If you knew there was a specific list of things you could do that would increase your chances of living longer, would you follow it? A recently published study in the American Heart Association’s Circulation Journal does just that, listing the top five healthy habits that could add at least a decade onto your life. One can’t help but think that these five factors—avoiding tobacco, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and keeping alcohol consumption to moderate levels—are pretty obvious. But why do we have a problem sticking to them?
“On average, 75% of longevity is determined by behavior,” says James W. Jones, MD, PhD, MHA, author of Live Better While You Age: Tips and Tools for a Healthier, Longer Life (Rowman & Littlefield). “The vast majority of what we have in our bodies are things we bring on ourselves.”
Jackie Corcoran, a Montana-based Certified Holistic Health Coach, works with her clients to make sustainable change, which often means delving deeper into the reasons we keep practicing unhealthy habits, even when we know they’re harmful.
“Just follow the plan, right?” Corcoran says. “Wrong. Making lifestyle changes is hard. Usually when we’re doing something that we know isn’t good for us, we’re getting pleasure out of it, and we don’t want to give that up.”
Howard S. Friedman, PhD, has been exploring longevity for the past 25 years for his Longevity Project (including a book of the same name, published by Plume). He studied more than 1,500 Americans who were first examined as children in the 1920s, and then were followed for their whole lives. What are the secrets of the thrivers?
“We think the answer lies in healthy pathways,” Friedman says. “The healthiest people generally associate with other healthy, active, dedicated persons. Healthy behaviors on a healthy trajectory keep your bodily systems functioning well and, second, reduce the risk of injury. No long lists of ‘do this, do that’ advice are necessary; the healthy patterns are key. Throw away your lists of resolutions!”
Here’s a look at some of the less obvious things that one can do to create healthier patterns and change unhealthy behaviors—and perhaps increase one’s chances of living longer.
If you know the lifestyle change you should make to improve your health, why not just do it?
“For sustainable change to happen, we need to uncover our hidden blocks to change, our subconscious beliefs that keep us stuck,” Corcoran says. Ask yourself what’s holding you back, and if that obstacle were removed, if you would actually make the change.
If the answer is no, look deeper. “Maybe you believe that changing your diet will alienate you from people you care about,” Corcoran notes. “Once you start looking at these deep-seated subconscious beliefs, you get a better understanding of why you can’t make the change, have greater empathy for yourself and create a strategy that addresses these blocks.”
Write It Down
Corcoran believes it’s important to take the time to write down lifestyle goals: A person’s current status, objectives and core desires.
“At the start of lifestyle change endeavors, I strongly encourage everyone to take time to write out their personal purpose statement—their reason for being alive on this planet,” she says.
“This gives greater meaning to each day, helps us stay motivated and gets us back on track after we inevitably stray from our change path.”
Friedman promotes hard work and keeping busy as ways to lead one down the path to overall health and happiness.
“Responsibility at work, or in volunteer organizations, naturally brings more challenges. But the Longevity Project showed that these promoted thriving, not impairment,” he explains. “Prudent, persistent, active achievers with good social networks usually stay healthy and live long.”
So busy can mean better, as long as it doesn’t mean additional stress.
Lessen Chronic Stress
| Supporting hormonal balance|
One of the most notable effects of age is how it affects hormone levels. And while men do undergo hormonal fluctuations, the best-known hormonal change is menopause, when a woman’s menstrual cycles stop and her body produces less estrogen and progesterone.
Some women sail right past menopause with hardly any problems at all. However, fatigue is a common postmenopausal complaint; others include sleep disturbances, mood changes, sexual difficulties and noticeable changes in skin and hair texture. A woman’s risk for developing heart disease and osteoporosis also rise after menopause.
Proper diet and exercise not only help ease fatigue and other postmenopausal issues, but also reduce risk for disorders often associated with age. In addition, a number of herbs have long been used to support optimal hormonal balance.
One of these botanical therapies, maca, has been credited by traditional healers in Peru, its native land, with improvements in energy, mental clarity and sex drive (a usage supported by the amino acids L-arginine and L-histidine). To the north, healers in Mexico have long relied on damiana to ease anxiety and enhance libido (and to stimulate proper digestion as well). Valerian, an herb used for centuries in Europe, is best known as a sleep aid that also takes the edge off stress.
Asia supplies its share of hormone-balancing botanicals. One of the most famous is China’s dong quai, a tonic for the female reproductive system. In India, an herbal blend from India’s Ayurvedic healing tradition, Alanzeebium, also helps promote healthier hormonal balance.
Passing menopause doesn’t have to signal decline. A healthy lifestyle and savvy supplementation can help make a real difference.
Speaking of stress: Not only can it affect overall well-being, but it can also lead to a weakened immune system and to high blood pressure, a major cause of heart attack and stroke.
“As a body is stressed, it produces all kinds of adrenal hormones that cause your blood pressure to rise and the fires in your self to increase,” Jones says. He recommends adopting a “this too shall pass” attitude and increasing resilience to stress triggers.
“Say a loved one has a disease: These are things that we all have to deal with and accept as part of life,” Jones notes. “Some people concentrate on, and are obsessed with, bad news. It’s not the good times that cause you to be sick, it’s the bad times.”
Avoid Chronic Inflammation
Many studies have linked chronic inflammation with illnesses ranging from Alzheimer’s to heart disease.
As your body’s way of fighting illness and toxins, inflammation occurs naturally. However, some things trigger it more than others, such as smoking, which causes the lungs to be chronically inflamed.
Jones claims that another big one is being overweight. “You don’t grow more fat cells, you gain weight because as you’re taking in too much fat, the cells act like warehouses and get larger,” he says. “The fat cells of obese people are much bigger, and if the cells get too large, they tell your body by secreting long-term poisons that lead to inflammation.”
Choose Friends Well
Want to follow the pathway towards longevity? Then stick around other active, healthy people, Friedman says.
“In our modern society, the healthiest people and the healthiest places are those where people around you love to stay in shape,” he explains. “In these communities, people naturally eat healthier foods, don’t overeat and don’t use tobacco or drugs. If you want to keep up with friends or associates who like to dance or jog or hike or bike or ski or swim or surf, then you naturally tend to stay fit!”
Develop Deep Relationships
Studies have found that being social, especially among the elderly, can increase health and longevity.
Jones says, “If you’re more relationship-oriented and have more social contacts, stress levels come down and resilience levels come up.” He adds that living alone is not good for longevity, and that those with good marriages have a better chance of living longer.
Along the lines of socialization for longevity is finding meaningful ways to help others.
“The Longevity Project revealed that the thrivers are those who toil at something they love, and never totally stop striving,” Friedman says. “A related element is being dedicated to helping others in a loving relationship, whether it’s a marriage or good friendship or volunteer work.
This requires responsibility and involvement, and yes, often involves hard work, but work that is fulfilling.”
Become Health Savvy
According to Jones, not enough people understand health basics, such as what it takes to lead a healthy life, instead relying on good genes or good luck.
“In my 35 years as a doctor, I’ve been amazed at how little people knew about their medical care and well-being,” Jones notes. He explains that one study tested for overall health knowledge, and those with low scores had more emergency room visits and overall health trouble in their lives.
“If the rules are important, and you don’t know the rules, you’re in trouble,” Jones says, adding that learning about healthy eating, exercise and how to get weight under control can go a long way toward a healthy lifestyle and potentially a longer life. And getting routine medical checkups, including blood work, can help you figure out where you need improvement.
More Antioxidants, Less Food
Jones explains that the healthiest diet habit is to take in the foods with the highest amount of antioxidants, such as beans, berries and greens. Studies have shown that natural sources of antioxidants can prevent or delay cell damage, therefore preventing cancer and other diseases.
Jones also recommends eating smaller portions, and leaving the rest on the plate when your body feels about 80% full. “There’s absolutely no reason why we should eat three big meals a day,” he says. “Maybe back when people were working hard in the field.” He also suggests eating bigger meals earlier in the day, when the metabolism is more active, and eating only when you are hungry.
The Happiness/Health Link
Friedman also explains that happiness doesn’t lead to health: The two go hand in hand, and inevitably lead to longevity.
“Happiness and health often naturally arise together as part of active, achieving and trustworthy lives,” he says. “The happiness is not causing good health. Rather, both emerge from the healthy patterns. Focused individuals get more education and tend to move into more stable, meaningful jobs, and have longer-lasting marriages or relationships.”