Study suggests fewer people live truly optimal lifestyles than previously thought.

By Liz Steelman
Updated March 22, 2016
Staying active is a vital part of aging well. The average woman can lose 23 percent of her muscle mass between ages of 30 and 70, says Fabio Comana, a faculty instructor at the National Academy of Sports Medicine. You lose muscle more rapidly as you age, but exercise—resistance workouts in particular—can increase mass and strength, even well into your 90s, says Comana. Staying fit may also reduce age-related memory loss, according to a study published in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. Plus, Alzheimer’s disease accounts for approximately 60 to 70 percent of all dementia cases, says Comana, adding that increasing physical activity can decrease this statistic by 25 percent. That’s because exercise strengthens the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with learning.
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You know you live a healthy lifestyle: you’re a non-smoker who eats her fruits and vegetables and drinks water rather than soda. You walk to work and go to barre twice a week. You’re happy with your healthy percentage of body fat. But what you might not know is that makes you part of a very elite club: Americans who truly live the healthy lifestyle that doctors recommend. In fact, according to new research from Oregon State University, only 2.7 percent of U.S. adults live an optimally healthy lifestyle.

For the study, researchers looked at data from 4,745 participants from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Four barometers of healthy behavior were measured: diet, exercise, body fat percentage, and smoking status. Researchers picked these habits because they're often recommended by doctors as basic tenets of healthy living. These markers have also been associated with a lowered risk of many health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.

Rather than relying on self-reported information, the researchers used more sophisticated measuring methods: participants were given accelerometer devices to detect actual movement levels, blood samples were taken to verify smoking status, X-rays were taken to measure body fat, and diet health was measured against the top 40 percent of people who ate foods recommended by the USDA. Researchers also measured “biomarkers” of cardiovascular health, such as blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose levels. Researchers found that the more healthy lifestyle habits a participant incorporated, the better their cardiovascular system looked.

What surprised researchers was how few people practiced all four markers of the ideally healthy life: only 2.7 percent. The biggest group of people—37 percent—had two of the lifestyle makers. Thirty-four percent of people only had one lifestyle habit, 16 percent had three and 11 percent had none.

Women were more likely than men to not smoke and to eat a healthy diet, but they were less likely to get enough exercise. Only 10 percent of all participants had a normal body fat percentage. Does it seem that only gym buffs and vegans live the lives researchers were deeming healthy? Not necessarily. "The behavior standards we were measuring for were pretty reasonable, not super high," Ellen Smit, senior study author, said in a statement. "We weren't looking for marathon runners."

Finding it hard to shed that stubborn body fat and join the 2.7 percent? Not to worry. Those with two or three healthy habits still had healthier cardiovascular systems than those who had one or none. And unlike other elite groups, being healthy isn't exclusive to a set amount of people—anyone can join simply by welcoming new healthy habits to their lifestyle. Looking for small ways to live healthier? Here, eight small steps toward an overall healthier lifestyle and 15 easier ways to become a leaner, healthier you.