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Modifying Common Risk Factors

There are a number of risk factors for most chronic diseases, some of which are beyond our control (e.g., age, gender, family history). But there are other risk factors, often referred to as lifestyle factors, over which we can exert considerable influence.


Stress is an inevitable part of life – there is simply no way to completely avoid it. But when it is prolonged or excessive, it can have harmful consequences for our health. For example, it can impair immune system functioning or trigger the release of hormones that speed up heart rate and raise blood pressure. Stress also can increase our risk of illness or worsen existing illnesses by making it more difficult for us to maintain a healthy lifestyle (e.g., regular exercise, nutritious diet). Therefore, it is important for us to learn how to manage stress effectively.

Physical Activity

One of the major risk factors for several serious medical conditions, including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, is physical inactivity. Despite this well-documented link, the National Center for Health Statistics has found that only a little over half of American adults meet the federal physical activity guidelines for aerobic activity through leisure-time activity (150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity), with African American and Hispanic/Latino adults having rates lower than non-Hispanic/Latino white adults. Clearly, there is a need for more programs to educate adults about the health benefits of increased physical activity and to provide ongoing encouragement and support for maintaining regular individualized programs of exercise.


The most common approach to weight loss has been dieting, a method in which people focus on reducing their caloric intake. Although the basic equation underlying this approach is correct – weight loss results when the calories you use exceed the calories you take in – the weight loss produced by using this approach alone is generally not maintained for long. A more effective strategy for losing weight is a multidimensional approach that can be incorporated into your overall lifestyle and sustained for the rest of your life.


Smoking is the number one cause of preventable death in America. Individuals who smoke have an increased risk of cancer, lung disease, heart attack, stroke, vascular disease, and even blindness, and have, on average, a life expectancy that is ten years shorter than that for nonsmokers. In spite of the well-documented link between smoking and these serious medical conditions, many people find it extremely difficult to quit smoking. The primary reason underlying this difficulty is that nicotine can be as addictive as cocaine or heroin. Although stopping smoking can be difficult, the health benefits for those who succeed are significant and well worth the effort.

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