There are a number of things you can resolve to do in order to “slow down” your biological clock and live longer, whether you’re in your 20s or 30s, all the way to your 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?
1. Stop Eating Mainly Processed Foods
One of the major dietary changes that have taken place in many countries over the last 30 years has been a shift to consuming more processed foods. Along with processing comes an increase in added sodium, more saturated fat, more sugar, and less fiber. The result? More cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer, and diabetes.
For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommendsconsuming 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.
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 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 three 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.
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.
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 10 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.
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 six hours) or substantially more (over nine 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 (a practice with multiple longevity benefits), 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.
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 (what researchers call modifiable risk factors), 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 benefit from your attention?