7 Steps for Disease Prevention and Healthy Living

It can be challenging to keep up with recommendations for how to prevent disease and stay healthy. Guidelines for what to eat or not to eat, how (and how often) to exercise, how much to sleep, and other lifestyle measures change all the time. What's more, medical organizations and other sources sometimes offer conflicting advice.

That said, the basics of disease prevention actually aren't complicated. A good source is the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF), which bases health-preserving recommendations on the evaluation of scientific literature on which health care, health screenings, and healthy living guidelines really work.

According to the USPSTF there are seven things in particular everyone can do to live healthfully, prevent disease, increase longevity, and improve overall physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. You may already do some or even all of them but chances are you can improve in each one.

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1. Get Screened

Health screenings for women and those for men are tests used to uncover illness early on, before symptoms appear. Early detection of diseases such as cancer can make a significant difference in treatment and even life expectancy. Your doctor likely advises you of the tests you should undergo and when, but another good source of this information is MyHealthFinder.gov. This site features current health screening recommendations based on age and sex from the USPSTF, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA).

2. Don't Smoke

Smoking shortens both the length and quality of a person’s life. It's responsible for many diseases and is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. If you smoke, quitting is your number one health priority. The USPSTF recommends that healthcare providers counsel patients to stop smoking, and for those who are not pregnant, suggest FDA-approved smoking cessation medications.

3. Be Active

The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion offers exercise recommendations for every age group from children to seniors. Regular physical activity is key to staying healthy by reducing the risk of chronic disease, including heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and some types of cancer. Work exercise into your daily/weekly schedule—making a point to do both resistance and cardio training—for a longer, more active life.

Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity (or a combination) each week. They should also do strengthening activities at least twice per week.

4. Eat Healthfully

Building healthy eating habits can protect your health, prevent disease, and minimize the severity of conditions you already have. The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion notes in their Dietary Guidelines 2015-2020 that the evidence is strong that you reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease by healthy eating habits. The evidence is of moderate strength that you can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, some types of cancer, or being overweight or obese.

A healthy diet has these characteristics:

  • Higher intakes of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy, seafood, legumes, and nuts
  • Lower intakes of meats (including processed meats and processed poultry), sugar-sweetened foods (particularly beverages), and refined grains

Eating fruit and vegetables can also increase your life expectancy. A 2017 review of studies found an average 5% reduction of risk of mortality from all causes with each serving of fruit or vegetables, up to five servings per day. Talk to your healthcare provider about counseling or programs that can help ensure you are getting the nutrients you need for good health.

5. Lose Weight If You Need To

If you are overweight or obese, taking off excess pounds is another way to prevent disease or manage conditions you already have (such as diabetes, arthritis, or high blood pressure). Even a modest weight loss of 5% to 10% can be beneficial. If you switch out processed foods for fresh produce and skip sodas and other sugary foods, you can save hundreds of calories a day while also making more room on your plate for more fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

6. Take Your Medicine

While a healthy diet and physical activity are the first lines of prevention and management for heart disease, your doctor may recommend preventive medications as well. A statin might be recommended if you have high cholesterol, diabetes, are over 40, or have other risk factors. Medications to control blood pressure may also be used. Taking a daily low-dose aspirin was once standard for men over age 45, but research has been changing that view. Talk to your healthcare provider about what might be best to reduce your health risks.

7. Get Your Shots

Immunizations are not just for children. Current recommendations state that everyone 6 months and older should get a flu vaccine every year and a Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) should be given every 10 years. Other vaccines are given when you reach a certain age, such as zoster vaccine to prevent shingles, and pneumococcal vaccine to prevent pneumonia.

A Word From Verywell

If the idea of upping your self-care game is daunting, make any improvements or changes you need to in stages: There's no need to try to tackle them all at once. Pick one of the steps you want to focus on and devote a week to it: Start an exercise program, find out which screening tests you're due for and make appointments for them, making a small change or two to your diet, take steps to kick the habit if you're a smoker.

Of course you'll want to talk to your doctor as well, as there may be additional things for you to do based on your family history, health condition, and other factors. But this is a great starting place for navigating health care and disease prevention.

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  11. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommended adult immunization schedule for ages 19 years or older, United States, 2020. Updated February 3, 2020.