How does lifestyle affect health in the UK?

We’re living longer, meaning that more of us experience illnesses associated with old age. However, our lifestyle choices impact our health even when we’re younger. Our guide looks at how lifestyle affects the health of people in the UK and what we can all do to improve it.

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What are the primary lifestyle risk factors for ill health?

Knowledge is power; to address our poor health, we have to understand the causes. Health inequalities often result from social determinants such as low-paid work, poor-quality housing, and lack of access to health services. The causes of health inequalities are complex and must often be addressed by government policies and information services.

However, we can address many of the risk factors associated with poor health as individuals. Here are the main risk factors for preventable ill health.

1. Smoking

Smoking is the leading cause of early deaths and preventable ill health in England, and it’s a significant factor in health inequalities due to smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke. The percentage of adult smokers in England has fallen from 27% to 16% in the past twenty years. However, smoking rates remain at higher levels in deprived areas, among men, young people and people working in routine and manual occupations. There are higher rates of smoking during pregnancy among people living in more deprived areas, meaning children are more likely to experience asthma or other childhood ill health or to have a low birth weight.

2. Excessive alcohol consumption

Many of us enjoy relaxing with an alcoholic drink in the evening, but if our drinking habits get out of hand, they can quickly result in ill health. Alcohol use has impacted NHS hospitals, with 320,000 alcohol-related admissions in 2020 and a 20% increase in alcohol-related deaths. Health inequalities remain, as people living in more deprived areas are far more likely to need hospital admissions. However, the top 20% of income earners are the most likely to drink more than the recommended 14 units per week.

3. Poor diet

Poor diet can impact almost every part of our health and wellbeing and can have a range of health outcomes. While overeating can cause ill health, poor-quality nutrition is also an issue. Diets low in fibre, fruit and vegetables and high in fat, salt and sugar can cause various health issues.

Food poverty has increased, with 2.1 million people using food banks in 2021/22, meaning poverty and poor diet are likely inextricably linked.

4. Sedentary lifestyles

Healthy lifestyles typically include regular physical activity. Consistent activity levels help to curb preventable ill health and have a positive impact on good mental health. Sedentary work, such as in managerial and professional occupations, can mean we spend more time sitting each day, generally increasing physical inactivity. As a nation, we’re becoming less physically active, with physical activity levels in the adult population falling from 63% to 61% between 2018 and 2021 and from 47% to 45% among children.

5. Obesity

Poor diet and insufficient physical activity levels are both risk factors for ill health as they can lead to obesity in the long term. Obesity and overweight are risk factors for many health conditions, including cancer, type 2 diabetes and mental health conditions. They can also lead to a vicious cycle, where shortness of breath and joint pain increase physical inactivity.

Obesity prevalence in adults has risen over the past 20 years, but it’s increasingly affecting school children too. The National Child Measurement Programme weighs and measures school children in reception (age 4-5) and year 6 (age 10-11). Post-pandemic, the programme found a 5-6% increase in rates of overweight and obesity in a single year.

An infographic showing two men stretching and outlining tips for healthier lifestyles.

What medical conditions can be caused by our lifestyle choices?

We’ve already touched on some illnesses unhealthy lifestyles can cause, but let’s look at them in more detail. Some risk factors for ill health come from our family medical history and genetics. However, a healthy lifestyle can help lower the risk and improve our general health.

1. Cancer

Most cancers don’t have any genetic link. However, some faulty genes can increase our risk of ovarian, breast and prostate cancer, among others.

The most significant risk factors for various types of cancer include obesity and physical inactivity. Smoking increases our risk of developing lung cancer, and excessive drinking has also been linked with breast and gastrointestinal cancers. Maintaining a healthy weight, giving up smoking and keeping a close eye on our drinking habits can all help to reduce our cancer risk.

2. Heart disease

There are many types of heart disease, from angina and coronary artery disease to arrhythmia and heart attacks. People with healthy lifestyles can reduce their risk of some types of cardiovascular disease, particularly coronary artery disease, and lower the chance of having a heart attack.

A poor diet that’s high in fat and salt, excessive drinking, smoking, physical inactivity, and obesity are all risk factors for heart disease. Increasing our physical activity and aiming for a healthy weight will help.

3. Stroke

Stroke and cardiovascular disease are sometimes linked and have similar risk factors. A stroke can be devastating, causing long-term disability and cognitive impairment in severe cases. Some patients also experience personality changes, tiredness, memory issues, and difficulty speaking and writing.

Giving up smoking, increasing your physical activity levels, improving your diet and losing weight can reduce your risk of having a stroke.

4. Respiratory disease

Respiratory disease can take many forms, from chronic illnesses such as asthma and emphysema to bronchitis and pneumonia. It’s the third most significant cause of death in the UK after cancer and heart disease and significantly impacts the NHS during winter months.

Smoking can cause some respiratory illnesses and exacerbate others, so giving up smoking can lessen the impact of some respiratory conditions and improve your chances of preventing others altogether.

5. Liver disease

Liver disease can be debilitating, causing tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting. You may associate liver disease with alcoholism; however, regularly drinking more than the recommended limit of 14 units a week can still cause damage. Hospital admissions for liver disease rose by 22% between 2021 and 2022, with alcohol-related admissions up by 11.7%.

Regular excessive drinking can cause alcohol-related liver disease and hepatitis. Obesity can also lead to fatty liver disease. Reducing your alcohol consumption and living a healthier lifestyle can help.

6. Diabetes

You’re typically more at risk of developing type 2 diabetes if there’s a family history of the condition or if you developed it during pregnancy. However, many of the risk factors for type 2 diabetes come from your lifestyle.

Doctors use different approaches to treating diabetes. Some patients need insulin or other medication. Patients with healthy lifestyles, including a good diet and plenty of physical activity, are often able to control the condition and even return to a pre-diabetic state.

Excessive drinking, physical inactivity, a poor diet and obesity are all risk factors for diabetes, meaning improving your lifestyle can make a positive impact.

7. Mental health conditions

Healthy lifestyles typically go hand in hand with better mental wellbeing. You’re generally more at risk of experiencing mental ill health if you drink to excess, are inactive and have a poor diet. Health inequalities also come into play here, with people living in the most deprived areas being at increased risk.

Young people with healthy lifestyles who feel part of their local communities are likely to have better mental health than those who don’t, so spending time with your children can benefit everyone, especially if you include some physical activity.

8. Musculoskeletal conditions and osteoarthritis

Musculoskeletal conditions can affect your joints, bones and muscles, so they can affect almost any part of your body. Some conditions can result from wear and tear. However, many result from inactivity and obesity, which can also worsen any existing symptoms.

Osteoarthritis has several potential causes, but patients with mild symptoms often benefit from losing weight and increasing their physical activity levels. It makes sense to try to prevent problems in the first place by doing more exercise.

How are unhealthy lifestyles affecting the NHS?

Unhealthy lifestyles put significant pressure on the NHS, which is already dealing with record waiting list figures. Back in 2013, statistics showed that around 80% of early deaths in London were the result of preventable illness.

 Data for 2019 and 2020 showed increases in hospital admissions due to smoking and alcohol use, although obesity-related admissions had decreased by 3.1% and smoking-related deaths had also decreased.

It’s estimated that approximately 40% of all NHS spending goes on preventable ill health. Every year, obesity-related ill health costs approximately £6.5 billion£7.4 billion goes on treating heart disease and £10 billion on treating diabetes. It’s little wonder that new government policies set out in 2023 include strategies to improve health outcomes and reduce health inequalities by funding prevention programmes to reduce smoking, alcohol use and obesity prevalence.

 Mommy Holding Daughter's Hands Walking Swinging Bridge On Playground

What support is available to help people in the UK improve their health?

We’ve discussed how healthy lifestyles can improve health outcomes and reduce the burden on the NHS. However, lifestyle change can be challenging and getting the right support is vital. Some people benefit from one-to-one support or a guided programme, while others prefer a self-help approach.

Here are some of the services available to help you improve your health, from free NHS programmes to paid support services.

NHS Stop Smoking Services

NHS stop smoking services offer individual and group support to help you give up smoking. The 12-week programme includes face to face appointments with an adviser, access to nicotine replacement products or other medication and carbon monoxide tests so you can see the impact on your health.

Between April and June 2023, the programme helped 24,193 people give up smoking (54% of participants), including young people aged under 18, over 60s and pregnant women.

NHS Live Well guidance

The NHS Live Well site brings together advice on healthy lifestyles, including reaching a healthy weight, getting more exercise, eating well, giving up smoking, alcohol use and sleep.

It offers articles on each topic so you can find the right advice for your circumstances and take a self-help approach to improving your health and wellbeing. It’s ideal for anyone who wants to create their own programme and is highly self-motivated.

NHS Better Health programme

The NHS Better Health programme is a step up from their Live Well guidance. It provides health advice, including tips on reducing your alcohol use, losing weight and giving up smoking. The site also includes links to apps such as the NHS weight loss plan and Couch to 5K. The apps give you a structured plan to guide you through developing healthy habits and building up your activity levels and let you keep a record of your achievements to keep you motivated.

There’s also guidance on enhanced support such as stop smoking services and the digital weight management programme which you can join if you meet the relevant criteria.

Private counselling

If you have a diagnosed psychiatric condition you’ll likely be able to access NHS treatment. However, services are in increasing demand so you may face a lengthy wait. The NHS Confederation describes an increase in the number of people presenting at A&E with mental health issues, suggesting a lack of prompt treatment and support in the community.

Private counselling can help by providing support at an early stage, before symptoms become severe and require urgent treatment. Talking therapies can help to resolve most mental health conditions, making private counselling a viable option if you can afford it.

Personal training and nutrition advice

Working with a personal trainer gives you tailored support to increase your activity levels safely. Many trainers also provide nutrition advice to help you improve your diet. You’re also more likely to keep going when you’ve paid for a trainer to knock on your door or meet you in a local park than if you’re trying to motivate yourself to run on a cold morning.

Research suggests that while being motivated to change is important, being part of a personal training programme can help to change people’s attitudes towards exercise and motivate them to do more in the future. Signing up with a personal trainer in the short term could help bring about long term change.

Hypnotherapy

Hypnotherapy can help you to give up smoking and lose weight. It can also treat many different psychological conditions, including anxiety, depression and PTSD. Hypnotherapy has also been shown to help with physical conditions, such as pain and the side effects of other medical treatments. This can make it useful in reducing symptoms that act as a barrier to physical activity or other lifestyle change.

Psychiatrists use hypnotherapy as part of a treatment programme, but there are also specialist hypnotherapists offering private treatment.

How health insurance can help

Private health insurance can help you improve your health and wellbeing by providing access to a range of services. Health insurance covers private healthcare so you can get treatment quickly if you become ill. However, health insurance providers also give you access to services that support you in setting health and wellbeing goals and working to achieve them.

Here’s our round-up of the services you can expect to find with most health insurance policies and how they can help you improve your general health.

Access to counselling

As mentioned, private counselling can significantly improve many mental health conditions. This can be useful if your mental wellbeing is making improving your health a challenge. Most health insurance policies include access to some counselling sessions, typically up to eight. Many don’t need a referral from your GP. You may also be able to access additional support depending on your chosen policy.

Many policies also include health helplines which can include mental wellbeing support. If you need help and advice with your children’s emotional health, Bupa’s family mental healthline lets you speak to a trained adviser or nurse.

Health assessment services

Health insurance health assessments work in two different ways. Many insurers ask you to provide general health information when you join to give you a snapshot of your overall health and wellbeing and areas for improvement.

Most insurers also have a programme of member rewards and discounts. If you have health concerns in a particular area you can use these to access assessments and screening services at a reduced price.

Help to set healthy goals

We’ve mentioned that most health insurers will help you to complete a health profile when you first buy a policy. You can use this to identify potential health risks and things you’d like to improve. Generally, your health insurer will use the information you’ve provided as a starting point to help you set realistic health goals and point you towards member resources that will help you achieve them.

Rewards for healthy lifestyles

Insurers will typically offer member benefits and discounts to all their customers. However, more now provide increased incentives as a reward to members who reach their health goals.

Vitality health insurance were the pioneers in this area. They focus on improving their members’ health and reward them with additional perks and discounts and lower premiums if they regularly engage in physical activity. More insurers are beginning to follow suit. The prospect of saving money (or having your health insurance premium increase) depending on your activity levels could be a powerful motivator if you want to achieve lifestyle change. In fact, Vitality’s recent Health Claims Insights Report found that customers who’d been less active increased their activity levels by around 50% after receiving medical treatment.

Access to discounts on support services and tools

Health insurance member discounts can save you money on anything from cinema tickets and coffee to spa breaks. However, many discounts specifically aim to support your health. Some, such as discounted gym memberships and fitness tracking technology, help you to increase the amount of exercise you do. You may also find access to mindfulness and meditation apps or smoking cessation services. While these services still carry an additional cost, you can choose which will benefit you most.

Getting professional advice

MyTribe guides aim to provide information that helps you improve your health and make informed decisions about the right health insurance and treatment for your needs. If you want to find out more about how health insurance can help you live a healthier lifestyle and provide services to support your wellbeing goals, please get in touch. We’ll put you in contact with a specialist, regulated broker for tailored advice.

Disclaimer: This information is general and what is best for you will depend on your personal circumstances. Please speak with a financial adviser or do your own research before making a decision.

Chris Steele
Founder and Editor

Chris is our resident private health insurance and healthcare expert and has over a decade's experience writing for and about private medical insurance and private treatment. He's a Cert CII qualified member of The Chartered Insurance Institute and his research and work are often cited in the press. Chris is also contributing writer to numerous other financial services publications.

Frequently Asked Questions

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