Not sure where to begin to improve your health? A guide to taking the first step

If you are thinking about losing weight, becoming more active, or quitting smoking you are not alone. These are three of the most common health-related New Year’s resolutions. Considering that two-thirds of American adults are overweight, about half don’t meet minimum recommendations for physical activity, and one in five smoke, there are many people who need to change more than one of these behaviors.

Quitting smoking and changing eating and exercise habits to lose weight or improve fitness are among the most difficult behavior changes to make, especially at the same time. Some people focus on one change to begin with.

Obviously, changing all three of these behaviors is ideal, but if you are only willing to change one, which should you take on first to have the biggest impact on your overall health? This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

You might think that quitting smoking would be the most important change to make initially. Smoking is the primary cause of lung cancer and other respiratory diseases such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking also increases the risk of most other cancers and is a major contributor to heart attacks and strokes. Quitting smoking greatly reduces these risks with beneficial changes that begin within days of quitting. Despite this, if you only want to change one behavior, smoking isn’t the place to start.

Being overweight is a leading cause of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and some cancers. If you are overweight, losing just 10% of your body weight (20 lbs. for a 200 lb. person) can significantly reduce the severity of these conditions. Maintaining a healthy body weight can prevent many of these health problems. However, losing weight is not the first change you should make.

It turns out that becoming physically active is the most important change you can make to improve your overall health. Decades of research show that regular physical activity reduces the risk of most chronic diseases including diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers and can extend the lifespan by up to five years. In fact, the health risks of inactivity are equal to or greater than that of obesity or smoking. Regular activity also improves muscular strength, aerobic fitness, bone density, cognitive function, and memory. There is no other single intervention—drugs included—that has as many health benefits.

Research also shows that the negative health effects of being overweight and obesity are, in part, caused by inactivity and poor fitness. If you are overweight but physically fit, your risk of death is lower than if you are at a “healthy” weight but unfit. Regular exercise can reduce the risk of diabetes in people who are overweight, whether they lose weight or not. Furthermore, studies of “successful losers” show that daily exercise is a requirement for long-term weight loss, so becoming active now can help you lose weight later.

You should change all three of these behaviors to achieve optimal health. But if you are looking for an initial step that will have the biggest impact, start by becoming more active. A good initial goal is to reduce the time you spend being sedentary (sitting) and to get a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, such as a brisk walk, each day. You can get greater benefits by participating in more intense exercise, including strength training, three or more days per week. And once you have established a routine of regular activity you will be ready to make other health changes.

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