5 Simple Habits that Help Prevent Major Health Problems

Be HappyIt’s no secret that our everyday lifestyle choices have a direct effect on our long-term health. According to a recent study, about 60%–70% of healthcare visits in industrialized countries are associated with chronic, preventable diseases caused by poor lifestyle choices, including lack of physical activity, overeating, chronic stress and poor sleeping habits. The good news is, simply changing these daily habits can help us significantly improve pre-existing chronic conditions–or prevent them altogether before they happen. Here are some of the most impactful, medication-free changes you can use as another course of treatment in your toolbox to get your health back on track.

Move Your Body
More and more, doctors are prescribing physical activity as part of treatment programs for chronic conditions and other diseases—and for good reason. Regular exercise helps improve blood sugar control, promotes weight loss, and reduces the risk of heart disease, peripheral artery disease and other problems associated with chronic diseases. In a lot of cases, combining a healthy-eating program with regular exercise can even help eliminate the need for medication for people with conditions like diabetes or heart disease. Plus, regular exercise can act as a mood-booster, which helps alleviate the immense stress of dealing with a chronic disease.

So, how much exercise do you need? According to the American Cancer Society Guidelines on Nutrition and Physical Activity for Cancer Prevention, adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week, preferably spread out in multiple sessions throughout the week. If you’re new to exercise, start small. Go for a ten-minute walk with a friend, or try a 30-minute session at the gym. As long as you’re getting your heart rate up, every minute counts toward your weekly 150.

Ditch the Desk Chair
While getting adequate exercise is important, it’s also crucial to add little bursts of activity into your day outside the gym. The most sedentary people are more than twice as likely to have cardiovascular disease than those who are more active throughout the day, and lack of movement is a risk factor for colon, breast and endometrial cancers.

Since many of us work at demanding desk jobs for most of the day, it can be difficult to avoid sitting for long periods of time. However, you only have to get moving just a little bit to see significant benefits. Studies have shown that breaking up prolonged sitting with light or moderate walking breaks may reduce blood pressure and improve blood sugar levels. Make a point to alternate between standing and sitting at your desk throughout the day, and talk to your co-workers about instating walking meetings. You could also set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself to get up and move for a few minutes at least once every hour. Every little bit of movement adds up!

Keep Stress in Check
In small doses, stress can help motivate us to meet deadlines, complete important tasks and protect ourselves from danger when needed. However, when left unchecked, chronic stress can contribute to insomnia, anxiety, high blood sugar and a weakened immune system. Additionally, stress tends to trigger unhealthy habits like overeating, smoking, binge drinking and skimping on sleep–all of which can contribute to the development of chronic conditions. And if you’re already living with a chronic illness, stress will only make your condition deteriorate even more.

If you feel like stress is worsening your chronic illness, identify the major stressors in your life and think about how you can eliminate them or approach them differently. You might even want to start a stress log to track the times when you feel the most stressed. When you’ve targeted your biggest stress triggers, find healthy coping methods that work for you in those particular situations, like light exercise, breathing techniques or meditation. (For more stress-reduction tips and techniques, click here.)

Eat the Right Foods
It is becoming increasingly clear that food can be potent medicine. While overeating the wrong foods can cause a host of chronic health problems, a nutritious eating plan can treat–and sometimes even help reverse–chronic conditions caused by unhealthy lifestyle choices. In fact, specific diets are often included in health treatment plans for chronic conditions. For example, the DASH diet is often prescribed to help lower blood pressure in cases of hypertension, and carb-controlled diets are used to help control blood sugar in diabetes patients. Most eating plans prescribed to help treat chronic conditions push for plenty of fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean meats, and healthy fats while reducing the consumption of processed foods, sugar and salt. Consult with your doctor and a dietitian to find out what kind of eating plan will best help manage your chronic condition.

Catch More Z’s
Sleep is often one of the most overlooked components of a wellness program, but it can affect so much more than day-to-day energy levels. According to the CDC, chronic sleep deprivation can contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as obesity, depression, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Simply getting your sleeping habits under control can help lower your risk for these conditions and makes managing existing conditions a little easier. For example, the CDC also reports that getting enough quality sleep has been shown to help improve blood sugar control in patients with diabetes, and treating certain sleep conditions such as sleep apnea can help reverse symptoms of depression. For optimal health, the average adult should be getting 7-8 hours of sleep per night. If you’re falling short of that, check out SparkPeople’s Healthy Sleep Center for tips and tricks to snooze your way to a healthier life.

If you’re living with a chronic condition, it’s never too late to change your lifestyle behaviors and take control of your health. Start making small steps today for a better tomorrow!


American Psychological Association. “Understanding Chronic Stress,” accessed September 2014. http://www.apa.org.

Berkowitz, B., Clark, P. “The Health Hazards of Sitting,” accessed September 2014. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com.

Bland, J., Minich, D. “Personalized Lifestyle Medicine: Relevance for Nutrition and Lifestyle Recommendations,” accessed September 2014. The Scientific World Journal.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Sleep and Chronic Disease,” accessed September 2014. http://www.cdc.gov.

Kushi, L.H. et al. “American Cancer Society Guidelines on nutrition and physical activity for cancer prevention: reducing the risk of cancer with healthy food choices and physical activity,” accessed September 2014. CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians.

Phillip, Abby. “Take a seat. You may be able to reverse the damage to your health,” accessed September 2014. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com.

Tarver, Toni. “The Chronic Disease Food Remedy,” accessed September 2014. Institute of Food Technologists. http://www.ift.org.

About the Author
Melinda Hershey has a bachelor’s degree in health promotion and education and is an ACE-Certified Personal Trainer.

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