You are free to live your life in the style you choose. You can eat what you want, drink what you like, live where you want to live, work wherever they'll hire you. (After all, the pursuit of happiness is the American way.) However, although your lifestyle choices may not affect anyone else, you may (consciously or unconsciously) be writing the conclusion to your own life.
Many life-threatening diseases -- including heart disease, emphysema, stroke, and certain forms of cancer -- are linked to lifestyle factors. In other words, these illnesses are partly caused by poor eating habits, tobacco use, a lack of physical activity, and so on.
These diseases are largely preventable. You play a large role in reducing your risk of developing them. If you really want to keep tabs on your health, start by taking stock of your lifestyle. Are any of the following habits part of your routine?
Smoking. Perhaps the most damaging lifestyle choice you can make is to smoke cigarettes. Smoking is the most preventable cause of illness and death in the United States.
Aside from commonly known health repercussions of smoking (lung cancer, emphysema, and other respiratory diseases), cigarette smoking or second-hand smoke has also been implicated in skin cancer, ulcers, bronchitis, sudden infant death syndrome, ear infections, and strokes.
Smoking also affects your health in more indirect ways. For example, heavy smokers often have a hard time breathing deeply. For this reason, they may engage in less physical activity. A sedentary lifestyle can lead to other problems, including osteoporosis, obesity, low energy, and an impaired immune system.
Of the 4,000 or so chemicals in tobacco smoke, 200 are known to be poisonous to human beings. Carbon monoxide, tar, and nicotine are the three most dangerous. Carbon monoxide decreases the amount of oxygen that your red blood cells can carry. Tar coats and clogs up the lungs and carries known carcinogens. Nicotine -- the addictive agent in cigarette smoke -- affects the cardiovascular and nervous systems.
Alcohol abuse. The most popular and accepted drug in America is alcohol. Its abuse can affect almost every system in the body. As a result, heavy drinkers often begin a gradual downward cycle, in which their bodies begin to degenerate slowly.
The liver, of course, is most vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. Cirrhosis -- or chronic inflammation -- of the liver occurs in about 20 percent of all heavy drinkers. Heavy drinking is also thought to contribute to high blood pressure, which is a leading risk factor for strokes. Other possible physical manifestations of alcohol abuse include trembling hands, chronic gastrointestinal problems, and easy bruising.
Heavy drinking and alcoholism can also take a toll on your emotional health and your relationships. Many people, when drunk, become physically or verbally abusive and are not in control of their actions.
Alcoholism is an illness. In fact, like heart disease or diabetes, alcoholism tends to run in families. For this reason, if your mother, father, grandparents, or aunts and uncles suffered from alcoholism, it would be wise for you to be very prudent about your own drinking.
How much drinking is considered "heavy"? Since everyone has a different tolerance to the effects of alcohol, there is no real answer to this question. In general, it is advised that males have no more than two drinks per day and females and persons over age 65 have no more than one drink per day.
Risky sexual behavior. It's gotten enough publicity that you're probably aware of it, but it never hurts to restate the obvious: Having unprotected sex with an individual who carries a sexually transmitted infection or disease (such as hepatitis B or HIV) can be fatal.
What is unprotected sex? Sexual or genital-to-genital contact without a latex or polyurethane condom or barrier, such as a dental dam. This includes traditional sexual intercourse, anal intercourse, oral contact with the sexual organs or anus, or any activity that brings an individual in contact with an open sore or lesion (such as a genital wart or cold sore).
How do you know if you're with an infected individual? Frankly, you don't. Viruses and other organisms that cause sexually transmitted infections are not selective, and anyone who has had sex can be infected. In other words, moral convictions and personal habits aside, the only way to know if you have been exposed to a sexually transmitted infection is to get tested. Early detection will allow you to get early treatment. Also, early detection will help you protect those you love.
Your activity level. Regular exercise confers many health benefits:
- Building lean body mass (which helps prevent obesity)
- Preserving bone density (which helps stave off osteoporosis)
- Improving the ratio of "bad" low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL) to "good" high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL) in the blood (which can help prevent heart disease)
- Reducing blood pressure
- Reducing resting heart rate
- Increasing energy and vigor
- Improving sleep
- Alleviating mild stress or depression
How much exercise do you need to stay healthy? In general, you should engage in at least 30 minutes of a moderately intense physical activity, such as a brisk walk, on most days of the week. To help manage weight and prevent gradual, unhealthy weight gain in adulthood, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 recommends 60 minutes of moderately to vigorously intense physical activity while not exceeding your caloric intake needs.
Your diet. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2005 offer the following recommendations:
- Consume a variety of nutrient-dense foods and beverages within and among the basic food groups while choosing foods that limit the intake of saturated and trans fats, cholesterol, added sugars, salt, and alcohol.
- Find your balance between the calories you get from foods and beverages and the calories you expend each day. Meet recommended intakes within energy needs by adopting a balanced eating plan, such as a custom one for you from MyPyramid.gov -- Steps to a Healthier You or the DASH Eating Plan. For more information about eating plans, visit www.choosemyplate.gov.
- Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. Select from all five vegetable subgroups (dark green, orange, legumes, starchy vegetables, and other vegetables) several times a week.
- Eat three or more ounce-equivalents of whole-grain products per day.
- When selecting and preparing meat, poultry, and dry beans, make choices that are lean, low fat, or fat free.
- Consume about three cups of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products per day.
- Keep total fat intake between 20 and 35 percent of calories, with most fats coming from sources of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids, such as fish, nuts, and vegetable oils.
- Moderate your intake of salt, sugar, and processed foods.
There are many things you can do, and many more things you can avoid, to keep yourself in tip-top health. Vist the links below for more information.
- A good way to spot early warning signs and potential problems is to perform regular self diagnostics. Learn more in How to Administer Self-Exams.
- Secondhand smoke can be hazardous to your health. To learn about the risks, visit How Secondhand Smoke Works.
- Excessive alcohol intake can cause liver damage, ulcers, high blood pressure, and other long-term ailments. Learn more in How Alcohol Works.
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.