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).

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.
See All Posts By The Author