Living to an older age than our parents is becoming more of a reality with all the advances in medicine and research on ageing. But increasing your lifespan is only meaningful if you are also able to also increase your healthspan – the number of healthy years you live.
One important study in 2010 documented Blue Zones1 - the unique locations around the world where people lived the longest while enjoying good health. Additional research on the subject of longevity has identified many simple actions to support this lifestyle. To get you started on this journey, here are ten helpful tips.
Less is more
The quantity of what we eat is a big health factor. With obesity epidemic in developing countries2, the negative health issues rapidly increase as the overweight body struggles to manage. Moderation is the key, as well as lower calorie consumption. Some studies also show that spacing out meals in a plan called intermittent fasting allows the body to optimize cellular repair and lower the risk of diabetes. The most common method is called 16/8 which restricts the daily eating period to 8 hours, such as 1–9 pm or 7 am to 3 pm, or even 10 am to 6 pm. Then you are fasting for 16 hours in-between.
Two new studies suggest fasting for just one day a month over many years can lengthen lifespan and enhance cardiovascular health.3
Moderation = longevity
No smoking and less drinking are also sound pieces of advice. The effects of smoking are well documented and anti-smoking campaigns make this clear: heart disease, lung cancer, etc. are the result. For a long, healthy life we need to reduce these type destructive actions. Drinking in excess is also hard on the heart and liver and can accelerate ageing. A moderate approach is best – some experts even recommend a glass of red wine a day because it contains antioxidants that may help prevent heart disease.4
You are what you eat
Every item of food you consume goes into building your cells, organs, skin and brain. These days eating a mainly vegetarian (plant based) diet is not so unusual as the health benefits are acknowledged for reducing the risk of many chronic illnesses5. Being a strict vegetarian is not necessary for good health as the ‘Mediterranean diet’ (known for boosting longevity) also shows benefits. Increasing the percentage of fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains in your diet will already bring positive results. Choosing healthy foods over processed and high sugar content food is a good start.
Move it or lose it!
Being active is a critical element of a healthier life. We spend too much of our days in sedentary situations, so getting up and moving more is essential. You don’t have to sign up for a gym membership – the simple act of walking more is enough to support a good healthspan. Daily walks of 30 minutes, done four times a week are a suggested minimum for maintaining optimal health6. Neuroscientist Shane O’Mara believes that regular walking raises levels of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which increases resilience to ageing, and damage caused by trauma or infection. Walking also helps to grow the network of blood vessels carrying oxygen and nutrients to brain cells.7
In Japan they have an expression shinrin-yoku or forest bathing which means being in nature purposefully. In the 1990s, researchers found that forests “promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments”. Another study found significantly decreased levels of hostility and depression among subjects who spent a regular amount of time in forests.8
Even keeping a few snapshots of greenery around your work desk might not be a bad idea. Researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of Hong Kong found when participants viewed images of nature and tree-lined streets, their stress levels lowered. The thicker the tree-cover in the pictures, the lower the subjects’ stress levels dropped.9
Go out to get up
Keeping socially active when we get older can be a challenge and even younger people today spend more time alone than earlier generations (thank you internet!). People who have a network of friends, belong to a club or do volunteer work remain younger in their brain which in turns supports a healthy body. Meeting with family members and integrating into your community are some of the best things you can do to support mental health. Loneliness and depression are byproducts of a sheltered life which effects longevity and wellbeing. Get out of your home and engage – you will be a happier person.
Sleep longer, grow younger
Sleep is one of the most important elements to support our health. In his book ‘Why We Sleep’, Matthew Walker10 documents the science behind sleep. He shows how a good night’s sleep enhances your memory and creativity, keeps you slim and reduces food cravings plus protects against, colds, flu, cancer and dementia. It also lowers the risk of heart attacks, strokes and diabetes. A study done by UCLA researchers discovered that just a single night of insufficient sleep can make an older adults’ cells age quicker.11 A good dose of sleep also makes your skin age less fast.12 Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience said in an article in the journal Neuron: “We’ve done a good job of extending life span, but a poor job of extending our health span. We now see sleep, and improving sleep, as a new pathway for helping remedy that.”13 Get your 8 hours of quality sleep every night and see how much better you feel. One important step to a good night’s sleep is reducing screen time 1-2 hours before bedtime. The blue light that screens emit simulates the sun’s rays and tricks your body into a daytime active state.
Stress is sadly now a standard part of modern society. When a person is under stress the adrenal glands release cortisol which is damaging to the body. Too much stress leads to conditions like burnout (chronic fatigue and depression), heart attacks and other diseases. Take a look and see what activities cause you stress and then seek alternatives. Stress management techniques and restorative yoga exercises will bring you back into balance and lower your heart rate to a normal level. Look at cutting back on stimulants like coffee. A recent study by Harvard University showed that stress can even turn your hair prematurely gray14. Part of our wellbeing is our sense of youthfulness which is influenced by our appearance.
The inside helps the outside
Mindfulness practices have become standard in the fast paced, high stress world of big corporations as they look to support healthier, more productive employees. The documented health benefits of meditation include an improved immune system, better sleep and production of the anti-aging hormone DHEA while decreasing blood pressure, cholesterol and depression.15 Practices like conscious breathing are a step towards living a fulfilled life with a better sense of connection to the world around you. It also enhances whatever religion or spiritual practice you follow and provides clarity in helping find a life purpose (which can add 8 extra years of life expectancy).16
Stepping into health
Dancing is one of the best all-round activities you can engage in. You have a defined movement that helps dexterity, balance and flexibility. As you practice specific sequences integrated with the music, it develops and maintains body-mind coordination and improves concentration which also helps protect against memory loss and cognitive decline. Dancing provides a fun social activity as you are active in a group as well as with a partner which helps put a smile on your face. Happy people live a healthier life with reduced risk of heart disease, cancer and infection and a recent study shows that optimistic people live a longer life.17
These are only a few of the many actions you can take. Dive deeper into any one of these tips to get more details for living a longer, healthier life.