May 27 (HealthDay News) -- The benefits of eating right, exercising and keeping your weight down are well-known, but few Americans are living that healthy lifestyle, researchers report.
In fact, over the past two decades exercise rates have dropped, fruit and vegetable intake has also fallen, and in the meantime obesity rates have soared, a new study finds.
"This is somewhat of a report card on how we are doing on healthy lifestyles compared to 18 years ago," said lead researcher Dr. Dana E. King, a professor in the department of family medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina. "The results are about a C minus."
There is no mystery behind the increasing rates of diabetes and high blood pressure since they are directly related to healthy habits, the researchers said. But it's never too late to change -- by living a healthy lifestyle you can produce profound effects on your overall health and even extend your life, they added.
King believes that Americans rely too much on drugs - not diet and exercise -- to lower blood pressure and cholesterol and prevent diabetes and heart disease.
"I wonder if we have become a little bit of a 'take a pill' society," he said. "'Take a pill and I can eat what I want.' The fact is no pills are as potent and as powerful as a healthy lifestyle," he said.
The report is published in the June issue of the American Journal of Medicine.
For the study, King's team collected data on more than 15,000 people aged 40 to 74. Among these people, 7,340 had participated in the 1988 to 1994 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and 7,811 participated in the same survey for the years 2001 to 2006 .
In the 18 years between the studies, the percent of obese people had increased from 28 percent to 36 percent. The number of people who exercised 12 times a month or more dropped from 53 percent to 43 percent, and the number of people eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily decreased from 42 percent to 26 percent, the researchers found.
Smoking rates barely budged (26.9 percent to 26.1 percent), King's group found. More people did report drinking moderately in the 2001 to 2006 survey versus the earlier survey (40 percent to 51 percent), the researchers said.
Overall, the number of people practicing all five healthy habits dropped from 15 percent in 1988 to 8 percent in 2006, King noted. This low percentage was seen in both healthy people and people with chronic health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.
"We are not eating our fruits and veggies," King said. "We are exercising less, we're more obese. It's not a good end-of-the-year report card. But we can do better next semester. We need to get back to the basics of healthy lifestyles and not taking the easy way out of pills, because they are not as effective as a healthy lifestyle in preventing cardiovascular disease and maintaining vitality through the middle and later years."
Dr. David L. Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale University School of Medicine, believes that changes in society that foster healthy lifestyles need to be enacted to help reverse these trends.
"A consistent and compelling body of scientific literature makes clear that a very short list of lifestyle behaviors, dominated by dietary pattern, physical activity level and tobacco use, overwhelmingly influence both the likely number of years in our lives, and the quality of life in our years," Katz said.
The current study is disheartening, "if not depressing," Katz said. "In every way conceivable, from cost to convenience, the modern food supply favors the consumption of highly processed, low-nutrient, high-calorie foods. Every aspect of modern life, from hectic schedules, to constant stress, to the reliance on labor-saving technology, fosters sedentariness," he said.
These regrettable trends are a dose of reality, Katz said. "We cannot, with any hope of success, devise a world that fosters ill health, and encourage people to navigate through it as if it weren't there. Eating well, being active, and in general taking good care of oneself and one's family must lie along paths of lesser resistance."
SOURCES: Dana E. King, M.D., professor, Department of Family Medicine, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Prevention Research Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; June 2009 American Journal of Medicine