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Walking the Line

Is your lifestyle putting you at risk?

Image of wooden blocks spelling out Risk Factor with a blurred image of plants in the background

Could you be one of the six in ten adults living in the United States with at least one chronic health condition? Or are you one of the 40 percent living with at least two or more chronic health conditions? I hope that you fall into neither of these categories. However, I know there is a chance you may.

Therefore, my goal today is to increase your awareness and hopefully inspire you to evaluate or perhaps reevaluate your current lifestyle, so you can decrease your risk of developing or better managing a chronic health condition. Let’s begin by talking about chronic health conditions, because although we may hear the term, we may not fully understand it. 

Chronic Health Conditions

Chronic health conditions can also be called chronic diseases. By definition, they generally last one or more years, require ongoing medical attention, may or may not have a cure, and have the potential to limit your daily activities. Chronic diseases may also be called lifestyle diseases because they often share common lifestyle-related risk factors such as an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, tobacco use, and the harmful use of alcohol.

The list of chronic health conditions is vast and includes arthritis, asthma, dementia, diabetes, diverticulosis, cancer, heart disease, mood disorders, obesity, osteoporosis, and sleep apnea. These and many others are the leading cause of death in disability and account for 90% of the nation’s 4.1 trillion in annual healthcare costs.

What is Lifestyle

Your lifestyle includes any choice or action that influences your life, even in the smallest of ways. Simply put, it’s the way a person lives their life. Some would even say it’s a culmination of our beliefs, values, and daily behaviors and habits.

Now, there are many factors influencing our lifestyle. Let’s look at the simple behavior of eating lunch. Do you take your lunch to work, eat lunch out most days of the week, or simply skip lunch? When you pack your lunch, do you pack and eat fruits and vegetables, do you pack ultra-processed convenience foods, or do you wait and eat a huge meal or snack once you get home? Do you drink water or a high-calorie beverage with your lunch?

When and where you have lunch, and what and how much you eat, will vary daily. However, our choices are influenced by our socioeconomic status, level of education, interpersonal influences of family, and social networks, gender, age, where we live, and our environment. And these are the primary factors influencing our lifestyle choices. Now some of these influencing factors you can change, while others you cannot, which brings us to our next topic, health risk factors.

Health Risk Factors

A health risk factor is a chance or possibility something will harm or otherwise impact your health. The factors you cannot control are called unmodifiable risk factors, which include your age, sex, ethnicity, or genes. No matter how hard you may try, you can never become younger, nor can you change your genetic profile.

However, there are many risk factors you can control. Modifiable risk factors are behaviors that can increase or decrease your risk based on your daily actions. These behaviors are important because many leading causes of death and disease are attributed to unhealthy lifestyle behaviors. Therefore, understanding how lifestyle impacts your risk of developing a chronic health condition such as arthritis, prediabetes, high blood pressure, and stroke is an essential first step in preventing their development.

Health Behaviors and Healthy Habits

Health behaviors or habits are specific actions taken by individuals that strongly influence their health. These actions directly impact the risk of developing a chronic health condition. Regularly seeing your healthcare provider, eating a balanced diet, getting adequate sleep, wearing sun protection, and flossing your teeth are all examples of healthy lifestyle behaviors.

Intentionally including healthy behaviors in your daily life and making them a habit allows you to develop a healthy lifestyle. And the nice thing about creating a healthy lifestyle is that it, just like genetics, can be passed down from generation to generation.

Suppose you were raised in a family that focused on healthy habits, such as getting at least 30 minutes/day of planned physical activity, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and low in saturated fat, and instilled the importance of developing positive relationships with others. Because your family prioritized these behaviors and were intentional in these behaviors, you likely developed similar habits. These habits would likely follow you into adulthood, thus increasing the likelihood you would pass these healthy habits onto your family. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. Being raised in a family that did not prioritize or foster healthy habits would increase the risk of developing chronic health conditions.

Healthy Lifestyle Recommendations

Here are some healthy habits to get you started!

Establish healthy eating habits. Your eating habits are one of the most important modifiable risk factors for developing many chronic health diseases, such as prediabetes, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Following the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and consuming a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins while limiting foods high in added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium are essential steps to reduce your risk of developing chronic health conditions.

Be physically active: Regular physical activity reduces your risk of dementia, depression and anxiety, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. When it comes to physical activity, moving more and sitting less should be your goal. A brisk 30-minute walk at least five days a week has significantly reduced your risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. Tracking your physical activity will help you stay on track and help you meet the physical activity recommendations:

  • 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity
  • 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity
  • Muscle-strengthening at least two days per week

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Maintain a healthy weight: Keeping your weight in a normal range is integral to reducing your risk of developing chronic health conditions such as prediabetes, diabetes, heart disease, joint problems, and sleep apnea. If you are overweight or obese, losing a small amount of weight, 5%-7% of your body weight, can significantly reduce your risk of developing chronic health conditions.

Your risk decreases even more as you continue to reach a healthier weight. However, once you lose weight, it is important to maintain your weight loss because, believe it or not, large body-weight fluctuations will increase your risk of various chronic health conditions. A body-weight fluctuation refers to the repeated loss and regaining of weight within a specific period.

Wherever you are on your wellness journey, I encourage you to keep at it. Start by focusing on a few healthy behaviors, and remember it is a journey, not a destination. Your lifestyle is a culmination of the seconds, hours, days, weeks, months, and years of choices you have made. It’s never too late or too soon to choose differently, so you can live your best life and be a healthier you.

SOURCE: Diane Reinhold, MPH, MS, RDN, Nutrition and Wellness Educator, University of Illinois Extension serving Jo Daviess, Stephenson, and Winnebago Counties.


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