If you want a longer life, follow a healthy diet and exercise regimen. A new study confirms that these two lifestyle factors matter the most in preserving health. On the other hand, vitamins and supplements may have a neutral or even negative impact on well-being.

Many rely on multivitamins and various supplements for nutrients they may not get in their diets. In fact, U.S. adults spent around $50 billion on vitamins and supplements in 2021. Some of these supplements may have benefits, but scientists say they’re not necessary for health.

The researchers added that for non-pregnant, healthy Americans, vitamins have no nutritional or health value. Some people take them to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease or cancer. However, no clinical trials have proven a link between vitamins and lower disease risk.

 “Patients ask all the time, ‘What supplements should I be taking?’ They’re wasting money and focus thinking there has to be a magic set of pills that will keep them healthy when we should all be following the evidence-based practices of eating healthy and exercising,” said Dr. Jeffrey Linder, chief of general internal medicine in the department of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Linder and colleagues from Northwestern Medicine published their research in JAMA Network on June 21. The report suggests new recommendations from the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF). This independent panel of experts makes scientifically-backed recommendations about clinical preventive measures.

Recently, the USPSTF performed a meta-analysis of 84 studies on the effectiveness of vitamins. Based on this review, they revised guidelines about taking multivitamins, paired supplements or single supplements. They found “insufficient evidence” to support that supplements led to a longer life and reduced disease risk in healthy adults.


Diet and Exercise Play Largest Role in Longevity

Linder added that the task force isn’t condemning vitamins but rather questioning their efficacy. If they led to a longer life, we would have evidence supporting this by now. On the other hand, research shows that specific vitamins can have a detrimental impact on health.

In fact, the task force found that taking beta-carotene supplements can increase the risk of lung cancer. Also, they advised against taking vitamin E supplements, determining that they have no impact on lowering cardiovascular disease or cancer risk. They also do not affect reducing mortality.

“The harm is that talking with patients about supplements during the very limited time we get to see them, we’re missing out on counseling about how to really reduce cardiovascular risks, like through exercise or smoking cessation,” Linder said.

Still, vitamins and supplements remain popular in the US, with over half Americans consuming them. Linder and his colleagues believe supplements will only increase in the future.

They say that people who buy vitamins believe they’re investing in their health and ensuring a longer life. Some don’t have the time or income to prepare fresh foods, so they turn to vitamins to supplement their diet.

This seems like a logical approach since fruits and vegetables lead to reduced disease risk in general. And, if you can receive the same benefits in pill form, why invest time and energy in maintaining a balanced diet?

Some People Can Still Benefit From Vitamins

However, the researchers explain that vitamins alone can’t offer the same benefits as whole fruits and vegetables. Fresh foods combine vitamins, fiber, phytochemicals, and micronutrients that interact to provide health benefits. Taking vitamins alone may not have the same effect as eating whole foods that naturally contain life-sustaining compounds.

However, the researchers added that people who have vitamin deficiencies can still benefit from taking supplements. For instance, older adults who take calcium and vitamin D could prevent bone fractures or osteoporosis. This could help ensure a longer life for the elderly.

In addition, pregnant women or women trying to get pregnant should still take a multivitamin.

“Pregnant individuals should keep in mind that these guidelines don’t apply to them,” said Cameron, a Northwestern Medicine physician. “Certain vitamins, such as folic acid, are essential for pregnant women to support healthy fetal development. The most common way to meet these needs is to take a prenatal vitamin. More data is needed to understand how specific vitamin supplementation may modify risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes and cardiovascular complications during pregnancy.”

But, Longer Life is Mostly Dependent on Lifestyle Factors

Another study from Northwestern discovered that many women in the US have suboptimal heart health before pregnancy. Therefore, Cameron added that doctors should work with patients to enhance cardiovascular health as part of their prenatal care. Vitamin supplementation can help ensure a healthy pregnancy, but other factors such as diet and exercise, are equally important.

Despite the abundant knowledge about health in the modern era, many people suffer from chronic diseases. Dr. Jenny Jia, a co-author of the editorial, said it’s unsurprising that most of the disease burden falls on low-income families.

Due to costs and safety concerns, they have an exceptionally hard time maintaining a healthy diet and exercise routine. The US food industry manufactures many cheap, hyper-palatable foods, making healthy foods inaccessible to many. However, by prioritizing nutritious foods, industries could ensure a longer life for millions.

“To adopt a healthy diet and exercise more, that’s easier said than done, especially among lower-income Americans,” said Jia, an instructor of general internal medicine at Feinberg and a Northwestern Medicine physician. “Healthy food is expensive, and people don’t always have the means to find environments to exercise — maybe it’s unsafe outdoors or they can’t afford a facility. So, what can we do to try to make it easier and help support healthier decisions?”

longer life

Final Thoughts on Study Proving Diet and Exercise Lead to Longer Life

Jia also studies the prevention of chronic diseases through lifestyle changes in underprivileged communities. Throughout the past few years, she’s worked with food pantries and banks that provide free groceries for needy families. She tries to help clients choose healthier options at food banks while also educating the public about donating more nutritious foods. Hopefully, these measures will lead to a longer life and improved health for many.

In conclusion, there are no shortcuts to maintaining health and ensuring a longer life. The research by Northwestern Medicine scientists proves what we knew all along: diet and exercise are essential for wellbeing.