Let’s face it, the thought of getting older isn’t always top of mind, likely because it’s more fun to live in the moment than think about what’s coming next. But here’s an advantage of thinking about your future now — you might be able to incorporate new practices into your life while you’re younger to ensure that you’re still your best self when you’re older.
“We are all aging from the moment we are born, so it is definitely true that health behaviors from earlier in life can impact you later,” says Dr. Katherine Bennett, a physician at the Senior Care Clinic at Harborview Medical Center. “That being said, it is never too late to start. Even small changes much later in life can impact your health and well-being in a positive way.”
And yes, it can be harder to make changes later in life, says Dr. May Reed, the medical director of the Senior Care Clinic at Harborview Medical Center, but it’s still important to try. “Many of us spend our early and middle adult years caring for others more than themselves.” That’s right — it's time to care for yourself, too.
So, which healthy practices will help you reach older age in good form? Don’t worry; you won’t have to transform your life to stay healthy for the long haul — just a few different lifestyle tweaks can make a huge difference.
Say no to added sugars
Do your best to minimize your consumption of foods high in added sugars. That’s because a diet high in sugar is bad news for your heart and sets you up for diseases like fatty liver and diabetes. Sugar added to foods is a problem, as is the high sugar content of juices.
“A healthy, well-rounded, balanced diet and exercise have positive impacts on aging well and managing common health conditions associated with aging such as high blood pressure and diabetes,” says Bennett.
Move your body
Exercise for 20 to 30 minutes four or more days per week. The best practice is combining aerobic exercise, which has cardiovascular effects; weight-bearing exercise, which is good for your bones; and resistance or strength training, which builds and maintains muscle.
If you don’t have much free time to squeeze in a run or visit the gym, a quick, moderate-intensity workout can also benefit your body. Just don’t forget to do a quick warm-up before you get started, and a cool-down after you’re done.
“There is no magic pill to guarantee successful aging, but a healthy diet and exercise are as close as we have,” says Bennett.
Get some shut-eye
Get seven to eight hours of sleep every night, and make plans around your sleep schedule. Yes, really. It’s that significant.
Adequate sleep is important in reducing your risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity; preserving cognition and immune function; and improving your mood and sociability.
Plus, when you get enough sleep, your productivity also improves. That’s a win-win.
Getting at least seven hours of sleep isn’t always realistic for everyone, whether due to a busy work schedule, kids or anything else that might keep you from bed. Try to do the best you can, and remember to ask for help if you need it.
Lower your stress level
A few minutes of stress-reducing activities every day can ease anxiety and make you more resilient. Try a mindfulness practice, restorative yoga or a creative outlet that you enjoy. Stress is bad for you in many ways, not the least of which is that it increases inflammation, which accelerates many diseases.
If you deal with chronic stress, it might be harder to tap into those activities and find relief. Remember that you can always seek extra support to get your stress levels to a healthier, manageable level.
Don’t cancel those plans
See your friends. Talk to them on the phone. Send them funny memes. Be social (but also be mindful of your social limits).
“Both stress and social relationships are very impactful on health,” says Bennett. “Loneliness and social isolation are huge public health concerns. Studies have shown that prolonged loneliness may be as impactful on your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.”
Other studies have shown that people with at least a few solid social ties are happier and healthier. The National Institutes of Health reports that those with large, diverse social ties tend to be happier — and live longer, too.
“Being lonely increases your risk of a variety of health conditions, increases the likelihood of older adults being admitted to nursing homes and needing emergency room care, and increases the likelihood that you will need assistance with common daily tasks,” says Bennett.
Reed echoes this sentiment, adding that multiple models have shown that stress accelerates aging and social relationships, of all kinds, slow down the aging process. “Like healthy practices, it is never too late to pay attention to these additional factors,” says Reed.
Eat your fruits and veggies
Like the adults always said: There’s a reason you’re supposed to eat your fruits and veggies —they’re good for you.
Aim to eat five to nine servings a day and look for various colors. The pigments that give your fruits and vegetables color represent a variety of phytonutrients that are nutritious.
You won’t be perfect, but it’s enough to try
Even if you don’t practice these recommendations daily, being consistent and working toward a healthy lifestyle is still a good practice.
“You’re never too old to act young,” says Reed.
And at the end of the day, future you will thank you for keeping up with these healthy habits — and for giving them a long, healthy life.