One of the most common questions that we get asked is: what is the key to living longer? It’s a simple question with a complex answer. Some of the factors to living a healthy, vibrant life are beyond our control—genetics, disease, etc…—but there are several things you can do as you get older to help ensure a long and productive life.
The first and most important thing is incorporating physical fitness into your life. This doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym five times a week or running 10 miles a day. It’s about changing the balance from a sedentary to an active lifestyle. Awareness of this balance is essential. Walk, don’t ride, take the stairs instead of the elevator.
Fitness programs should encompass four facets, which are germane and can be tailored to any individual lifestyle. The first is establishing a consistent aerobic and cardiovascular program. This can be walking, jogging, swimming or biking for 30 minutes a day. Whatever you do, it should be fun. Don’t try and overdo it. Stick to it to maximize the long-term benefits and prevent injury.
Second, strengthen your muscles. Weights, machines or any form of strength training will do the trick. Doing nothing won’t work and age will rob you of the power to be independent and productive. Slow, steady progress is the key for the best results and avoiding injury. Think in terms of months and years not days as you strive for strength and vigor. Don’t forget your “core” muscles.
[daily_cut]Third, stretching your joints and muscles will slow the natural tendency towards stiffness that comes with old age. Remaining supple through stretching will lead to increased grace as well as a sense of well-being. People often become aware of the euphoria following stretching exercises. This can be achieved through common exercise programs, yoga or Pilates, but not by procrastination.
Fourth, balance training through yoga poses or just practicing one leg stances will decrease the likelihood of stumbles and falls. Preventing fractures as we age is much easier than treating them after they occur.
Diet, weight control and nutritional supplements remain areas of great debate in medicine today. Nonetheless, certain qualities appear reasonable based on today’s best science. The maxim “the lean horse wins the race” still holds. Obesity as measured by BMI is universally viewed as an adverse health risk. A low carbohydrate diet is helpful in controlling one’s weight. Free or simple sugars lead to high insulin peaks, more hunger and the vicious cycle starts. Complex sugars, whole grains, protein and unsaturated fats are a better combination.
Optimal composition of dietary intake remains debatable and changes from year to year. However, it seems wise to moderate fats (particularly saturated fats), limit simple carbohydrates and use a balanced diet rich in fresh colored fruits and vegetables. Small meals (grazing) are better than a few big meals.
Dietary supplements, though widely used, lack much high level scientific support. Furthermore, their purity and concentration frequently are inconsistent. We would suggest that high quality fish oil (4 grams/day) and one baby aspirin are reasonable dietary supplements.
Avoidance of smoking, habit forming drugs, particularly narcotic painkillers and sleeping pills, anabolic steroids and excessive alcohol seems prudent and good common sense.
An often overlooked and central factor in good health is emotional well-being. The linkage between emotional strength and physical well-being appears stronger with each passing year of study. Achieving emotional well-being is not an easy task and remains the focus of endless debate. It would seem that spirituality and focus on service—giving not taking—is a more certain road to happiness than striving for power, material wealth and fame. Certainly our genetic constitution is important, but what defines our life goals counts for a lot.
Leading a long, healthy and independent life is a complicated and daunting challenge. However, a dedicated exercise program, eating well and achieving serenity will take us a long way towards living longer, staying young at heart and aging gracefully.
Dr. Richard H. Rothman is the founder of the Rothman Institute and is an internationally renowned orthopedic surgeon. For more information about the Rothman Institute, go to rothmaninstitute.com.