What comes to mind when you think of taking risks with your health—driving recklessly, or maybe abusing alcohol or illegal drugs? Those behaviors are certainly risky. However, many people have less dramatic behaviors that are just as dangerous in the long run. Tobacco use, unbalanced nutrition and a lack of physical activity are some of the key risk factors for the most common causes of death.
What are the most common causes of death?
Heart disease, cancer and stroke are the most common causes of death in the United States. Nearly 1.5 million people in the United States die each year from one of these diseases, or from complications of these diseases. That’s more than the number of American soldiers who died in the Civil War, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined, and it happens every year.
Top 10 Causes of Death (in order)
- Heart Disease
- Chronic lower respiratory disease
- Accidents (many are alcohol-related)
- Flu and pneumonia
- Alzheimer's disease
- Kidney disease
How much control do I have? Don’t these diseases run in families?
It’s true that heart disease, stroke and some kinds of cancer tend to occur more often in people who have a family history of the disease. However, your genes are only part of your risk for these diseases. In many cases, your behavior is at least as important to your health as your family history. If you choose unhealthy behaviors, you are at greater risk of having a serious health problem.
How can I reduce my risk?
The following are 3 of the most important ways to reduce your risk of the top 3 causes of death:
- Quit smoking, or don’t start.
- Eat fewer high-fat foods and more fruits and vegetables.
- Be more physically active.
Even by doing just one of these things, you will improve your health and reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer and stroke.
What can I do in terms of my diet?
To improve your eating habits, you’ll want to cut down on foods that are high in fat and calories, such as hamburgers, fried foods and soda pop. You want to add fruits and vegetables and whole grains which are important sources of vitamins, minerals and fiber. By replacing fat and sugar laden foods with healthier choices, such as fruits and vegetables, you’ll get better nutritional quality from the foods you eat and keep your weight in check.
Do I need an exercise plan or is it enough to just be more active throughout the day?
Ideally, we would all get enough exercise in our daily lives to burn the energy that we get from eating food. Unfortunately, modern life has made it possible for most people to avoid being physically active. For example, people drive almost everywhere they go, and many jobs require people to sit at a desk for much of the day.
There are many ways to incorporate bursts of physical activity in to our busy lives.
One way is to participate in structured exercise, aerobics or strength training. However you can also burn energy by simply adding more movement to your everyday activities. It can be something as simple as walking stairs, taking a couple of 15-minute walking breaks or riding a stationary bicycle while you watch TV.
I’ve tried to make these changes in my life before and failed. How can I do better this time?
Unhealthy behaviors tend to become habits, so changing them can be very difficult. You’re more likely to make the necessary changes in your habits if you set a specific goal for yourself. If you set a goal that focuses on an outcome—for example, losing 20 pounds—it can be hard to know where to start or what to do. Instead, set a goal that focuses on a specific behavior. For example, choose one specific thing to change about the way you eat, such as adding a piece of fruit to one meal each day. Once your new healthy behavior becomes a habit, you can move on to another goal.
As you set a goal to be more physically active, you may improve your chances of success by exercising with other people. Try setting up a walking group at work or in your neighborhood, or asking a friend to be your exercise buddy. This will provide you with support and make physical activity more enjoyable.