How Many People Are Really Living a Healthy Lifestyle? Prepare to Be Shocked

How Many People Are Really Living a Healthy Lifestyle? Prepare to Be Shocked

With so much talk to health and the importance of good nutrition and staying physically active, you’d think a significant portion of the population would be making healthy living a priority. After all, a new study comes out every day showing how important diet and exercise are for good health. But are we really listening? A recent study carried out by Oregon State University looked at how many people are actually living a healthy lifestyle and came to a very sobering conclusion – the number is abysmally low. Would you believe under 3%?

4 Simple Criteria that Define a Healthy Lifestyle

What constitutes a healthy lifestyle is debatable, but in the study, researchers came up with four criteria or health habits that go along with a healthy approach to living. Even though the criteria are pretty basic, only a tiny percentage of people in the study were able to achieve all four consistently. These are things doctors recommend to keep your heart healthy and maximize your health – nothing that’s too far left field. The four criteria for healthy living in this study consisted of:

.   Being a non-smoker

.   Having a healthy body fat percentage

.   Getting at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise weekly

.   Following a “healthy diet,” based on criteria suggested by the USDA

How did the researchers come to this conclusion? They examined the lifestyle habits of 4,745 people who took part in a larger study called the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Unlike most studies that use food and activity questionnaires and self-reported activity levels, the researchers actually measured the body fat percentage of the participants and documented how much exercise they got weekly by asking them to wear an accelerometer. They even did blood tests to ensure the participants had no breakdown products from smoking in their bloodstream. The researchers also measured various biomarkers suggestive of cardiovascular health like blood sugar level, lipid levels, and blood pressure.

The results? Although there were people who fulfilled one or two of the four criteria, only 2.7% aced all four, suggesting Americans still have a way to go to fully embrace a truly healthy lifestyle. Only 16% fulfilled three criteria, 37% met two criteria, 34% one and 11% met none of the criteria.

Where Americans, based on this study, have the most problem is in maintaining a healthy body fat percentage. Only 10% fell into the normal range when body fat was measured by X-ray absorptiometry, a reliable form of measurement. Where they were most successful is in not smoking. More than 70% were non-smokers or had kicked the habit. In terms of diet and physical activity, we’re better at staying active than eating healthy. More participants got the recommended amount of exercise (46%) than ate a healthy diet. (38%)

Activity levels, as you might expect, were lower in men and women over the age of 60. Based on this study, men were more likely to be active than women. On the other hand, women were more likely to eat healthy than men.

These results go along with a previous study from 2009. This study showed over the prior 20 years, the obesity rate rose from 28% to 36% while the number of people who got sufficient exercise dropped from 53% to 43%. This study also looked at vegetable and alcohol consumption and the results were disappointing. The number of people who ate five or more servings of fruits and vegetables decreased from 42% to 26% and alcohol consumption rose. Seems we’re heading in the wrong direction, huh?

Why is meeting the four so-called “healthy lifestyle” criteria so important for health? According to Harvard Health, physical inactivity increased the odds of being admitted to a nursing home by 40% while smoking boosted the risk by 56%.

What Constitutes a Healthy Diet?

Ask a few nutrition experts what makes up a healthy diet and you’ll likely get a few different answers. What constitutes what a healthy diet is goes in and out of favor based on the trends. For a long period of time, fat was the dietary component to avoid. Then it was high-glycemic carbs and sugar and fat were exonerated. The USDA takes a more moderate approach to defining a healthy diet. To eat healthy based on these criteria, you would need to:

.   Limit sugar in your diet to no more than 10% of total calories.

.   Limit saturated fat. Lean protein should make up 25% of your plate.

.   Eat moderate amounts of whole grain foods. (about 25% of what’s on your plate)

.   Half of your plate should be fruits and vegetables.

.   Eat an appropriate number of calories to maintain a normal body weight and body fat percentage.

.   Cut back on foods with added sodium.

Although some studies now suggest that saturated fat may not be as heart unhealthy as previously thought and sugar may be a promoter of heart disease as well, the USDA recommendations are a reasonable way to begin eating healthier. Notice that it emphasizes unprocessed, whole foods without added sugar. It’s hard to argue with that!

The Bottom Line

With so much talk about the importance of physical activity and eating healthy, you’d think more Americans would meet the four criteria that constitute a healthy lifestyle. Looks like we still have a way to go! If you DO meet all the criteria, you’re in an elite group who takes your health seriously. Congratulations! If not, you can still get there by making small changes to the way you eat and how active you are. Most people find drastic dietary and lifestyle overhauls to be difficult to sustain. Think in terms of small, consistent steps and you’re more likely to achieve it.



Oregon State University. “US adults get a failing grade in healthy lifestyle behavior.” Science Daily. Science Daily, 21 March 2016.

WebMD. “Healthy Living Still Eludes Americans”

Harvard Health Publications. “Why it’s hard to change unhealthy behavior — and why you should keep trying”

The American Heart Association. “The American Heart Association’s Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations”


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