New research from Harvard University found following these five habits could extend the years—and quality—of your life.

Lauren Wicks
January 09, 2020

By now, you probably already know that your diet and lifestyle can impact your risk for chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, diabetes and more. But a brand-new study from Harvard University shows just how much of an impact our daily choices can have on our health and longevity.

This new study, published in BMJ, analyzed 34 years of data from over 110,000 adults who participated in the Nurses' Health and Health Professionals Follow-Up studies. The researchers found, on average, that the middle-aged participants who followed healthy lifestyle habits increased the number of years they lived without chronic disease, as well as their overall life expectancy.

Related: These 5 Healthy Habits Could Help You Live to 100, According to a Longevity Expert

"Previous studies have found that following a healthy lifestyle improves overall life expectancy and reduces risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, but few studies have looked at the effects of lifestyle factors on life expectancy free from such diseases," said lead author Yanping Li in a press release. "This study provides strong evidence that following a healthy lifestyle can substantially extend the years a person lives disease-free."

These lifestyle habits were: following a healthy diet, engaging in regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, drinking in moderation and not smoking. A healthy diet was defined by the Alternate Healthy Eating Index, which is similar to the Mediterranean Diet, placing an emphasis on whole, plant-based foods, fish, heart-healthy fats and whole grains, while limiting consumption of red meat, highly processed foods and sugar-sweetened beverages.

Regular exercise was defined as at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each day, while a healthy weight was defined as a body mass index of 18.5-24.9. And moderate alcohol intake followed the current recommendation of up to one serving per day for women and up to two for men.

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Women who followed four or five of these lifestyle behaviors experienced 10 more disease-free years, compared to those who didn't practice any on a regular basis. Men who exhibited four or five of these behaviors lived nearly seven years longer than those who didn't practice any on a regular basis. Men who were current heavy smokers and women who were in the obesity range for BMI were the most likely to have the shortest number of disease-free years.

Related: This 108-Year-Old Woman Says Champagne Is the Secret to Longevity—Here's What the Science Says

"Given the high cost of chronic disease treatment, public policies to promote a healthy lifestyle by improving food and physical environments would help to reduce health care costs and improve quality of life," said senior author Frank Hu, chair of Harvard University's Department of Nutrition.

The Bottom Line

Overall, these habits are great lifestyle behaviors to start practicing now—no matter your age. However, while eating more veggies, exercising, watching your alcohol consumption and not smoking are all goals to strive for, science shows that the body mass index is outdated and there are many healthy people who live outside of this range.

"BMI isn't really a helpful measurement of how healthy someone is," says EatingWell's Senior Digital Nutrition Editor Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D. "It looks at one's height and weight but that's it, and that's not really enough data to say anything conclusively."

Valente says while BMI is an easy way for researchers to analyze a person, it's just a number and doesn't take into account that plenty of people in larger bodies have other amazing numbers, like cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose. She also noted that plenty of people with "healthy" BMIs may not be any healthier and could be engaging in unhealthy methods to maintain their weight.

Related: 17 Research-Backed Habits That Could Help You Live to Be 100

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