As you get older, it can feel more difficult to adopt new habits or break longstanding old ones—especially when it comes to your health. You tell yourself that you’re too old to take up jogging or that you missed the boat on yoga. There’s often a tendency to stick to what you know, doing the things you’re used to whether they are good for your health or not. But while age can play a factor in your ability to engage in some activities, making healthy lifestyle choices isn’t one of them. In fact, there may not be a better time than right now to start changing your ways.
Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis observed the behaviors of more than 6,000 men and women between the ages of 44 and 84 over a period of seven years. In less than a decade, the team found overwhelming evidence that making healthy choices later in life had enormous benefits. Doing things like quitting smoking, following a Mediterranean diet, and getting regular exercise actually decreased an individual’s risk of death during the course of the study by 80 percent, the researchers said.
The problem for most people is that after age 60, physical activity steadily declines. Then the brain says, “He doesn’t need as much blood and oxygen to his muscles anymore so it’s OK if his heart and lungs get weaker. He’s not moving around nearly as much so it’s OK if his muscles get smaller and weaker. His bones don’t need to be nearly as dense anymore because he doesn’t put as much pressure on them as he used to. And he doesn’t put his body in situations where it needs good balance very often, so it’s OK if that deteriorates as well.”
Typically, after retirement, most people’s activity level gradually decreases, and after sending the above message to their body for ten or twenty years, one day they notice that they get out of breath going up the stairs, or the doctor tells them they have osteoporosis, or they notice they are feeling wobbly on their feet, and they say, “Guess it’s just because of old age.” No. It’s because for the last twenty years, through their lack of activity, they’ve been telling their body that it’s OK to deteriorate. Their lifestyle allowed and encouraged negative adaptations to take place.
If you exercise regularly, the brain says, “He likes to be active. What can I do to make all this movement easier for him? I will make his heart and lungs stronger so they can pump blood and oxygen to his muscles more efficiently. I will make his muscles stronger so he they can push and pull his body around easier. I will make his bones stronger so they can cope with the impact pressures he is experiencing. And I will make the brain coordinate with the muscles in his legs more effectively so he can be stable and not fall while he’s doing all of his activities.” So if you want to get better at something, you just have to do it on a regular basis and your body will slowly adapt.
With that motivation in mind, it’s time to cut out the excuses and get to work on these five healthy lifestyle choices you can make at any age.
Get Some Sleep
Getting a healthy amount of sleep is essential at every age. That’s because, according to a 2020 research article from the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), sleeping restores and “fortifies virtually every system in the body.” And failure to get consistent and sufficient sleep has been proven to weaken the body’s immune system—and can even make some vaccines less effective, the NSF says. In other words, not exactly a risk you want to take during a pandemic. So, make sure you are getting the recommend seven to nine hours of sleep a night and talk to your doctor if you are having trouble.
Be More Active
While physical activity may feel like more of an uphill climb than it used to be in your younger years, it’s highly important that you don’t let your age prevent you from keeping active. “Exercise is also one of the best things you can do to help prevent dementia and other cognitive changes,” Argye Hillis, MD, director of the cerebrovascular division at Johns Hopkins Medicine, said in a statement. It also lowers your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and certain cancers, she says. Once it has been cleared by your doctor that it’s safe for you to exercise, Hillis says to aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity—anything from a light jog to a leisurely stroll—most days of the week.
Keep Your Mind Sharp
It’s not only your body you have to keep in good shape, but your brain as well. And just like your body, your mind needs regular workouts. According to Harvard Medical School: “Challenging your brain with mental exercise is believed to activate processes that help maintain individual brain cells and stimulate communication among them.” Whether it’s playing chess or, as Johns Hopkins recommends, learning a new language, always make sure you are stimulating your brain—especially as you get older.
When it comes to the dangers of smoking—and the life-saving benefits of quitting—the stats speak for themselves. As soon as 24 hours after you stop smoking, Johns Hopkins doctors say you start to decrease your risk of having a heart attack. What’s more, quitting decreased middle-aged smokers’ risk of dying early by almost 50 percent.
According to Hillis, one of the best things you can do to help prevent dementia and lower several other health risks is to eat a Mediterranean diet. What does that mean exactly? Load up on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, olive oil, and fish, while keeping red meat, sugar, and processed foods to an absolute minimum.