Setting Long-term Health Priorities: The Three And Half Things You Need to Know

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Whether you’re worried about high blood pressure or diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis or heart disease, there are just four steps you need to significantly cut your risk and improve your health.  (For reasons I explain below, I like to think of them as just three and half steps.)

Step one: Stop smoking. One out of five Americans still smoke, even though smoking results in over 44,000 deaths per year, according to the National Cancer Institute,  and contributes to countless chronic illnesses. It’s understandable: nicotine is incredibly addictive. If you do smoke — even as few as 100 cigarettes over a lifetime — make quitting your first priority.

Step two: Eat five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. A serving is the size of a tennis ball, so a big green salad for lunch or dinner will help knock out 2 or 3 servings in one sitting. On the program this morning, Celeste talked about the importance of fresh produce. While fresh is great, what’s most important is getting in these servings any way you can. If that means canned, frozen, or dried, that’s ok, too. In fact, a study from UC Davis found that fresh, frozen, and canned vegetables all had similar amounts of nutrients.

Step three: exercise for thirty minutes a day. You don’t have to do it all at once: a new study shows that just ten minute bursts result in an hour of metabolic benefits.

Step four: maintain a healthy BMI. Here’s where the half comes in. As I said on the show, the above three steps are action items: specific healthy changes you can make right away. This last step seems like a result — a potential outcome of some of these steps.  It’s also, as Dr. Price says, not a prerequisite to health. Many people find that they eat well, exercise, but still have a high BMI. So in my mind, the top three items should be the focus of any health priorities.

But depending on what stage in life you’re in, there are other steps needed to optimize health. This week, NEWSWEEK devotes a special double issue to healthy living at any age. For each of the groups listed below, we’ve compiled both the necessary medical tests and health goals, as well as a reasoned look at the biggest health controversies for each life stage. 

  • For babies under two tips include: Tooth brushing twice a day is essential as soon as the first teeth begin erupting. Parents should also start weaning children off pacifiers at age 1.
  • For children aged 2 to 12 tips include: Parents often misclassify their child's weight status. Between the ages of 3 and 8, children naturally tend to slim out, says Dr. Eliana Perrin, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; some parents mistakenly think they need to be fattened up.
  • From 13-18 tips include: Get a meningitis vaccine, if you haven't already, before going to college,
  • From 19-34 tips include: In 2000 alone, six preventable deaths occurred each day among adults ages 25—34 due to lack of insurance.
  • From 35-49, tips include: If you're a woman, your bone density peaked at 30, so the CDC says you should get 1,000mg of calcium per day.
  • From 50-65 tips include: At this stage in life, risk for gum disease has increased. As a result, flossing is especially important. Keep brushing twice a day and go to the dentist regularly (at least every six months).
  • For those over 65, tips include: The USTPF recommends an ultrasound test for abdominal aortic aneurysm (an abnormally large or swollen blood vessel in your abdomen) for men between the ages of 65 and 75 who have ever smoked.

Those are just a few suggestions; a full look at the health needs of each age group can be found by following the links. Need some inspiration when setting these long-term goals? Visit our gallery of Super Seniors, photos of record-setting elders who have defied expectations.

Kate Dailey is the health and lifestyle editor for Visit her blog for a take on how health journalism can unintentionally exclude numerous readers. (