The best defense is a good offense. Long-term health is the result of a good offense—proactive, preventive, healthy choices that have an impact on your health today, tomorrow, and beyond. To age well, start young. If you want to be a healthy, vital older person, start by being a healthy, vital younger person.
Good health is no accident; it’s a result of consistent healthy habits. Developing healthy habits now will ensure that you not only live long but live well. To ensure ongoing physical and emotional health as you age, start by reforming the simple choices you make each day.
1. Keep Moving
“The Body Thrives on Movement,” explains Bill Nurge, MA, exercise physiologist and personal trainer in Ketchum, Idaho. We are made to move. Movement is critical for loading the bones and the muscles and for maintaining bone and muscle density. When we stop moving, we get stiff and lose muscle mass, range of motion, bone density, and balance—which can have disastrous consequences. You don’t need to be a fitness junkie or a superstar athlete to stay healthy, but you do need to keep moving.
Nurge insists that variety is the key. We use our bodies in a variety of ways, so our exercise regimen should reflect that. “The more types of movement you do and the more varied the stimuli, the deeper your fitness will be,” he says. “Add different modalities that hit the body in different ways from different angles.”
Nurge recommends doing tri-planar exercises—those that move the body in all three planes of motion simultaneously. “The body doesn’t work in isolation,” he explains. “Do multijoint, total-body movements that work the body, force you to balance, and take the muscles through a range of motion.”
If this sounds complicated, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, Nurge jokes that it’s as simple as revisiting our youthful days on the jungle gym. “The jungle gym will keep you young with all that pushing, pulling, and twisting,” he says. But you don’t have to become a regular at the local playground to stay fit; just look for activities that force you to move in different directions and keep you accelerating and decelerating. For some people this could mean a soccer match, a game of tennis, or a specialized fitness class; others might enjoy walking, swimming, or playing with their children or grandchildren. Most important is to find activities you enjoy so that you’re more likely to continue to participate.
Movement doesn’t have to be exercise or drudgery—just incorporate variety and play into your daily routine. Keep it interesting. Vary the intensity, type, and duration of movement and focus on balance, stabilization, and mobilization. To stay healthy, maintain strength and balance, and prevent the risk of debilitating falls in older age, get moving and stay moving. If you have a sedentary job that keeps you at a desk all day, be sure to incorporate movement into your workday by getting up from your desk frequently. Take the stairs or take a brisk walk around the block at lunch—just keep moving.
“It’s use it or lose it when it comes to muscles, bones, and the nervous system,” Nurge says. “Don’t stop moving. Do something every day.”
2. Eat Well
You’ve Heard It Before, and that’s because it’s true: good nutrition is critical to optimal health. But good nutrition does not have to mean diet deprivation. You don’t have to go hungry or follow the latest fad diet to maintain health. Instead, choose real, nutrient-dense foods on a consistent basis. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is.
Katie Carter, a certified holistic nutrition consultant from Nevada City, California, takes the mystery out of nutrition. She says optimal nutrition starts with organic, local, seasonal produce—and diversity. “We get different nutrients from different foods, so we don’t want to eat the same thing every day,” she explains.
Carter takes a simple approach to food, focusing on the basics. “Start with the building blocks of nutrition: vegetables,” she suggests. Those building blocks should compose the majority of your diet. In fact, Carter recommends that your full plate be two-thirds low-glycemic vegetables (and maybe a small amount of starchy vegetables or grains) and one-third animal or vegetable protein.
In addition to vegetables, it’s important to focus on healthy fats, cultured and fermented foods to promote healthy digestive flora, and high-quality protein, preferably pasture-raised or wild caught. Avoid sugar and trans fats, limit consumption of omega-6 fatty acids, and use caffeine and alcohol only in moderation.
And, Carter says, it’s not just what we eat, but how. “Eating habits are equally important as food choices,” she insists. In fact, she has her own toolbox of important “vitamins” that she recommends for healthy eating habits: vitamin P for pleasure, vitamin T for time, and vitamin O for oxygen. She says it’s important to sit down and take the time to enjoy our food while we’re eating. Oxygen is especially important because it helps stoke a healthy digestive fire and get the metabolism to burn efficiently—so taking deep breaths between bites is essential.
The bottom line: what you eat and how you eat can have lasting consequences for your health. Choose wisely and nourish your body with nutrient-dense foods.
3. Manage Stress
Stress is an inevitable—even healthy— part of life. A little bit of short-term stress has actually been shown to sharpen our cognitive skills and strengthen our immune system; long-term, chronic stress, however, can really take a toll on our health, compromising our sleep, immune system, physical health, and emotional well-being.
We’ll never live in a world that’s completely stress-free, but we can learn to navigate our stress-filled world with ease so that we live with stress, not under it. In fact, Patrick Hanna, PhD, a licensed psychologist in private practice in Erie, Pennsylvania, says the key to managing stress is learning to adapt. He explains that we all have a limited amount of adaptive energy, which is the energy we need to adapt to stress. This adaptive energy is like a savings account: when we’re under stress, we make a withdrawal from our adaptive-energy account. But, just like with a savings account, if we continue to make withdrawal after withdrawal, eventually we’re going to get into trouble. We have to make some deposits as well.
So, how do you make deposits into your adaptive-energy account? It’s simple: do things that are enjoyable and help sustain you. If you’re experiencing mild stress, you may want to engage in calming activities such as meditation, prayer, tai chi, yoga, or deep breathing. If your tension level is high, Dr. Hanna says it’s important to do things that are more physically expressive and involve gross motor movement. “If you calm the body down, the mind will calm down,” he explains. He suggests doing any kind of activity that involves the legs because that’s the largest muscle mass and will help release the most tension. This could mean going for a vigorous walk, run, or bike ride.
Dr. Hanna says another important way of adapting and managing stress is to get your “sea legs” under you. He uses the analogy of standing in the ocean and bracing for the impact of an oncoming wave: if you lock your knees and stand firm, you’re going down. On the other hand, if you bend your knees and move with the wave, you’ll stay upright. In other words, life can sometimes be like that giant wave, and if we go with the flow, it won’t knock us down. “It’s about your attitude and the way you approach the world,” he explains. “If you bring your focus back into yourself and you work with the wave—or life— instead of against it, you’ll be standing.”
4. Get Screened
It’s no secret that one of the best ways to maintain health is to prevent illness from occurring in the first place. Regular checkups and screening exams are critical for preventing illness or catching it early, when it is most treatable.
Daniel O’Brien, DO, a physician with Clinica Family Health Services in Lafayette, Colorado, says preventive screening is imperative. “One of the most important things women can do is get their cholesterol and blood pressure checked regularly,” Dr. O’Brien says. “Heart attack is still the number one killer of women, and to prevent that it’s important to avoid smoking and maintain low blood pressure and healthy cholesterol levels.”
In addition, Dr. O’Brien says regular Pap tests, mammograms, and colonoscopies are important. The timing and the frequency of these screening tests will vary based on your age and level of risk. Women with a family history of breast or colon cancer may need to begin screening earlier than average-risk women.
5. Build Community
“By our nature we’re social beings,” Dr. Hanna explains. “We need connection with people.” In fact, a sense of community is vital to our spiritual and emotional health. Building community is one of the most important things you can do to take care of yourself—your whole self. A community provides a sense of belonging and allows us to feel like we are a part of—rather than apart from—something.
“The need for connectedness varies from person to person,” Dr. Hanna explains. “Introverts may need less, and extroverts may need more.” It’s not about the numbers, though—it’s about authentic connection.
There are countless ways to build community. Some people enjoy one-on-one activities, such as sharing a meal or taking a walk. Others may choose to join a church, a club, or a sports team. What’s important is finding that sense of community. Whatever your method, once you start tapping into a consistent feeling of gratitude, you’ll start to notice just how much you truly have to be grateful for.
6. Maintain Your Brain
Maintaining cognitive function is critical to aging well, maintaining independence, and staying happy. In the past crossword puzzles have received all the glory for helping us maintain cognitive function as we age, but now we know that there is no single magic bullet. In fact, the key to maintaining cognitive function may be a combination of several other healthy habits: moving, eating plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, and staying social.
Dr. Hanna says that movement is important for mood and cognitive function. “When we keep the body active and stimulated, we stay sharper,” he says. In fact, research has indicated that regular moderate exercise can increase cognitive functioning and reduce the likelihood of cognitive impairment.1,2
Staying social is important, too. If you want to stay vibrant and sharp as you age, remain involved in your social network. Several studies have indicated that frequent social activity may help prevent or delay cognitive decline in old age.3 In fact, one study found that social inactivity appeared to lead to cognitive impairment, whereas a vibrant social life seemed to reduce the rate of cognitive decline.4 The research validates what many of us seem to know intuitively: we need each other. We are social creatures by nature, and it turns out that this social activity does more than help us feel connected and uplifted— it stimulates complex thinking.
7. Sleep Tight
If you think you don’t have time to sleep, the truth is you don’t have time not to. Sleep is an integral component of health. During sleep the body rests, regenerates, and produces crucial hormones for many physiological processes. Each stage of sleep provides different benefits to our physiological and emotional health. Some stages of sleep help us feel rested, whereas others help us learn or make memories. Sleep provides an opportunity for the brain to perform “housekeeping” tasks, such as organizing long-term memory, integrating new information, and repairing and renewing cells and tissues.
The average person needs six to eight hours of sleep per day, but most of us don’t get as much as we need. In fact, most Westerners are chronically sleep deprived, and studies have shown that this deprivation has dire health consequences. Sleep deprivation has been linked to obesity, increased alcohol and tobacco use, hormone imbalances, and a higher incidence of diabetes and high blood pressure. Furthermore, sleep deprivation compromises the immune system, making it more difficult to fight off infection. Persistent sleep deprivation can result in significant mood swings and erratic behavior.
Some common lifestyle habits may be affecting your sleep. Alcohol before bedtime has been shown to interfere with high-quality sleep, especially in women.5 Electronic devices may also rob you of precious sleep. Some research indicates that the glow from these devices can disrupt the body’s sleep rhythms.6
For optimal health, make sleep a priority. Set yourself up for sleep success:
- Create a sleep schedule and follow it.
- Develop a soothing bedtime ritual that helps you wind down and prepare for sleep.
- Create a healthy sleep environment: a quiet, dark, cool room free of electronic devices is best.
- For several hours prior to bedtime, avoid anything that may interfere with sleep, including alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, exercise, work, electronic devices, and large meals.
Sleep is not a waste of time; it’s essential to our emotional and physical well-being. Take care of your health by doing something that comes naturally: sleep.
8. Protect Your Skin
The skin is the largest organ in the body. This incredibly important but often overlooked organ performs many essential functions. It protects against germs, covers internal organs, and helps regulate the body’s temperature. Yet we often overlook the skin in our quest for health.
Healthy skin starts on the inside. To take care of your skin, be sure to get plenty of sleep, stay hydrated, eat a nutrient-dense diet, and avoid excessive toxins such as alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and tobacco.
Perhaps the most important way to care for your skin—and your health—is to prevent skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, with more than 1 million new cases each year.7 About 90 percent of all skin cancer is caused by ultraviolet (UV) exposure from the sun.8 The best way to prevent skin cancer is to protect your skin from sun exposure and monitor your skin for any changes.
There are multiple ways to protect your skin:
- Wear a broad-spectrum, high–sun protection factor (SPF) sunscreen every day. Apply it early and often, before, and during sun exposure.
- Limit sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest.
- Seek shade whenever possible.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat and protective clothing.
- To monitor your skin, stay familiar with it so that you can note changes, such as the following:
- New or changing moles
- Sores that don’t heal after 2 to 3 months
- Small raised, red areas that bleed after a minor injury
- Oozing or crusted areas of skin
- Change in sensation (itching, tenderness, or pain)
Annual skin exams by a dermatologist are an excellent way to monitor for skin cancer and catch it early, when it is most treatable. The American Academy of Dermatology partners with dermatologists across the United States to offer free skin cancer screenings in an effort to improve the rates of early detection.
A life without laughter is no life at all. Laughing is more than just fun—it’s good for your health. In fact, clinical research has proven that it can reduce stress hormones and boost the immune system.9
Laughter triggers the release of endorphins (health enhancing, feel-good hormones). It has been shown to elevate mood and reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Researchers from Loma Linda University in California have been studying the effects of laughter on the immune system and have found that laughter can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, and boost immunity. Laughter increases the number of antibody-producing cells and enhances the effectiveness of T-cells, which results in a stronger immune system and fewer physical effects of stress.
Laughter is so powerful that it even works in the absence of humor. In other words, even when you’re not faced with something funny, laughter can be effective. Laughter is contagious and powerful medicine. Find a way to bring laughter into your world and watch your mood shift and your spirits soar.
10. Count Your Blessings
We’ve all experienced moments when we’ve been overwhelmed by gratitude, perhaps even moved to tears. It is a powerful feeling and creates a rush of endorphins that lift us up. Gratitude takes thank-you to the next level. It is a deep sense of appreciation. To feel grateful is to feel warm, joyful, and blessed.
You don’t need to receive a gift or favor to feel grateful; gratitude is a feeling you can cultivate. In fact, gratitude can become a habit. Counting your blessings is a way of shifting into a positive mind-set and seeing your glass as half-full rather than half-empty. In fact, some research indicates that people who are grateful are healthier, happier, less stressed, and more satisfied with their lives. They tend to have more-positive coping strategies, better sleep, and healthier relationships.
For a lifetime of health and happiness, make it a habit to count your blessings. Some people choose to keep a daily gratitude journal; others find it’s enough to simply maintain a mental tally of blessings.
- Geda YE, Roberts RO, Knopman DS, et al. Physical exercise and mild cognitive impairment: a population-based study. Archives of Neurology. 2010;67(1):80-86.
- Baker LD, Frank LL, Foster-Schubert K, et al. Effects of aerobic exercise on mild cognitive impairment: a controlled trial. Archives of Neurology. 2010;67(1):71-79.
- Glei DA, Landau DA, Goldman N, Chuang Y, Rodríguez G, Weinstein M. Participating in social activities helps preserve cognitive function: an analysis of a longitudinal, population-based study of the elderly. International Journal of Epidemiology. 2005;34:864-81.
- James BD, Wilson RS, Barnes LL, Bennett DA. Late-life social activity and cognitive decline in old age. Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society. 2011;17(6):998-1005.
- Arnedt JT, Rohsenow DJ, Almeida AB, et al. Sleep following alcohol intoxication in healthy, young adults: effects of sex and family history of alcoholism. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research. 2011;35(5):870-88.
- Suganuma N, Kikuchi T, Yanagi K, et al. Using electronic media before sleep can curtail sleep time and result in self-perceived insufficient sleep. Sleep and Biological Rhythms. 2007;5(3):204-14.
- Cancer Facts and Figures 2011. American Cancer Society website. Available at: http://www.cancer.org/Research/CancerFactsFigures/CancerFactsFigures/cancer-facts-figures-2011. Accessed June 21, 2012.
- Pleasance ED, Cheetham RK, Stephens PJ, et al. A comprehensive catalogue of somatic mutations from a human cancer genome. Nature. 2010;463:191-196.
- Berk LS, Felten DL, Tan SA, Bittman BB, Westengard J. Modulation of neuroimmune parameters during the eustress of humor-associated mirthful laughter. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine. 2001;7(2):62-72, 74-76.