Top Habits for Healthy Aging

Action Plan for a Longer, Better Life

While many researchers used to believe that living longer only bought us more years of disability, it's now widely accepted that regular healthy behaviors like eating a nutritious diet, quitting smoking, and drinking only in moderation can help you grow old more slowly, avoid age-related diseases, disability, and improve your longevity in general.

The challenge is knowing where to start. Overhauling your diet and exercise routine can be overwhelming, so here are some longevity shortcuts. They're small actions you can start today to build habits that will keep you living a better, longer life.

Have a Green Smoothie Every Day

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Numerous studies, including one published in 2011 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, have identified the so-called Mediterranean diet as one of the shortest ways to achieve a nutritious eating plan. But getting the five or more servings of fruits and vegetables that this plant-based diet recommends can be a challenge. A green smoothie — a blended mix of leafy greens and fruit — can pack that many servings into one big glass, with no cooking and little effort. If you toss in a source of omega-3 fatty acids and dietary fiber like hemp hearts or chia seeds, you're well on your way to warding off heart disease, cancer and diabetes. A green smoothie can help you lose weight, too, since boosting the water content within your food keeps you satisfied longer than drinking the same amount of fluid alongside a meal.

Get 5 Minutes of Vigorous Exercise

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Five minutes a day of vigorous exercise may seem like a ridiculously small amount, but consider this: a small 2013 study by University of Alabama at Birmingham researchers concluded that exercising just one day a week was sufficient to boost endurance and strength in a group of female subjects over the age of 60. After 16 weeks, the women doing resistance and aerobic exercise only once per week improved as much as those doing three times as much.

The takeaway message? Small, consistent actions bear results. Since the first minute or so of any exercise activity seems to be the most difficult to do, chances are good that you'll stick with the activity if you simply get started. On days you complete just five minutes, you're still ahead! Keeping it vigorous — causing you to break a sweat on a cool day, for example — will contribute to your cardiovascular fitness and help you ward off cognitive decline.

Meditate for a Few Minutes

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It may seem counter to the spirit of meditation to try to do it quickly, but practicing mindfulness medititation for even brief periods can start to induce the same brain changes and long-term health benefits associated with much lengthier sessions. Oxford University psychology professor Mark Williams and his team have developed a mini-meditation that can help provide calm in an otherwise frantic day. Set a reminder on your smartphone, or fill a typically unproductive few minutes in a bank or grocery store lineup by focusing on your breathing, and taking stock of the mood that threatens to overtake you. It's a great introduction to the practice of meditation, one that might convince you to set aside more time for reflection each day moving forward.

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Measure Your Weight and Your Belly Once a Week

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No one wants to obsess over the number on their scale, especially if they're trying to concentrate on the bigger picture of aging well. But carrying too much weight on your frame can hurt your longevity, and contribute to serious conditions like heart disease, stroke, and fatty liver disease. While there's some debate over the pros and cons of daily weigh-ins, checking your weight at least once a week offers an early warning sign that you've over-indulged, and will help you readjust your daily eating plan before you gain any more. If you are trying to lose weight, stepping on the scale once a week will give you a realistic picture of your progress.

By measuring your waistline once a week, you can see if you are at risk of obesity-related illnesses which are linked to too much belly fat. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend a waist circumference under 40 inches (100 cm) for men, and under 35 inches (89 cm) if you're a non-pregnant woman.

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Contact a Friend

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Staying connected with friends and family is a major component of better longevity. In fact, the health risks of being isolated were compared to the risks of obesity and smoking by authors of a 2010 review of 148 different studies published in PLoS Medicine. Having regular contact with supportive people helps you manage stress, which can keep the stress hormone cortisol from threatening your longevity. Whether it's an old friend or a new acquaintance, try to expand your social circle one conversation at a time.

Bottom line

The good news is, it's never too late to adopt new habits and improve your lifestyle. Dana King, Chair of the Department of Family Medicine at West Virginia University and author of a 2013 study chronicling the declining health of baby boomers, tells me his own past research proves that making healthy changes in midlife can still produce "measurable and significant benefits". Published in The American Journal of Medicine in 2007, his study of more than 15,000 subjects over the age of 45 found that adults who began to eat 5 fruits and vegetables daily, walk a minimum of 2 1/2 hours per week, maintain a BMI in the healthy range (18.5-29.5) and avoid smoking, enjoyed a 40% drop in mortality after only 4 years when compared with subjects not adhering to these healthy behaviors.

Tip: Follow the lead of someone you think is aging well, and use them as a healthy aging mentor. Find out how, here.


Dana E King, Arch G Mainous, Mark E Geesey. "Turning Back the Clock: Adopting a Healthy Lifestyle in Middle Age." American Journal of Medicine (2007) 120, 598-603. Also: Interview with the lead author conducted February 6, 2013.

Dana E King, Eric Matheson, Svetlana Chirina, Anoop Shankar, Jordan Browman-Fulks. "Overall Health Status of Baby Boomers Appears Lower Than Previous Generation." JAMA Intern Med Published online February 4, 2013.

Gordon Fisher, John P McCarthy, Paul A Zuckerman, David R Bryan, C Scott Bickel, and Gary R Hunter. "Frequency of Combined Resistance and Aerobic Training in Older Women."

Holt-Lundstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. "Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-Analytic Review." PLoS Med 2010:7e1000316.

Make Health Last. Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada Public Information Sheet. Accessed September 4, 2013.

Mark Williams and Danny Penman. “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.” Rodale Press. 2011. Also: Personal correspondence with the author, June 2012.

Matthieu Maillot et al. "The shortest way to reach nutritional goals is to adopt Mediterranean food choices: evidence from computer-generated personalized diets." Am J Clin Nutr October 2011 vol. 94 no. 4 1127-1137

Stephen D. Barger. "Social Integration, Social Support and Mortality in the US National Health Interview Survey." Psychosomatic Medicine 75:510Y517 (2013).

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