A recent study out of Harvard can finally quantify exactly what healthy living is likely to do for you.

The study, encompassing over 123,000 participants and spanning 34 years, makes some stunning connections between five healthy habits and longevity. The habits tracked include healthy eating, regular exercise, maintaining a low BMI, moderate alcohol intake, and not smoking.

The study found that participants who adopted all five healthy habits gained well over a decade of additional life expectancy—14 years on average for women and 12 years for men—compared to those who adopted none of them. Specifically, the two biggest killers in the US — cardiovascular disease and cancer — were 82% and 65% less likely to claim these healthy participants, respectively. Let’s look at each of these habits in turn.

Healthy Eating

It’s always a trick defining what “healthy eating” means. This study followed these guidelines and defined the top 40% of adherents as “healthy.”

I’d agree that most of the recommendations listed are good rules of thumb to follow, as they focus on whole and unprocessed foods, though the diet makes no mention of additional processed foods which might contaminate their otherwise good recommendations. To take it a step further, here’s what I’d recommend as a basic guideline for healthy eating.


This study defined “exercise” as “at least 30 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous physical activity.” According to this additional study, 30-40 minutes of jogging five days per week can make your body effectively nine years younger (determined by the length of telomeres, a part of our chromosomes, and the closest thing we have to an actual biological clock.)

If you’re interested in beginning an exercise routine, here are some recommendations.

Maintaining a Low BMI

The first two contribute to this as well, of course. A healthy BMI ranges from 18.5-24.9. A BMI over 25 is considered overweight, and is one of the hallmarks of Metabolic Syndrome, which carries with it a host of other risk factors.

Specifically, it’s important to lose inches around the middle. This study indicates an inverse correlation between waist circumference and risk for coronary heart disease. Larger waist circumference also increases risk for cancer.

Alcohol Intake

While we all know that binge drinking is associated with liver disease and a host of other ailments, it turns out that a glass of wine or two per day (one for women, two for men) actually can have a beneficial effect on the heart–specifically lowering blood pressure and preventing arterial damage.


According to this study, smoking shaves 10 years off your life on average. Not too surprising, considering it’s been linked to  pancreatic cancercardiovascular disease (including strokes, aneurysms, and CHF), COPD, Alzheimer’s Disease, and glaucoma — to name a few.

You knew you needed to quit, but sometimes, cold hard numbers help boost motivation.

The Upshot

Moving towards a healthy lifestyle takes work, initially—but despite the fact that America pays the most per capita for healthcare in the world, our life expectancy is 31st in the world (79.3 years on average). Those extra 12-14 years would put us on top, by a long shot (Japan is currently occupying the #1 slot, at 83.7 years).

Maybe it’s time to change some of our national habits!