I was taught to believe that longevity is 70% determined by your genes. Want to live a long life? Get yourself some long-lived parents!
But it turns out that the ratio is actually in reverse. Only 30% of a person’s longevity is determined by genetics. Which means the other 70% is up to you. And progress is being made. In fact, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, centenarians are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population.
But it’s not enough to simply live a long life, you want to live a life that’s long AND enjoyable… healthy and active to the end.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way a majority of American lives will go. The Centers for Disease Control predicts that over half of us will spend our final years in a nursing home, medicated and unable to care for ourselves.
Unless, that is, we make some smart choices.
Fact is, many of the simple decisions you make every day will determine whether your later years are marked by dependence, disease, and lack of mobility… or you are still playing tennis in your seventies, traveling the world in your eighties, and horsing around with the great-grandkids through your nineties.
That said, here are seven decisions you can make today that will help you make it to your big one-zero-zero birthday in fine shape:
1. Eat your antioxidants.
Our bodies are constantly challenged by “free-radicals” – substances in the food we eat and the environment around us that cause the oxidation and breakdown of our cells. Without the protection you get from antioxidants, these free-radicals can cause a domino effect of cellular damage that becomes the pathway for cancer, aging, and a variety of diseases. A healthy diet that’s rich in antioxidants will help your body neutralize these free-radicals as they occur. There are plenty of excellent nutritional supplements on the market. But your best antioxidant protection, by far, comes from a diet that includes a variety of whole fruits and vegetables.
2. Eat an all-natural diet.
Whenever possible, choose foods that are grown organically, without the use of pesticides and herbicides, and avoid genetically modified foods. If you eat meat, insist on animals (free-range poultry and grass-fed beef and bison) raised on their natural diets. If you eat fish, stick with those known to be free of pollutants. Limit your consumption of refined sugars and processed starches. And be sure to drink plenty of fresh, purified water.
3. Flex your muscles.
There are many studies showing that resistance exercise (i.e. weightlifting and calisthenics) increases muscle size and strengthens bones. This is especially important as we get older, because the loss of muscle mass and bone density is a common “side effect” of aging. Resistance exercise also increases stamina, reduces fat, and rejuvenates the hormone systems.
Some health advocates recommend longer, controlled forms of exercise, but Dr. Al Sears – who specializes in anti-aging medicine – favors shorter but more intense workouts. I’ve been testing his program myself with good results. For instance, the bulk of my Jiu-Jitsu workout lasts only 20 minutes, but during that 20 minutes I get benefits that I couldn’t get from two hours of jogging.
4. Stretch your joints.
In my personal experience, there’s nothing better for beating the aches and pains of an aging back, shoulders, joints, etc. than a combination of yoga and Pilates. To get the most from these popular programs, get instruction from an instructor who has therapeutic experience – and push yourself to become increasingly flexible.
5. Stimulate the “little gray cells.”
The brain is often likened to a muscle in that it gets stronger with exercise. I’m talking about exercise like doing crossword puzzles (a personal favorite of mine), word games, learning a new language, keeping a journal, and working actively on a business or hobby.
Brain cells talk to each other through chemicals known as neurotransmitters. “Think of the chemicals as squirrels leaping from one tree to another,” says Gene Cohen of the Center on Aging. “If the adjacent trees have more branches, it’s easier for the squirrels to leap from tree to tree.” And, in fact, The New York Times cites studies indicating that if you stimulate your brain, you can increase those important contact points by as much as 20%.
6. Reduce your stress.
The simplest way I know of to reduce stress is to make a list of the 10 things, people, or situations that are aggravating you. Then make a plan to eliminate or radically reduce each one of them over time.
7. Get plenty of rest.
You might find the energy to make it through the day on four hours of sleep – but if you keep that up for too long, your health will suffer. Most of us need at least six hours to function properly. To get the full benefit of the restorative effects of sleep, your rest should be uninterrupted and you should sleep in a cool, dark room. I have also heard that every hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours of sleep after midnight. This has to do with our natural biorhythms – and is just one more reason to be “early to bed, and early to rise.”
People don’t simply die of old age. Death is caused by disease or severe damage to the body. And the extent to which your body is susceptible to disease and damage is largely based on the lifestyle choices you make every day.
The choices I suggested above offer you not just a long lifespan but also a quality “healthspan.”[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]