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How to Assess Your Risk for Chronic Disease

It’s good to step back now and then and ask yourself: Are my habits reducing or increasing my health risks? Is there more I could be doing to reduce my risk for diabetes, cancer, or heart disease?

The following answers can help you fine-tune your lifestyle to promote optimum health.

How much should you weigh?

If you are overweight, losing as little as 5 to 10 percent of your current weight can help you increase your lifespan and lower your risk for obesity-related diseases such as high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. It will also help you to feel better in general.

If you are underweight, you could be malnourished and at high risk for infections, osteoporosis, anorexia, or other diseases.

To know where you stand, begin with your body mass index (BMI). Visit the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute's website, plug in your height and weight, and the site will calculate your BMI.

For adults:

  • A BMI below 18.5 is underweight.

  • 18.5 to 24.9 is a healthy weight range.

  • 25 to 29.9 is overweight.

  • 30 or higher is obese.

A BMI may not be accurate for someone with very little or a lot of muscle mass. Ask your health care provider about smart ways to maintain a healthy weight.

What about tobacco and/or alcohol?

If you smoke or use smokeless tobacco, stop. All forms of tobacco increase the risk for certain types of cancer: head, neck esophageal, lung, and kidney. Smoking also causes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, debilitating diseases that begin years after taking up smoking.

If you use alcohol, limit your intake to two drinks a day if you are a man and one drink a day if you are a woman. Heavier drinking puts you at risk for cancers of the head, neck, esophagus, breast and liver, as well as cirrhosis.

How much physical activity should you get?

If you are generally healthy and want to strengthen your heart, support your bones, improve your sleep and mood, and reduce your risk for type 2 diabetes and certain cancers (among other benefits), aim for at least 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity on five or more days a week. Breaking your exercise into smaller segments of 10 or 15 minutes throughout the day also has health benefits.

For couch potatoes, any amount of safe, enjoyable physical activity will start moving you toward better health. Fit in extra steps when and where you can.

To shed pounds, make your goal 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day. Research shows that's what’s needed for weight loss.

What foods should you eat?

Everyone should eat 2-1/2 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit each day. You should also drink more water, choose whole grains, eat four to eight ounces of protein, and limit fat and sugar. Doing so can help control your weight and reduce the risk for many serious chronic illnesses. Ask your doctor or nutritionist about any special dietary needs you may have.

From a dietary perspective, you can lower your cancer risk by choosing bright-colored produce (dark green, yellow and red); eating legumes (lentils, beans, peas) at least twice a week; and limiting fatty foods of animal origin, including whole-fat dairy products and fatty or fried meats.

The idea is to balance your lifestyle according to your personal needs. Adopt healthy habits you enjoy and ones you can stick with for a lifetime.