Knowing that we should live a healthy lifestyle is different to actually living it.
With so many different opinions on what the right diet and the best foods are, knowing how to be healthy can be very confusing.
For this reason, this article provides a simple list of 20 things that we can do to improve our health.
No special diets or exercise routines required.
Put simply; the more of these things we can adopt, the healthier we will be.
1. Emphasize Whole Foods
It’s no secret that heavily processed foods are bad for us.
Sadly, according to one study, the average American’s diet is comprised of 58% ultra-processed foods (1).
Notably, a systematic review shows that the majority of studies find an association between ultra-processed food consumption and body fat (2).
There are also links with chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cancer when eating higher amounts of these foods (3).
As a result, one of the easiest ways to improve the nutrition we get is to focus on whole food options.
Emphasizing whole foods beats all the quick weight loss plans and it is one of the simplest ways to improve our health.
- Rather than drinking some orange juice, eat a whole orange.
- Replace a hot dog or fast food burger with fresh meat and veggies.
- Instead of snacking on potato chips, opt for nuts, fruit or dark chocolate.
2. Lift Heavy Weights
Being healthy is about more than just the foods we eat.
Resistance training (i.e. lifting heavy things) is one of the best ways to improve various health markers.
However, if you think weightlifting is all about building muscle, then you would be wrong.
For example, several meta-analyses show that resistance training has a range of positive health impacts;
- Moderate-intensity resistance training lowers blood-glucose levels and increases insulin sensitivity; improvements to these health markers lowers the risk for many chronic diseases (4).
- Resistance training lowers blood pressure and lowers the risk of mortality from heart disease and stroke in metabolic syndrome patients (5).
- Studies suggest that resistance training also improves personal body satisfaction, body image, and social physique anxiety (6).
To maximize the benefits, try to emphasize whole-body exercises (such as squats and deadlifts).
High-intensity interval training is also an excellent way to improve health.
3. Read Food Labels
Knowing how to be healthy is about understanding which foods are healthful and which are detrimental.
While some people can naturally recognize whether a particular food supports health or not, others find it difficult.
For this reason, if buying packaged foods, it’s important to read the labels if you’re not sure about the ingredients.
Often, the front of the package will be full of meaningless labels such as “natural!” and “whole grains!”
However, when you look at the ingredients, you will often find that the product is 95% sugar, wheat flour, and oil.
In other words; the product packaging is just marketing, and the nutrition information is where the facts are.
4. Maintain a Healthy Weight
Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most critical factors for our overall health.
In particular, visceral adipose tissue (organ-surrounding fat below the skin) is believed to be a causative culprit in metabolic syndrome.
Metabolic syndrome refers to the cluster of conditions that lead to type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (7).
For one thing, visceral fat secretes substances, known as ‘pro-inflammatory cytokines’, which encourage low-level systematic inflammation. Over the longer term, chronic inflammation has links to many diseases (8).
While weight gain and obesity are sometimes related to hormones and medical conditions, they are predominantly due to a poor lifestyle.
Watching total food intake, reducing consumption of refined carbs, sugars, and isolated fats (especially vegetable oils) can all help with weight loss.
Additionally, implementing an exercise program alongside a healthy diet can be beneficial. Although diet is the single most crucial factor, systematic reviews show that exercise plays a vital role in reducing visceral fat (9, 10).
5. Avoid/Restrict Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates
Sugar and refined carbohydrates are prevalent in modern diets.
Perhaps if people were consuming a teaspoon of sugar in their coffee, there would be nothing to worry about.
However, the average adult in the United States consumes approximately 82 grams of sugar (20 teaspoons) per day (11).
It is likely that such an intake contributes to various health problems. For instance, a recent meta-analysis of 39 studies showed that sugar worsened blood pressure and cholesterol profiles independently of any effect on weight (12).
Sugar is a problem, but it isn’t the only one; people are also consuming vast amounts of wheat flour and other refined carbs.
These foods offer virtually nothing in terms of vitamins and minerals, they may harm our gut health, and they have links to various health problems.
6. Drink Enough Water
A simple but sometimes neglected way to be healthy is to ensure adequate hydration.
Some people live on soda and fruit juice, and others fill their day with coffee.
While there is nothing wrong with enjoying coffee and tea, the optimal drink for our body is water.
Not drinking enough water can lead to dehydration and a range of related problems, such as constipation and electrolyte imbalances (13).
How much should we drink?
There is no real evidence supporting a specific universal water consumption for every individual.
That said, we can often hear advice to drink eight glasses of water per day. This figure is probably reasonable, but in truth, our body has an excellent system to modulate our water intake.
If you feel slightly thirsty, it is your body’s way of telling you to drink some more water.
It’s probably a good idea to listen to it.
7. Cook Dinner At Home
Over the past century, there has been a rapid decline in home cooking.
The simple fact is that people are more likely to eat healthier at home than they do when they eat out.
Specifically, home cooked dinners are associated with an overall healthier dietary pattern for a lower expenditure (14).
Unfortunately, people are eating out more than ever these days. As a result, emphasizing more home cooking is a good way to get healthier.
The key is that if you cook at home, you can control the ingredients you eat.
For example, restaurants often use cheap cooking oils which are not supportive of good health.
8. Adopt a Healthy Sleeping Pattern
It is always surprising how many people know the importance of sleep, yet totally neglect it.
It isn’t unusual to see intelligent people who invest a tremendous amount of effort into a healthy diet and exercise routine, yet continue with terrible sleeping habits.
And for those that are unaware, poor sleep doesn’t just cause tiredness; it can cause all sorts of health problems.
Markedly, studies suggest that lack of sleep leads to an impaired ability to regulate blood glucose and increases insulin resistance. Furthermore, sleep-deprived adolescents have a larger waist circumference than those getting adequate rest (15, 16).
Additionally, a recent meta-analysis found that poor sleep is associated with higher levels of CRP (a marker of inflammation) (17).
Chronic low-level inflammation is key to the etiology of many chronic diseases, so this demonstrates just how important sleep is.
9. Strive For An Active Lifestyle (Don’t Be Sedentary)
We’re always being told to move more, and this is some advice that we should listen to. Significantly, leading an active lifestyle with lots of movement positively affects a wide range of health markers.
The more active we are, the more control we have over blood glucose and insulin levels.
However, this doesn’t mean that we have to be active all the time, and a reasonable amount of sedentary time appears to be okay.
For example, a recent meta-analysis of nine studies featuring 720,425 participants found that sedentary time increases cardiovascular risk only at very high levels – more than 10 hours of sedentary time per day (20).
Fortunately, getting some active time into the day doesn’t have to be too hard.
Making time for simple, healthy habits such as taking a walk or going for a 10-minute run may require some planning, but they are essential for our health.
10. Ideally Avoid (Or Limit) From Trans Fat and Vegetable Oils
Due to the decades-long demonization of dietary fat by the media, many people needlessly restricted fat.
However, one specific fat has evidence of harm behind it; trans fats. Rigorous trials and systematic reviews demonstrate that trans fat is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease (21, 22).
Trans fats tend to be found in fast food, donuts, cookies, and other such snacks with a long shelf-life.
Furthermore, there is evidence that “vegetable” oils such as soybean oil, sunflower oil, and canola are prone to oxidation and release toxic compounds when heated.
11. Know the Importance of Carbohydrate Quality
Low carb diets are trendy in recent times, and I’m a fan of them myself.
However, sometimes we can see misinformation and fear-mongering about specific sources of carbs.
Unquestionably, reducing our intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates is only a positive thing for our health. However, science doesn’t support the idea that all carbohydrates (i.e. fruit and vegetables) are unhealthy.
There are no rigorous, systematic studies showing that fruit and vegetables are harmful. In fact, the large-scale PURE study, which itself is supportive of low-carb diets, found that people with the highest fruit intake had the lowest cardiovascular risk (25).
For those on higher carb diets, the importance of carbohydrate quality matters even more. Focusing on fibrous carbohydrate is a much healthier way of living than subsisting on the ultra-processed grain products that dominate the Western diet.
That is presuming that you don’t over-consume it.
12. Make Time For Hobbies and Things You Enjoy
As the saying goes, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
While work is vital in our lives, we need to make time for the activities we enjoy.
These could be as simple as playing a sport, pursuing a new hobby, having a wine and cheese night with friends, or visiting some new places.
Should someone feel stressed, even making a list of things to look forward to can provide some relief.
For those who enjoy the countryside, there is also evidence that being in nature and surrounded by green scenery reduces stress levels (28).
13. Red Meat Is An Important Source of Nutrition
Red meat is one of the most nutrient-dense food sources in our diet.
For instance, meat is a significant dietary source of B vitamins, iron, zinc, protein and the ‘master antioxidant’ glutathione (29).
Due to fears over the health effects of red meat, our intake has been plummeting over recent years. However, many of the concerns about red meat are overplayed.
For instance, the negative studies we often hear reported are from epidemiology, which refers to observational studies on the general population. Often, these studies don’t differentiate between a piece of steak and a cheeseburger with fries and cola.
On the other hand, clinical studies showing the harms of red meat seem limited.
On this note, a recent systematic review of 25 randomized, controlled trials demonstrated that greater consumption of red meat had no adverse effect on cardiovascular risk factors (30).
14. Eat Oily Fish For Omega-3
In modern times, most people are consuming limited amounts of oily fish.
In fact, most of the fats we eat now come from omega-6 rich vegetable oils. Although omega-6 is an essential fatty acid (EFA), some researchers believe that excessive intake could be pro-inflammatory (31).
Omega-3, on the other hand, plays an anti-inflammatory role in the body. Some studies show that a higher level of omega-6 and a lower level of omega-3 in our cells may predispose us to inflammatory diseases and even depression (32, 33).
Whether this is a matter of simply increasing omega-3 intake or balancing omega-6 and omega-3 is less clear.
Either way, the most reliable and bio-available form of omega-3 is oily fish.
Some great options that are high in omega-3 and low in mercury contamination include the following species;
15. Eat Foods Rich in Phytonutrients
Foods rich in phytonutrients such as berries, cocoa, coffee and green tea offer a range of health benefits.
However, it is important to dispel the myth that they act directly as antioxidants.
Although studies don’t support a role as an antioxidant, phytonutrients do appear to promote good health through other mechanisms.
More research is necessary on the exact mechanisms of how polyphenols may work, but we do know that they have specific benefits. For example, randomized controlled trials show beneficial effects such as reduced blood pressure and lower levels of inflammation (36, 37).
Researchers hypothesize that polyphenols and other phytonutrients may influence signaling pathways related to inflammation (36).
Also, consuming foods high in vitamins and minerals is one of the best ways to improve health, and phytonutrient-rich foods are often very nutrient-dense.
16. Don’t Eat Too Much (Or Too Little) Salt
Firstly, higher salt intake does trend with increases in blood pressure. But notably, this is not always in a linear fashion;
As we can see in the above graph, some people eating large amounts of salt may have very low blood pressure, and vice-versa.
The reason for this is that there are so many confounders to consider. For instance, some people are “salt sensitive”, which means that high salt consumption can dramatically raise blood pressure. Other factors such as BMI, sugar intake, stress, and genetics all play a contributory role in blood pressure (37, 38, 39).
Despite this, much of the media attention is on restricting salt, and it is easy to get the impression that we should just avoid it altogether.
This isn’t true though; salt is an essential electrolyte and consuming too little may also be problematic. For instance, some studies show that excessive and insufficient sodium intake might increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (40).
An easy tip for healthier salt intake is to restrict ultra-processed foods, which are the predominant source of salt in most peoples diets.
Instead, salting homemade food to taste is an easy way to get an adequate, but not an excessive amount.
Additionally, the sodium-potassium ratio is very important for regulating blood pressure. Research shows that increasing dietary potassium intake often lowers blood pressure.
17. Enjoy Social Occasions and Relationships
Humans are social creatures.
Therefore, it comes as no surprise that supportive social and family relationships are essential to our overall health.
Close relationships in our lives don’t only provide interactions and shared experiences, but they also improve activity levels, health behaviors, and even lower mortality risk (41).
On the contrary, loneliness has strong links to depression, elevated blood pressure, and increased mortality (42).
Think of the best memories in your life – were you alone at the time?
18. Eat More Protein
One of the major steps to better health is to reduce the consumption of refined carbohydrates and isolated fats.
Replacing these with whole food options that include protein could help us to be more healthy.
Protein is also involved in dozens of processes in the body, helping to build and repair our bones, cartilage, skin, and muscles.
Compared to sources of carbohydrate and fat, protein tends to be extraordinarily nutrient-dense and offers far more nutrients per calorie.
Despite this, there is a misplaced fear that it is easy to consume “too much” protein.
However, a recent study shows that a daily protein intake of over 3 grams per kilogram of body weight, for a period of one-year, improves lean mass. This higher intake also did not negatively impact any markers of health (45).
19. Get Enough Sunlight For Vitamin D
There is a tendency for many people to avoid the sun, born out of fears over aging skin and skin cancer.
While we should always take care not to burn, sunlight is crucial for human life.
The sun provides vitamin D, an impressive “vitamin” that is more of a hormone.
Markedly, higher circulating levels of vitamin D are associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and several cancers. Additionally, those with more vitamin D in their blood have better outcomes from these conditions (46, 47).
Vitamin D researchers suggest up to 30 minutes of sun exposure between 10 a.m and 3 p.m at least twice a week.
20. Eat More Healthy Fats
In recent times the fear of fat is gradually subsiding, and fat is firmly back on the menu.
Fat plays an assortment of roles in the body, and it is involved in immunity, cellular signaling, hormone production, and nutrient absorption.
As part of a healthy eating pattern, fish, nuts, avocados, olives, seeds, dairy, and meat all offer useful sources of dietary fat.
While no intervention guarantees good health, it is important to understand how diet and overall lifestyle affects our body.
There are many ways to improve our health, and the ideas listed in this article offer simple first steps to a healthier life.