestyle factors, compared to none, was associated with better cardiovascular risk markers. No surprises there. However, the most shocking report was only 2.7% of the U.S. adult population achieves all four of the “healthy lifestyle” parameters set forth in this study. In other words, less than 3% qualified in the areas of a good diet, moderate exercise, certain body fat percentage and non-smoking. The author clearly noted their standards were not outrageous and they were not measuring everyday people against marathon runners. As such, the senior author stated, “From the perspective of public health, the findings of the research were not encouraging. This is pretty low, to have so few people maintaining what we would consider a healthy lifestyle,” she said. “This is sort of mind boggling. There’s clearly a lot of room for improvement.” These 4 parameters may seem like no-brainers when it comes to being healthy, but clearly people are not meeting the basic standards of healthy behavior. We need to identify ways to increase and promote multiple healthy lifestyle characteristics among adults.

Other interesting findings of this report include:

  • Although having more than one healthy lifestyle behavior is important, specific health characteristics may be most important for particular cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as for healthy levels of HDL and total cholesterol, the strongest correlation was with normal body fat percentage.
  • A total of 71% of adults did not smoke, 38% ate a healthy diet, 10% had a normal body fat percentage and 46% were sufficiently active.
  • Only 2.7% of all adults had all four healthy lifestyle characteristics, while 16% had three, 37 percent had two, 34 percent had one, and 11 percent had none.
  • Women were more likely to not smoke and eat a healthy diet, but less likely to be sufficiently active.
  • Mexican American adults were more likely to eat a healthy diet than non-Hispanic white or black adults.
  • Adults 60 years and older had fewer healthy characteristics than adults ages 20-39, yet were more likely to not smoke and consume a healthy diet, and less likely to be sufficiently active.

Source: Loprinzi P, Branscum A, Hanks J, Smit E . Healthy Lifestyle Characteristics and Their Joint Association With Cardiovascular Disease Biomarkers in US Adults. Mayo Clinic Proc. 91(4):432-442, 2016.