Americans are unfit. You knew that. But did you know that, measured against just four criteria that denote a healthy lifestyle, less than 3% of you meet all four? That’s the result of new research out of Oregon State University and the University of Mississippi.
The four criteria are pretty obvious for anyone who doesn't live on a diet of Marlboros and Pringles:
- Being sufficiently active
- Eating a healthy diet
- Having a recommended body fat percentage
- Being a nonsmoker
Incredibly, just 2.7% of the 4,745 participants in the study managed all four. "This is pretty low, to have so few people maintaining what we would consider a healthy lifestyle," said lead author Ellen Smit. "This is sort of mind-boggling. There’s clearly a lot of room for improvement."
The study set out with two purposes. One was to assess exactly this—how prevalent are these healthy lifestyle characteristics? The other was to take different subsets of these characteristics, and see how they relate to things such as cholesterol-related cardiovascular disease biomarkers to blood pressure and blood sugar. The authors say that most other studies look at the effects of each criterion on its own, rather than in concert with others.
A study of this type might use self-reported numbers from the subjects themselves, but the authors opted for measurement instead. Participants wore a device with an accelerometer to measure activity, and had to achieve a specific daily threshold to be considered active. Blood samples were taken to separate smokers and nonsmokers. "Body fat was measured with sophisticated X-ray absorptiometry, not just a crude measurement based on weight and height," say the authors, and participants were deemed to be a normal weight if they ad 5% to 20% body fat for men and 8% to 30% for women. To determine a healthy diet, the study used the USDA's Healthy Eating Index, which scores a day's diet out of 100 potential points. Participants in the top 40% of diet scores were considered healthy eaters.
Yet despite these seemingly easy-to-ace criteria, almost no one got a perfect score. For the curious, the numbers break down like this:
- All four characteristics: 2.7%
- Three characteristics: 16%
- Two characteristics: 37%
- One characteristic: 34%
- None: 11%
You don’t need to hit all four criteria to see a benefit, though. In the second stage of the study, where these criteria were sliced and diced and compared with markers for cardiovascular health and cholesterol, the team found that in many cases, just being able to answer two or three questions with a "yes" provided a significant benefit.
For instance, for keeping your total cholesterol levels down, the most important criteria is a normal body fat percentage. But the most interesting, and perhaps scariest, result of this study is in showing just how colossally unhealthy Americans are.