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Biven’s column: Start down healthy path in 2015

The path to a long, healthy life is not straight and narrow but broad in the sense that it touches every aspect of life, not just diet and exercise. Unfortunately, millions of Americans mistakenly focus on one or two facets of their lifestyles and ignore the rest.  
They do so at their peril, according to Dr. Robert Keith, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System nutrition and health specialist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and food science.  Healthy living, Keith said, “requires evaluating all aspects of your life and not just one or two.”  With this in mind, he offers a list of the major lifestyle practices that he believes makes up the big picture of healthy living.
Nutrition
Good nutrition is essential – something most of us already know and a fact underscored by countless studies. People who consume adequate amounts of complex whole grain carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, protein and low-fat dairy foods with a heavy emphasis on antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables face significantly lower risks of heart disease and certain types of cancer, Keith stresses.
Exercise
Healthy eating may not get you very far if you don’t get adequate amounts of daily exercise.  The alternative – remaining sedentary – has been shown to be as big a risk factor as poor diet in terms of promoting the development of hypertension, obesity and cardiovascular disease.  An initial exercise program could be as simple as making an effort to walk every day. For example, parking your car several blocks away and walking the extra distance.  Over time, this could be expanded into a somewhat more rigorous effort, such as walking or jogging several miles a day. 
Weight Management
Weight management is another key factor, one seemingly lost on the 50 percent or more of Americans who are either overweight or obese.  Obesity is related to a variety of serious health conditions, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke, kidney failure and cancer.  This is especially true for people with a large amount of hidden or visceral fat located deep inside their bodies and surrounding vital organs, such as the liver and kidneys.
Preventive health care
There is truth in the saying “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” 
Regular medical checkups screen for major health risks such as diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and other potentially life-threatening diseases.  Yes, we are all busy keeping pace with the demands of everyday life, but that’s no excuse to avoid regular checkups.
Avoiding smoking
A good health plan is not complete unless it excludes smoking – hardly surprising considering that this habit is strongly linked to cardiovascular diseases, emphysema and lung cancer.
Adequate sleep
Do not underestimate the merits of sleep, adequate sleep – something millions of Americans fail to get on a nightly basis.  Adults need between seven and eight hours of sleep a night.  Over time, anything less than this increases stress on the body and ultimately leads to chronic health problems.
Vacations
Never downplay the value of vacations. There is even a growing body of research showing that people who pursue frequent getaways are less prone to all types of chronic diseases.  Studies have shown that vacationing – removing ourselves from the daily grind – allows our bodies time to recover from the stresses of daily life.
Play it safe
All of these positive lifestyle practices are potentially wasted efforts if we fail to play it safe.   Even simple acts – buckling up and not driving beyond the speed limit – also increase our chances of staying healthy and living longer.
Granted, no list can claim to be an ironclad guarantee of perfect health. But one thing is certain: People who follow these lifestyle practices have a far better chance of living a long and healthy life than those who don’t.