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Eating a burger? You may have just lost a microlife

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With the new year fast approaching, now is a great time to think about healthy lifestyle changes to make in 2013 (after we've pigged out on Christmas dinner, of course).

In a turkey-induced tryptophan haze, however, it can be tough to know where to start.

Fortunately, David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at the University of Cambridge in Britain, has devised a novel way of weighing the benefits of one health resolution against another, using the concept of "microlives," Time reports. Instead of measuring habits such as red-meat consumption in years lost from the average life, he calculates the effects of daily choices in small units of time, called microlives, that we can imagine adding to – or shaving off – each day.

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"People tend to dismiss effects that are perceived to lie in the distant future," he wrote in the holiday edition of the British Medical Journal. "As author Kingsley Amis said, 'No pleasure is worth giving up for the sake of two more years in a geriatric home.' "

To shake us out of complacency, Spiegelhalter divided up the years remaining for a 35-year-old with a typical life span of 80 years into nearly a million 30-minute periods and defined each half-hour as one microlife.

Spiegelhalter then calculated how various habits may affect the microlives a person has left.

It isn't hard to lose a microlife. Averaged over a lifetime, habits such as smoking two cigarettes, eating a burger, staying 11 pounds overweight, watching two hours of television or drinking a second or third alcoholic beverage each result in the death of one microlife.

On the bright side, the research points the way to the most longevity-boosting New Year's resolutions:

Drink two or three cups of coffee: gain a microlife.

Get 20 minutes of exercise: add two microlives.

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Eat fruits and vegetables: win four microlives.

Spiegelhalter notes that since individuals respond differently to unhealthy as well as good habits, results may vary.

The point, he says, is to draw attention to how everyday choices affect our longevity. Then we can decide whether we really want another beer or two.

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About the Author

Adriana Barton is based in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. Her article on growing up with counterculture parents is published in a McGraw-Hill anthology, right after an essay by Margaret Atwood. She wishes her last name didn’t start with B. More

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