While living healthy may seem like a no−brainer these days, new research shows that four important lifestyle choices – never smoking, eating healthy, staying trim, and exercising – may cut the risk for major diseases by almost 80%. The trick, perhaps easier said than done, is to do all four together for maximum benefit.

‘[T]here's unfortunately a gap between people realizing what's good for them and doing what they might want to do.’

"We're talking about relatively straightforward behaviors that pretty much everyone knows about already," said study author Dr. Earl S. Ford, who works with the U.S. Public Health Service and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "But there's unfortunately a gap between people realizing what's good for them and doing what they might want to do."

In the study, 23,000 German men and women (ages 35−65) were tracked for approximately eight years, and their lifestyle choices recorded. The researchers were most interested in whether the participants followed four major measures: never having smoked, eating healthily (i.e., diets high in fruits and veggies with minimal amounts of meat), exercising regularly (for at least 3.5 hours per week), and having a BMI of 30 or less (the cutoff for obesity).

Only 9% of participants stuck to all four measures. Most people followed two or three of the criteria, and only 4% followed none. For those who followed all four, their risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease was cut by 78%. There was also benefit to following just some of the four principles, but it was considerably less than when all four were followed.

Diabetes was the disease most affected by these choices, with its risk reduced by a whopping 93% for those who engaged in all four measures. Interestingly, having a good BMI seemed to be the most important means for reducing risk of overall disease; next came never having smoked, exercising regularly, and finally eating a healthy diet.

Ford says that “[t]he more you do, the better off you will be. You can certainly get benefits from practicing one healthy behavior. But at the same time, you will get more benefit the more you do."

All of these lifestyle choices are just that – choices. Ford hopes that “[p]erhaps studies like this one do help some, by demonstrating how sizeable the impacts truly are.”

The study was published in the August 10 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.