Early Healthy Habits Payoff Big Later in Life

Early Healthy Habits Payoff Big Later in Life

Early Healthy Habits Payoff Big Later in Life

Good health comes cheaply during youth. But there's a price to be paid for not developing healthy habits.

     
Early Healthy Habits Payoff Big Later in Life
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When it comes to physical resilience, younger is better. Left to their own devices for the first time, many college-aged folk feel invincible, seemingly able to eat what they want, drink to excess, and neglect physical activity with impunity.

Of course, it's a fool's paradise. In the present tense, at the very least an unhealthy lifestyle leaves a body less than she might be. But the heaviest cost may come in the long-term, as not only does overreliance on youthful resilience diminish resilience later in life, but bad habits formed on the basis of that early resilience can be tough to shake off just when it matters most.

The benefits of eating well and being physically active are undisputed. In simple terms, the body is a machine that runs best when given good fuel and not allowed to stay idle for long periods.

As New Scientist's Christie Aschwanden noted in 2013, although as early as the 1960s scientists were beginning to investigate connections between cognitive ability and physical health, it was in the 1990s scientists began to truly appreciate the tight linkage between these two realms. Exercise seemed to foment neuron growth. Sedentary adults performed better on cognitive tests after six months of aerobics. A 20-year study of 1,500 middle-aged adults found that those who exercised at least twice a week were less likely to develop dementia in their 60s and 70s. As Aschwanden summarized, "Physical activity seems to be important during childhood, powering the brain through the many changes that help us to mature into adulthood. But it may also play a role as we reach advanced age, with a decline in fitness explaining why some people are more prone to dementia than others."

One of the latest studies supporting just how much of an impact early health habits can have later in life comes by way of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, where researchers spent 20 years compiling data suggesting that pre-middle-aged women who engage in even moderate exercise—such as 2.5 hours of walking per week—may cut their risk of heart disease by up to 25 percent.

"The habits and the choices we make in the first half of our life determine our well-being and freedom from chronic disease in the second half of our lives," says Dr. Erin Michos, an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology at Johns Hopkins.

This finding comports with the results of another large study regarding the long-term effects of healthy habits—this one concerning the lifelong benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables as a dietary staple—published late last year. As summarized in Time magazine, according to researchers at the Minneapolis Heart Institute, adults who had averaged at least seven servings of fruit and vegetables as children "were 25% less likely to have significant coronary calcium in their arteries compared to those who only ate two to four servings a day. [… T]he data highlight how important it is to start healthy eating habits early—not only because they tend to stick around through adulthood, but also because they can actually make a difference in the state of your heart."

By definition, habits die hard. As a 2004 University of Washington study observed, the behaviors we learn early in life to remain in place throughout our subsequent years. “Our study confirms that the responses we learn first are those that remain strongest over time,” says study co-author Dr. Larry Jacoby. “[…] If you learn the correct response in the first place, the passage of time will make you more likely to revert to that correct response.”

According to a University of Washington summary of the study, these findings "are bad news for people struggling to change harmful behaviors, such as smoking or overeating, and good news for people who establish healthy lifestyles at an early age. Even when we consciously try to put new good intentions into place, those previously learned habits remain stronger in more automatic, unconscious forms of memory."

If you're under 30, being physically active and eating well may not seem strictly necessary for looking good or even maintaining a basic level of health. But beyond the obvious fact that healthy habits can only benefit your present-tense self, it may be your future self that you're helping the most. Good health gets harder to maintain as you age, but it stays a lot more easily when you've been making a place for it all along.

Photo by:  Coqui the Chef


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  His first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:  greggorymoore.com

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Last Updated : Monday, August 14, 2017