The 6 keys to a healthy life



This isn’t exactly my area of expertise, but then again, I’ve never claimed to be an expert in personal finance either.  I’m just very interested, learning as I go, and sharing with anyone that might want to listen.  With that in mind, I recently became curious if there was any simple, definitive list of the most important aspects of healthy living.  It was hard to find, so I had to sort of compile what I found around the internet.  Here is what I came up with…

The 6 Keys to a Health Life

  • Exercise regularly
  • Don’t smoke
  • Don’t drink too much
  • Maintain a strong social network
  • Eat right
  • Get plenty of sleep

I don’t know about you, but I was really hoping for a shortcut.  Unfortunately, these all sound remarkably similar to what a well-intentioned relative might have told me as I was on my way off to college.  But that’s the nature of conventional wisdom; it’s usually conventional for a reason.

One big problem with trying to find the single, most-important answer to the question of what makes for a healthy life is that many factors of health are interdependent.  For example, hypertension, or high blood pressure, is one of the top causes of death in the developed world, and all 6 factors listed above will have an impact on hypertension to some extent.

keeping that hypertension away… ommmm…..

The same is true even for something as seemingly straightforward as smoking; the fantastic book, What is the Economy For Anyway, points out that smokers with stronger social networks have higher life-expectancies than those who don’t.  Then throw in a little exercise on top of that and things get even better for smokers.

All that is to say, our health is very interconnected, making it hard to single out just one or two essential healthy behaviors.  However, if there is any one shortcut on this list, it appears to be exercise.

Exercise regularly

YouTube celebrity Doctor Mike Evans makes a pretty compelling case for ranking exercise at the top of the list.  In a nutshell, he says that exercise is the single most important factor for health because it impacts all the leading causes of preventable, health-related death.  And the good news is that you don’t have to become a marathoner to reap the benefits.

The majority of health improvements are to be had going from no exercise to just a little bit of exercise.  His specific recommendation is to walk for at least 30 minutes a day (and yes, he says that dogs help with this, thank you very much).  Watch the video below to learn all the truly astounding benefits of exercise.

Some of the attributable risk research he references is available here in this Powerpoint by Steven Blair.  I personally think the exercise message is even more important in light of all the recent findings showing how damaging prolonged inactivity can be in and of itself.  So get up, get out, and get something!

For alternative exercise plans, Mark Sisson at Mark’s Daily Apple seems to have a reasonable plan, and the NY Times Health Section claims that just 7 high-intensity minutes per day are all that’s required (video version here).

Don’t smoke

The true cost to a smoker of a single cigarette is about $2.00, which works out to nearly $80,000 per decade for a 1/2 pack per day smoker.  Besides being a huge financial drain, smoking is one of the best ways to have a shorter, crappier life.  The chart below comes from The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Global Health Risks Report and shows that tobacco use is the biggest health risk for rich countries.

health risks WHO
health risks WHO

According to the WHO, tobacco use is the biggest health risk by far.  It is important to note that this data is denominated in disability-adjusted life years (DALY’s) rather than mortality risk.  In addition to measuring the lost years of life due to early deaths, DALY’s measure how much crappier (or better) life is depending on certain factors.  Which is why, in my opinion, DALY’s are more robust measures of health than mortality risks (trying to live a long AND productive life here).  With that being said, the life expectancy for a smoker is 10 years shorter than a normal person.  For more information on the health effects of smoking, visit the CDC.

Don’t drink too much

Looking at the WHO chart above, alcohol ranks high as a health risk as well.  However, taken in conjunction with research that shows low levels of alcohol can actually enhance health, it appears that moderation is truly the key.  Given that the top 10% of drinkers account for over 50% of all alcohol consumed in the U.S., it is probably the chronic users (10+ drinks per day) that are driving the negative health trend.

From a policy perspective, higher alcohol taxes would have a disproportionately strong effect on chronic use (and societal costs).  And if it turns out that alcoholics are likely substitute marijuana for some of their daily drinks, legalizing pot could help too.

only drinking with friends is maybe a good middle ground, although I guess it depends on the friends…

In terms of personal health, the bottom line is simply, drink in moderation or don’t drink at all. Alcoholism, a disease that impacts even the very smartest and most likely to succeed, can creep up slowly and gradually over a lifetime, so tread with caution.

Maintain a strong social network

The director of the Grant Study, a 75-year, 20-million-dollar longitudinal study of Harvard men over the course of their lifetimes, concluded that “happiness is love, full stop.”  This isn’t much different than one of the main findings of Daniel Gilbert, a positive psychology expert and author of Stumbling on Happiness, namely that:

We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.


So it’s obvious that family, friends, and social networks are important to happiness, but what about health?  Enter the Brigham Young University meta-study that tracked the social habits of more than 300,000 people.  They found that strong social ties were more important than many other common health risk factors:

The researchers concluded that having few friends or weak social ties to the community is just as harmful to health as being an alcoholic or smoking nearly a pack of cigarettes a day. Weak social ties are more harmful than not exercising and twice as risky as being obese, the researchers found. – New York Times

There were some questions about correlation versus causality, but the results were still very suggestive.  The bottom line, for me at least, is that social ties are supremely important to happiness and likely equally important to health.

Eat right

The reason that eating right made it to this list is because diet is a factor in many of the top WHO risk factors.  Remember this chart?

health risks WHO

Diet is an important factor in weight, blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol, basically across the board.  But what does it mean to eat right?  There is so much conflicting research out there, partly because diets are difficult to study.  From a nutrition perspective, I tend to rely on Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Source. Their advice is summarized below in the healthy eating plate infographic, but their main points are:

  • Drink mostly water-based beverages and avoid sugary beverages, while limiting milk and juice.
  • Fill plate with at least 50% fruits and veggies, but avoid starchy ones like potatoes.
  • Eat whole grains versus refined.  Also avoid refined carbs/sugars and processed foods.
  • Use healthy oils (olive oil, canola, etc.), avoid trans fats, and limit butter.
  • Choose fish, poultry, and beans for protein.  Limit red meat and cheese, and avoid processed meats (bacon, lunch meats, etc.).
  • Limit salt to 2/3 teaspoon per day.
  • A daily multivitamin is good insurance policy.

More simply, I like Michael Pollan’s advice: Eat real food, mostly plants (and some live fermented foods like sauerkraut or yogurt), and not too much.

Get plenty of sleep

Adequate sleep is key for mental acuity, emotional health, immunity, maintaining a healthy weight, healthy heart, and healthy blood pressure.  In fact, not getting enough sleep could lead to a higher mortality risk than heart disease, smoking, and high blood pressure.  Every person has slightly different sleep requirements, but the general recommendation for adults is 7 to 8 hours per night.

dog naps
dog day afternoon

Some common ways to get better sleep include increasing exercise, avoiding bright screens, food, and drink close to bedtime, keeping regular (and adequate) sleep schedules, and toning down the alcohol and/or caffeine intake.  I’ve found an end-of-day meditation sometimes helps when I can stay disciplined about it.

The ROI of getting a fitness activity tracker

Now that we’ve covered some of the biggest factors for healthy living, I wanted to take a look at the ROI of getting a fitness activity tracker such as the Fitbit Flex.  I’m personally not a huge fan of the idea of getting one of these (“I don’t need a computer to tell me when I’ve been a couch potato and when I’ve had a bad night of sleep.”), but the old management adage that “what gets measured gets managed” seems appropriate here.  My wife is asking Santa for one of these this year, and I know a lot of people that swear by theirs.  Whatever works.

supercharged human
the internet of things be all like…

The basic idea of the fitness activity tracker is that you can set specific activity goals, like number of steps each day (or hours of quality sleep), and then it will report on well you met the targets and give you tips on how to improve.

For this ROI, I’m going to look simply at the activity side of things, but there are health benefits to be had on the sleep side as well.  Near the end of his presentation, Steven Blair shows that simply starting to exercise just a little bit can add a significant amount of time to a 45-year-old’s life expectancy, 5.8 years to be exact.

So using my standard ROI model, assuming $10 per hour of (waking) life gained over 5.8 years, subtracting $100 for the cost of a fitness tracker, and then adjusting to a per-decade number yields the following:

  • 10-Year NPV: $82,444
  • 10-Year ROI: 82,444%
  • 10-Year Payback: 0.0 years

Remember, this is $82,444 per decade, which works out to over $300,000 in “savings” for the rest of this hypothetical person’s life.


Healthy living is pretty straightforward, just follow these six steps:

  • Exercise regularly
  • Don’t smoke
  • Don’t drink too much
  • Maintain a strong social network
  • Eat right
  • Get plenty of sleep

Moderate exercise is arguably the most important thing one can do for good health, and if getting a fitness activity tracker is what it takes, then by all means, do it.

Being healthy might not translate into cold hard cash, but it will improve the quality and length of one’s life.  And money is just a means to an end anyway.  Like Benjamin Franklin said, time is money.  Might as well make a few deposits…

Leave a Comment