It seems like every health-related news story comes down to, “If you maintain healthy habits, you can decrease your risk of fill-in-the-blank.”
But we all know that it is so much harder to do than to say. I’m with you: I love chili cheese fries and hate running (though I like other exercise). I love a glass of wine with dinner and a cocktail at a restaurant or a party. I know how hard it is to keep a healthy weight: I gained more than 50 pounds during five years of hormone therapy for breast cancer and am now off the drug, down 15 pounds and really working to get rid of the rest. Losing weight takes daily commitment and effort and willpower.
But if you need more reasons to try to be healthier, a study came out recently saying that doing just four things can cut your cancer risk by 20 to 40 percent, and can cut your risk of dying from cancer by 50 percent.
So here are the four things. There aren’t really surprises, the study just gives us more reasons to do them:
1) Don’t Smoke.
If you’ve never smoked, obviously that’s best. But even if you are a smoker, quitting now is better than never quitting at all. The study notes that 80 to 90 percent of lung cancer deaths could be avoided if everyone quit smoking. I’ve never smoked; my grandfather let me try his chewing tobacco when I was 10 and that put me off tobacco forever. But I have dear friends who struggled for years to finally quit. My stepdaughter smoked only for a few years -and just when she went out with friends. Still, it took a year’s effort for her to really quit. I know quitting can be hard - but it’s worth it.
You don’t have to live at the gym or train for a triathlon. Just move. Take the elevator not the stairs. Organize a walk with friends. Do some weeding or raking in the garden. The study recommends a weekly minimum of either 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (brisk walking, ballroom dancing, water aerobics) or 75 minutes of high-intensity exercise (intense enough that you can’t talk while doing it). I have been active my whole life, but there are still times when I just don’t want to get my workout gear on. I find that setting a schedule, putting it in my calendar and sticking to it works best for me. If you make one exception, you’ll make another.
3) If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation.
Research tells us that the health-effects of alcohol are a mixed bag: one drink a day can cut the risk of cardiovascular disease, but even this small amount may increase the risk of breast cancer. The study authors suggest talking it over with your doctor and keeping moderation in mind.
Of course, in our “supersize” society, it’s difficult to remember what moderate means. In this context, it’s two drinks per day for men, and one per day for women. A bottle of wine has five servings. Just one shot of hard liquor has 1.5 servings.
I keep my alcohol in check by strictly limiting my drinking to weekends only, and sometimes only one weekend day. This rule has not only helped me be more productive, it’s also helped my weight loss efforts.
4) Keep a healthy weight.
Just like alcohol, this one is tricky. Officially it means keeping a “body mass index” (BMI) between 18.5 and 27.5. But BMI has been criticized (here, here and many other places) as being a flawed and inexact way to determine healthy weight.
Let’s be honest though: Deep down, you know if you’re overweight. During my recent gains, I might have ignored my muffin top and my too-tight dresses, but I knew what was going on.
Don’t despair. The study authors say that even a 5 percent drop in your weight can have enormous benefits. By that measure, I’m more than good with the 15 pounds I’ve lost so far. I hope I can lose the rest, but even if I don’t, I’ve done myself some good.
If doing all four of these things seems overwhelming, then pick one and add the others gradually. You’ll only do yourself good.