Healthy Living Reality Check

Healthy lifestyle may depend on seeing your own lifestyle choices clearly

(RxWiki News) The rules of healthy living seem simple: don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, exercise often and keep a healthy body weight. But do people really know if they are on the right track?

Researchers recently asked people about their diet, body weight, exercise and smoking habits. Many people in the study did not realize they had unhealthy habits.

As many as 72 percent of participants thought they were following the rules when they were not. And many people who had healthy habits were still worried that their habits might affect their health.

The authors suggested that people may be better able to make changes in their behavior if they have a good understanding of how healthy their habits really are.

"Ask a doctor about ways to improve your healthy habits."

Past research has shown that people who are worried about their health are more apt to make positive changes to improve health. So the researchers, led by Anne W. Taylor, PhD, of the Population Research and Outcome Studies at the University of Adelaide in Australia, wanted to find out how much people knew about their own health habits and how much they worried about their lifestyle.

The researchers surveyed 3,001 adults about lifestyle factors that affect health. They asked people in the study about smoking, eating fruits and vegetables, drinking alcohol, body weight and psychological distress.

Researchers asked people in the study how they felt about their own health habits. They asked questions like: "Do you think you are a healthy weight?," and, "Do you think you eat enough fruits and vegetables each day?"

People in the study also rated which of their habits caused them to worry about their own health. Then the researchers asked questions to find out exactly how well people were keeping to a healthy lifestyle. Each person reported on weekly amount of exercise, weekly amount of alcohol intake, diet and body weight.

The study found that people’s beliefs about their habits did not always line up with their actual behaviors.

A total of 44 percent of participants who did not have a healthy body weight thought that they were in a healthy range.

When participants were asked if they ate the recommended amount of fruits and veggies each day, 72.9 percent thought they were eating enough when they were not.

About one third of the participants thought they were drinking healthy amounts of alcohol when they were actually drinking more than is recommended.

Also, 25.9 percent of the participants who did not exercise regularly said they felt they were getting enough exercise.

The authors concluded some people did not know if their habits were healthy or not. If people thought they were doing ok, then they were less likely to improve their healthy living.

Since people who are worried about their health are more likely to change their behaviors, the researchers then asked: how many people who think they have unhealthy habits are actually worried about it?

For smoking, body weight, diet, exercise and psychological distress, 70 to 90 percent of people who thought their behavior was unhealthy also said they were worried about how their behavior affected their health.

With regards to alcohol intake, only 48 percent of participants who thought their behavior was unhealthy were worried about their alcohol habits.

However, some people who were living healthily were still worried about their health. Between 40 and 90 percent of participants who had a healthy level of these behaviors were also worried about how their health would be affected.

For example, about 40 percent of participants who had a healthy body weight were still worried about their weight. In addition, about 98 percent of people who ate enough fruits and veggies were worried about whether or not their diet was healthy.

The authors concluded that most participants worried about behaviors they thought were unhealthy, and many people who were worried about their behaviors actually had healthy behaviors.

Overall, the authors said that many people did not view their own behaviors clearly. Some people did not realize they could improve. Some people continued to worry when they were doing well.

The authors said that this study highlights the need to help people understand their own lifestyle before trying to convince them to change their habits.

This study was published February 8 in BMC Public Health. The study was funded by a Department of Health and Ageing Sharing Care Health Initiative Grant. The authors declared no competing interests.

Review Date: 
February 15, 2013