The INSIDER Summary:
• The way you treat your body in your 20s can affect your health for decades.
• INSIDER asked three doctors and a dietitian what young people can do now to stay healthy in the long run.
• Their advice is to limit harmful toxins and screen time, plus pay attention to your mental health.
• Don’t forget to make healthier choices and get more sleep, too.
Most 20-somethings aren’t thinking hard about their long-term health, but they might want to start — and soon.
“In your 20s, frankly, you’re pretty protected against health problems because youth is such a powerful tonic,” David Katz, MD, director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center told INSIDER. “You can get away with a lot of stuff. On the other hand, that won’t be true for the decades that follow.”
INSIDER spoke with three physicians and one dietitian — all members of the True Health Initiative — and found out that the health habits you form in your first decade of adulthood can make a big difference further down the line.
“Lifestyle changes can reduce the risk of chronic disease — whether it’s early onset diabetes, heart attack, stroke, dementia, cancer — probably collectively by 70 to 80%,” Tom Rifai, MD, regional medical director of metabolic health and weight management at Henry Ford Health System, told INSIDER.
So what, exactly, do these lifestyle changes entail? Here’s what the experts say all 20-somethings should start doing right now:
1. Form a healthy relationship with alcohol.
“There’s no question that the 20s are really when the nature of your relationship with alcohol is probably set for the rest of your life,” Katz said. “If you start drinking too much as a matter of routine, it can harm you in terms of long term health.
In short, excess booze consumption over time can lead to liver disease, up your risk for several cancers and heart problems, and tank your immune system, per the NIH.
If you are inclined to drink, do it moderately: That’s no more than one drink a day for women and two for men, according to the Mayo Clinic.
2. Steer clear of opioids and tobacco.
You’ve probably heard of the opioid epidemic currently sweeping the country right now: Since 1999, the number of Americans who have died from opioid-related overdoses (involving both addictive prescription painkillers and heroin) has quadrupled. The risks of tobacco are also well known, but this still bears repeating: Smoking can cause cancer almost anywhere in the body and messes with fertility, among many other ill effects.
“Making wise choices about recreational exposures to potentially toxic substances is absolutely at the top of the list for this age group,” Katz said.
Sometimes, though, exposure to drugs isn’t recreational: A lot of people get prescriptions for painkillers like Oxycodone after surgeries or injuries. If that happens, make sure you’re aware of the dangerous potential for addiction.
“You want to make minimal use of it, as needed, and quickly transition to safer things,” Katz said.
3. Start taking mental health seriously.
“I think this age group needs to know that mental health is part of health,” Katz said. “It deserves respect. Whatever is bothering you, there’s treatment if you need it. And it begins with you respecting it so you seek help and you’re not ashamed.”
Not sure how to find help? Use this step-by-step guide from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
4. Limit your screen time.
Twenty-somethings spend hours a day looking at digital devices — and it’s messing with our sleep in a major way. The blue light emitted by screens tricks the brain into staying alert by suppressing melatonin, the hormone that regulates our sleep cycle. Too much screen time, especially at night, saps sleep quality. (And you don’t need us to tell you how important sleep is.)
“It’s not just about being able to fall asleep and stay asleep,” Cindy Geyer, MD, medical director at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts told INSIDER. “It also influences your hunger. A lot of studies are showing that people who are sleep deprived tend to have higher [levels of] hunger hormones. They’re less able to use their logical brain to resist food cues that are in their face all the time. So it plays a huge role with weight.”
Both Geyer and Rifai recommended apps that filter out some of the blue light emitted by your screens. You can pick up a pair of glasses that does the job, too. And remember to give your eyes breaks. Geyer suggested the Vision Council’s 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes you spend looking at a screen, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.
5. Eat for your heart.
Spinning and juice cleansing and yoga might be trendy as of late, but one thing hasn’t changed: Heart disease is still the top cause of death in this country, and has been for a while. Luckily, there’s a cheap way to reduce your risk of heart disease and other heart health problems, according to dietitian Andy Bellatti: Eat better.
“A lot of times, when people start having cardiac issues — even if it’s high triglycerides or cholesterol problems or blood pressure issues — a lot of effects happen in your 30s and 40s but they’re caused by what you did decades before,” Bellatti told INSIDER. “Your 20s are a really good time to start lowering your risk.”
You can start by getting more leafy greens and fibre (especially in the form of beans or legumes) and making sure you’re eating omega-3 fatty acids. They’re found in seafood, sea vegetables, flax seed, walnuts, and chia seeds, and they’re known to protect heart health in several ways, per the American Heart Association.
Next, try to start limiting excess sodium and sugar.
“Added sugar is problematic for your arteries and for your heart,” Bellatti said. “In your 20s, I would especially get away from any kind of liquid source of sugar. That includes not just soda but also juice — it’s concentrated sugar and there’s no fibre. That also includes what I call dessert coffees. A Frappuccino is not a coffee.”
6. Exercise more — not harder.
Everyone knows exercise can help keep your heart healthy and your weight down. But fewer people know that exercise doesn’t have to be intense to be beneficial.
“We are learning that it is probably high volume, low- to moderate-intensity movement that’s associated with longevity,” Rifai said.
His advice: Don’t think of exercise like an entree you get once a day. Treat it like the garnish you sprinkle on every meal, all day long.
“Move about whenever you can. Can you have a standing or walking meeting? Great. You parked further away? Yes, it counts. If you can find stairs, embrace them. You’re on the 20th floor? You don’t have to take all 20 floors, but make a habit to get off on the 17th floor and build up from there,” he said. “Don’t discount any type of physical activity.”
7. Tweak your environment.
Your environment has a powerful influence on your ability to stick to healthy habits. Take research done by Dr. Brian Wansink at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab: He and his team studied real people’s kitchens and found that women who kept a bottle of soda on the counter weighed 24 to 26 pounds more than neighbours who didn’t. But women who had a fruit bowl on the counter weighed 13 pounds less than neighbours who didn’t.
The bottom line: Don’t keep indulgences in your home and expect that you’ll be able to resist them using willpower alone.
“Make the default choice the healthy choice,” Rifai said. “Of course, [have] the occasional indulgence here and there as you happen to run across it or crave it. But don’t have it actually sitting there in front of you in the house.”
8. Hold yourself accountable.
We’ve all quietly abandoned even our most fervent health resolutions. That’s because forming new habits is hard work.
So it helps to bring in some backup.
“Try to be accountable in some way that you find friendly,” Rifai said — whether that’s doing your weekly run with a buddy or utilising a personal trainer. Even trackers and apps (like Fitbit or MyFitnessPal) can help.
Soon, he said, you’ll learn to start relying less on these external aids, and with time, you’ll be able to hold yourself accountable all on your own.
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