There are a number of things you can put on your to-do list in an effort to live longer, whether you’re in your 20s or 30s, all the way to your 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, and beyond. In fact, research has shown it's never too late to start healthy habits.
But what about the things you might stop doing -- in the name of your longevity?
- Read more: How to break your worst habits
1. Stop eating mainly processed foods
For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends consuming no more than 2,300 mg (less than 2.4g) of sodium each day -– less for many seniors and other people with certain health conditions, like high blood pressure. Still, in a survey of more than 7,000 Americans, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found people consume an average of 3,300 mg of sodium per day. Most of the salt comes from restaurant and convenience foods, like baked goods, cured meats and soup.
Do your body a favor, and try to eat "clean" more often, including foods high in fiber (which are linked to greater longevity) and other ingredients you purchase and prepare yourself. If you’re short on time (and who isn’t?), cook ahead in big batches, or splurge on ready-made salads and other fresh or frozen vegetables, while watching the sodium and sugar contents on the label.
2. Stop smoking
If you’re a smoker, you know how hard quitting can be, but here’s some inspiration: The NIH says tobacco use remains the most preventable cause of death. Some estimates suggest smoking can rob you of a decade of life.
Whether you quit cold-turkey or phase out your habit, your body is surprisingly forgiving; blood pressure and circulation improve soon after quitting, and your risk of getting cancer decreases every year thereafter. Keep in mind that your family members will also benefit from your staying tobacco-free because they'll no longer be exposed to dangerous second-hand smoke. You'll look younger, too.
- Now the good news: How many years do you gain, if you quit?
3. Stop sitting still
If you don’t feel you have time to exercise, consider this: You may not need to hit the global minimum recommendations of 30 minutes a day, five or more times per week, to extend your life. A huge study published in 2011 in The Lancet, examining the activity habits of more than 416,000 men and women in Taiwan, found that getting just 15 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise each day helped subjects live three extra years. The longevity boost went up to four years of longer life for people achieving the threshold of 30 minutes a day. The results held true even for those with health problems like cardiovascular disease -- and for overweight people who didn’t lose any pounds through their activity.
Brisk walking was one of the "moderate intensity" exercises cited in the Taiwanese research. You might have to make a conscious effort to work it into your daily routine, but 15 minutes of activity for an extra 3 years of life sounds like a longevity bargain.
4. Stop holding a grudge
Anger can be a tough emotion to release, especially if you feel justified in your outrage. Maybe the best question to ask yourself is this -– is it worth the cortisol? Levels of this stress hormone go up when you’re stressed or angry, with negative effects on your heart, metabolism, and immune system. High cortisol has been associated with greater mortality in a number of studies.
Learning to forgive takes practice, but your body will thank you for it.
5. Stop keeping to yourself
Staying social can be a good longevity booster, mostly by helping you manage stress and by strengthening your immune system. Good relationships keep you strong, while bad relationships can leave you in a negative frame of mind, and put you at risk of depression and even heart attacks.
Staying connected can be a tough one if you are feeling down, have lost someone close to you, or live far away from extended family and friends. There are ways to re-engage and meet new people even if you are in a new city, including volunteering and reaching out to others with similar interests through networks like business groups and book clubs.
- Read more: How helping others helps you live longer
6. Stop thinking that only big changes count
Sweeping, radical changes in lifestyle might be inspiring, but they can also be too daunting -– and therefore, short-lived -- for ordinary mortals. The next time you resolve to eat healthier or exercise more, try aiming low! Try choosing just one small change at a time, like getting up ten minutes earlier in the morning to fix yourself a healthy lunch for work, instead of a major life makeover. Like the exercise advice above shows, even short spurts of activity each day can reap big benefits for your lifespan.
Small shifts can fly under your own radar, adding up to big benefits over time without causing stress in your busy world. Consistency is more important than a short-term, grand gesture. Besides, looking at what’s already working in your day-to-day routine can help you feel energized and motivated to tweak a little more in a healthy direction.
- Try these 5 shortcuts to daily anti-aging habits
7. Stop letting fear (or denial) keep you from being healthy
Of all the personality traits that could affect your longevity, conscientiousness consistently ranks as an important one, perhaps the most important one. Why? Well, conscientious people tend to engage in healthy behaviors like eating well, exercising, and following their doctors’ advice, while avoiding risky behaviors like smoking and driving too fast. However, don’t confuse being conscientious or diligent with being neurotic about your health, a trait that may be linked to negative emotions like anxiety, anger and depression. A simplified example might be that a neurotic person worries he might have cancer, and fearing the worst, doesn’t go to his doctor. By contrast, a conscientious person may still worry, but gets screened or tested, learns about the disease, and gets treated in a timely fashion.
8. Stop cheating your night's sleep
The amount of sleep you get can affect your lifespan, and not just because a sleepy driver is at risk of a car accident. In epidemiological studies, sleeping too little (fewer than 6 hours) or substantially more (over 9 hours) has been shown to put people at greater risk of death. Quality of life is also on the line: A good night’s sleep can help you ward off stress, depression, and heart disease.
You can learn to fall asleep more quickly and take measures that can help, like keeping your bedroom dark and distraction-free, and having the temperature on the cool side. Meditation exercises can set the stage for a good night’s sleep, and an inexpensive noise machine can help with relaxing sounds. If you’re still having trouble getting to sleep, or staying asleep, see your health provider for further help.
9. Stop stressing
Like anger, stress takes its toll on your body and may actually shorten your life. By trying to reduce stress, you can improve your health in the long-term, and quality of life in the meantime.
Journaling or writing in a diary, meditating, and learning to relax are wonderful ways to de-stress. Working in just a few minutes of meditation a day –- even at your desk -- can give your brain the mini-vacation from anxiety and tension it needs.
- Read more: Beat stress by smiling more
10. Stop relying on -- or blaming -- your genes
Having parents, grandparents, or other family members live into their nineties and beyond might suggest that you will too, but don’t rely too heavily on that family history. Studies conducted on twins in Scandinavia suggest that genetics may be responsible for only about a third of your longevity potential. This is, of course, good news for those of us without that exceptional ancestry. Environmental and lifestyle factors like diet, how much exercise you get, whether you’re exposed to workplace toxins, how much stress you experience, how conscientious you are about medical tests and screenings, and even the strength of your social relationships all play a huge role in how fast you age and how long you might live. Besides, why focus on the genetics you can’t control, when the factors you can will benefit from your attention?
Age Page: A Good Night’s Sleep. National Institute on Aging Information Sheet. Accessed March 12, 20112.
Antonio Terracciano et al. “Personality predictors of longevity: Activity, Emotional Stability, and Conscientiousness.” Psychosom Med. 2008 July; 70(6): 621–627.
Carlos Augusto Monteiroa1a et al. "Increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods and likely impact on human health: evidence from Brazil." Public Health Nutrition (2011), 14 : pp 5-13.
Dietary Sodium. National Institutes of Health Public Information Sheet. Accessed March 12, 2012.http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/dietarysodium.html
Jane E. Ferrie et al. “A Prospective Study of Change in Sleep Duration: Associations with Mortality in the Whitehall II Cohort.” Sleep 2007;30(12):1659-1666.
Martin LR, Friedman HS, Schwartz JE. “Personality and mortality risk across the life span: the importance of conscientiousness as a biopsychosocial attribute.” Health Psychol. 2007;26:428–36.
Monteiro CA, Levy RB, Claro RM, de Castro IR, Cannon G. “Increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods and likely impact on human health: evidence from Brazil.” Public Health Nutr. 2011 Jan;14(1):5-13.
Quitting Smoking. Medline US National Institutes of Health Information Sheet. Accessed March 12, 2012. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/quittingsmoking.html
Schoorlemmer RM, Peeters GM, van Schoor NM, Lips P. “Relationships between cortisol level, mortality and chronic diseases in older persons.” Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2009 Dec;71(6):779-86.
Swapnil N. Rajpathak. “Lifestyle Factors of People with Exceptional Longevity.” Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Volume 59, Issue 8, pages 1509–1512, August 2011.
Vital Signs: Food Categories Contributing the Most to Sodium Consumption — United States, 2007–2008. US Centers for Disease Control Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Accessed March 12, 2012.