A healthy lifestyle reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease such as heart disease or stroke, cancer and early death. Behaviours like not smoking, moderate alcohol consumption, regular physical activity, the reduction of physical inactivity, healthy eating habits and maintaining a healthy weight are the basis of a healthy lifestyle. It is estimated that 80 percent of cardiovascular disease and 40 percent of cancers could be prevented by the elimination of lifestyle risk factors.1 More recently, other lifestyle risk factors for cardiovascular disease and mortality are being studied, including social isolation and loneliness and psychosocial stress.3,4
Smoking is a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease, cancer and death. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that smoking globally kills six million people a year, which is more deaths then tuberculosis, malaria and HIV combined.8 In Canada, smoking rates are slowly declining but about 18 percent of the population were still smoking in 2010.10, 9 The risk from smoking increases in a dose-dependent fashion, meaning the more you smoke the higher your risk of disease.2 Quit smoking and your risk for developing diseases declines.2
Excessive alcohol consumption is a risk factor for diseases like high blood pressure and some cancer, in addition to accidental or non-accidental injury and death.2 In small amounts, however, it may have a protective effect against cardiovascular disease.2The maximum amount should be 15 drinks per week for a man and no more than three per day. Women shouldn’t consume more than 10 drinks a week and no more than two day.13
Physical inactivity is an important risk factor for heart disease, diabetes, some types of cancer (breast and colon), and death.2 Research has shown that people who consistently perform moderate to vigorous physical activity have lower rates of cardiovascular disease and live longer.6 Research also tells us that physical fitness, as measured by performance markers like VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilize during intense exercise, are associated with reduced cardiovascular disease as well as death.6 What many people don’t know is that physical activity and physical inactivity seem to be independent risk factors for disease. Hence, increasing your physical activity and reducing your physical inactivity are both important. For example, research has shown that people who report higher amounts of screen time each day had higher cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality rates, irrespective of how much physical activity they were getting.5 People who stand for more than two hours a day have a 10 percent mortality reduction compared to people who stand less than two hours per day.6 North Americans spend about half their waking day being sedentary. Increasingly, research is focused on methods to reduce the time spent sitting via methods like wearable technology and workplace modifications.5
A healthy diet that includes vegetables and fruit reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.2 Processed food and junk food, as well as foods containing saturated and trans fats, should be kept to a minimum because they increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.1 Research has shown that adhering to specific diets, like the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, can reduce high blood pressure, which also reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.2 As well, the much-touted Mediterranean diet has been shown to reduce recurrence of heart attack.2 A healthy diet is described in Canada’s Food Guide.

Being overweight, particularly abdominal obesity, is a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancers like breast, colon, endometrium and kidney, among others.2 The incidence of obesity is increasing worldwide. The WHO estimates that in 2014, about two billion people were overweight and 600 million were obese — a doubling since 1980. In Canada about 24 percent of our population was obese in 2008.11 The percentage of those overweight or obese increased to 54 percent in 2014.12 Being overweight or obese, as calculated by a doctor, establishes body-mass index (BMI) and/or waist circumference. Obesity is most likely caused by an energy imbalance — more calories consumed than expended — and is exacerbated by an unhealthy diet and greater levels of physical inactivity.7
Metabolic syndrome refers to a cluster of cardiovascular disease risk factors within one individual. These include obesity, dyslipidemia (elevated triglycerides and low HDL cholesterol, which is the good cholesterol), glucose intolerance or diabetes and high blood pressure.1 Generally, each of these individual factors increases your risk for cardiovascular disease and death.2 Clustering of these features together in a single person confers even greater cardiovascular disease risk.1 Your physician can assess your risk of developing coronary heart disease by using calculators like the Framingham Risk Score.
Discuss this with family doctor who will help you modify your individual risk for cardiovascular disease and cancer.


  1. Catapano AL et al. 2016 ESC/EAS Guidelines for the Management of Dyslipidemias. The Task Fore for the Management of Dyslipidemias of the European Society of Cardiology and European Atherosclerosis Society. European Heart Journal. 1-72. August 27, 2016. doi:10.1093/eurheart/ehw272.
  2. Ezzati M, Lopez AD, Rodgers A, Murray CJL. Comparative quantification of health risks: global and regional burden of disease attributable to selected major risk factors. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2004.
  3. Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Baker M, Harris T, Stephenson D. Loneliness and Social Isolation as Risk Factors for Mortality: A Meta-Analytic Review. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 10(2): 227-237. 2015.
  4. Booth J, Connelly L, Lawrence M, Chalmers C, Joice, S, Becker, C, Dougall, N. Evidence of perceived psychosocial stress as a risk factor for stroke in adults: a meta-analysis. BMC Neurology. 15(233). 2015.
  5. Same RV, Feldman DI, Shah N, Martin SS, Rifai MA, Blaha MJ, Graham H, Ahmed HM. Relationship between sedentary behaviour and cardiovascular risk. Current Cardiology. 18(6). 2015.
  6. Ejisvogels T, Molossi S, Lee D, Emery MS, Thompson PD. Exercise at the extremes: the amount of exercise to reduce cardiovascular events. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 67(3): 316-329. 2016.
  7. http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs311/en/
  8. WHO global report: Mortality Attributable to Tobacco. WHO. 2012. (http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/44815/1/9789241564434_eng.pdf)
  9. WHO global report on trends in prevalence of tobacco smoking. WHO. 2015. (http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/156262/1/9789241564922_eng.pdf?ua=1)
  10. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/health74b-eng.htm
  11. Canada: WHO statistical profile. Updated January 2015. (http://www.who.int/gho/countries/can.pdf?ua=1)
  12. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/health81b-eng.htm
  13. Butt P, Beirness D, Gilksman L, Paradis C, Stockwell T. Alcohol and health in Canada: A summary of evidence and guidelines for low-risk drinking. Ottawa ON: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. 2011.