The Secret to Good Health – Listen to the Data

A recent study proved what we all already know… that healthy living really does improve long-term health. A lot. The US-based study found that not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight (BMI <30), exercising regularly (3.5 hours/week) and eating a balanced diet (high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, low in meat) reduced the risk of developing chronic disease by nearly 80% over the course of the study. 80%! Just imagined if a new drug promised an 80% reduction in chronic diseases — it would be a wonder drug! People would be beating a path to their primary care providers, demanding a prescription. Shareholders in the manufacturers would never have to work again!

But, such a remedy is readily available to everyone. It costs relatively little. It isn’t particularly complicated to follow. And yet, so few of us choose to take it. Certainly, the advice could hardly be described as exciting or (for most of us) fun, but surely it’s not that difficult to follow, is it? So, why are we so reluctant to do what is so obviously good for us?

One train of thought is that while we understand intellectual arguments perfectly well in our heads, our “gut,” which largely drives our behavior, just doesn’t get it. Our gut instinct is great for getting us out of immediate trouble — the fight or flight mechanism. But it is not so good at assessing long-term risk, and modifying behavior accordingly. It is for this reason that we tend to ignore hard data that should clearly direct our behavior in one way, while we react to risks that are intellectually indefensible.

The media is full of stories that terrify us — air crashes, child abductions and knife crime. Yet, the risk of suffering from any of these is, mercifully, actually quite small. If we really examined the data, we would see that, the risk of death from driving 1,150 km (the distance of the average nonstop flight in the US) is about 65 times that from flying the same difference. Still, but we don’t think twice about jumping in the car. On average, 36,000 Americans are killed each year by flu and its related complications. But unless this happens to be “swine flu” or “bird flu,” we don’t take too much notice. And, obesity is thought to be responsible for the deaths of around 100,000 people per year in the States.

Which brings us back to healthy living… The evidence demonstrating the benefit of a health lifestyle is overwhelming. The risk of developing a chronic disease through obesity is much greater than many of the dangers we routinely panic about. We all know what we should do, we know how we should do it, now it is just a matter of persuading our gut to listen to our head.


Ford, E., Bergmann, M., Kroger, J., Schienkiewitz, A., Weikert, C., & Boeing, H. (2009). Healthy Living Is the Best Revenge: Findings From the European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition-Potsdam Study Archives of Internal Medicine, 169 (15), 1355-1362 DOI: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.237

Gardner D. Risk. The science and politics of fear. (London: Virgin Publishing, 2008).

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  • Any tips on making our gut listen? 😉

    • AW

      I managed to manipulate my gut into thinking that healthy living is worthwhile by using the language it understands best…fear.

      Watch documentaries about old age, listen to interviews from the ailing, see people with chronic conditions. Imagine yourself in their shoes. Think of your suffering. It’ll scare the crap out your gut and motivate you to take action. Everyday, make a conscious effort to remind yourself of and relive that fear. It keeps your gut scared and stressed. The only way to relieve that stress is to take action. Problem solved.

      If fear has the power to make people not vaccinate their kids, it also the power make you live healthy.

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  • kemmer

    You know what my gut listens to? In-n-out double doubles and chocolate milkshakes.

  • This is truly a shocker, haha!

  • This is where hypnotherapy comes in. It helps to bridge the connection between mind and body to motivate you to choose a healthier lifestyle.

    Health is all about making different choices. Hypnosis helps you make them and stick with them.

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  • This is truly an eye-opener! Yes, you are right, it pays to be healthy. Good health are one of the things that money can’ t buy. In fact, like the old saying goes “Health is Wealth”. So, I’m going to think twice now on what I eat and drink. Oh, that means saying goodbye to french fries, pizza, milkshakes, ice cream and a whole lot more, and saying hello to exercise and nutritious food!!! ?

    Be Healthy


    This is the wright saying that health is wealth, so if we prevent ourselves form the various worst addictions and having good food,we can increase our lifespan.

  • caia

    Saying that a diet with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and 3.5 hours exercise a week are readily available to everyone is a statement rife with class and ableist/healthy privilege.

    Healthy foods may cost “relatively little”, but it’s been shown time and time again that unhealthy foods are cheapest per calorie. In a time when one in nine Americans faces food insecurity (read: hunger), this is not a minor consideration for many.

    As for exercise, not only is 3.5 hours time that people working multiple jobs cannot spare without costing themselves needed sleep (also necessary for healthy), it’s not feasible or even safe for people with a variety of debilitating chronic illnesses.

  • kunal mahale

    yes , i really like it. isuggest everyone to be fit and healthy.

  • bruce anderson

    In December we had the findings that suggested we not have mammograms if we are forty-to-fifty unless you and your doctor concur that there is reason to warrant the procedure. Now we are told to limit our exposure to PSA tests. Both of these represent data and both examples overide popular opinion. In the ‘Comments’ justification for exigency exists. And this is understood, if you really are absolutely broke. But if McDonalds is your idea of food, deep down, convincing your kids that we will go to McD’s for them as a reward suggests that your feeding your inner child. Having been exposed recently to thoughts about our ‘second brain’ it’s no wonder that data cannot make a dent in the popular psyche; whereas, a coomercial that suggests that Olypian competitors thrive on McNuggets makes all the sense in the world. Makes you wonder, particularly about ‘education.’

Rachel Danks, PhD

Rachel Danks, PhD, is a freelance medical writer and editor with over 12 years of experience in the field. She has written and edited numerous academic papers, and is experienced in preparing marketing materials, educational resources and regulatory documents. Her clients include medical education groups, advertising agencies, pharmaceutical companies and academic institutions.

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