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U.S. Health Habits Improving but Uphill Climb Remains March 11, 2009

Posted by Daniel Downs in health, news, United States.

According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being IndexTM (WBI), the health habits of many Americans are improving during this new year, but there’s still a long way to go.

The WBI’s Healthy Behavior sub-index, an in-depth measure of Americans’ exercise, eating and smoking habits, rose to 61.2 in January; a slight reversal of the sharp decline that occurred at the end of 2008. Even with this uptick, the healthy behavior score is still considerably lower than the 63.3 recorded last January (See: Figure A).

Figure A:

The Healthy Behavior sub-index score includes four questions that look individually at smoking, healthy eating, weekly consumption of fruits and vegetables and weekly exercise frequency. In reviewing the trend for each individual item, Dr. Jim Harter, Gallup Chief Scientist for Workplace Management and Well-Being, reports that the movement in the overall Healthy Behavior sub-index score “is pretty clearly reflected in the eating healthy and exercise items,” and that “the smoking rate has not changed much.”

There may also be a seasonal effect related to the holidays and New Year’s resolutions. At the same time, the year to year decline from January 2008 to January 2009 suggests the stress and financial strain of the recession may also be taking a toll on Americans’ health.

Health Report Cards Vary

Assessing the current state of affairs in January 2009 finds older Americans to be much more likely than any other group to report healthy behaviors. Americans 65 years of age and older have a score of 71 on the Healthy Behavior sub-index, almost 10 points above the national average (See: Figure B). Women, people who are married, and those in the highest income bracket also have Healthy Behavior scores that are better than the national average. Younger Americans, those in the lowest income bracket, and single individuals are the least likely to report healthy behaviors.

Figure B:

A Steep Climb to Better Health

Looking specifically at each of the questions that compose the Healthy Behavior sub-index reveals large percentages of Americans are not eating healthily and getting appropriate amounts of exercise (See: Figure C). In the first month of 2009 less than half of Americans (46%) said that in the last seven days they had exercised on two or more of those days for at least 30 minutes.

Figure C:

While two-thirds of respondents (66%) said they ate healthily all day “yesterday,” a smaller number, 54%, reported that in the last seven days they had eaten at least five servings of fruits and vegetables on three or more of those days. This disconnect may mean that for many Americans the definition of what eating healthily is could be unclear and that they are unaware of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended servings of fruits and vegetables.

As Americans continue to struggle under the weight of the economic crisis, Amy Neftzger, Healthways Lead Researcher, points to the importance of raising awareness about healthy eating habits during times of undue stress. Neftzger says that in stressful situations “some individuals are prone to ‘stress eating’ and either overeat or resort to comfort foods, and these comfort foods tend to be higher in fat and caloric content than healthier choices, such as a salad.”

Another important component of the Healthy Behavior sub-index is the smoking rate. In this analysis of January 2009 data, 21% of Americans say that they smoke. The smoking rate is currently highest among very low income Americans (34%) and lowest for those aged 65 and older (11%).

Bottom Line

The increase in the Healthy Behavior sub-index in January, though small, is a positive sign that, even amid one of the worst economic downturns in the nation’s history, Americans are continuing to place importance on their health. Eating healthily and exercising more may, in fact, play a vital role in raising an individual’s well-being and helping to deal with stress. With just 46% of the population saying they exercise relatively frequently and slightly more than half reporting eating the weekly recommended servings of fruits and vegetables, it is clear that millions of Americans are in need of continued education and encouragement around critical healthy behaviors.

Neftzger notes, “Healthy behaviors have been linked to disease prevention and increased quality of life. With the prevalence rates of conditions such as diabetes on the increase, we should strive to improve the national Healthy Behavior sub-index score each year so that we can improve the health of the nation.”

For more information, visit www.well-beingindex.com.



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