Want to join the estimated 1 million people in the U.S. who are expected to have lived to 100 or older by the year 2050? Happily, recent scientific advances have made it more possible than ever to take control of the aging process. By following large population groups over many years, researchers have documented specific lifestyle changes that can extend life expectancy from one to eight years; add them together and you could gain 20 years or more. They range from the mundane — flossing every day — to the ambitious — lowering your body mass index below 22.
And let’s face it: When we know what works, we’re much more likely to do it. Wouldn’t you be less likely to skip your morning run knowing that vigorous exercise three times a week adds five years to your life? Well then, here you go. By following these seven simple suggestions, you’ll be set to join the ranks of future centenarians.
1. Stop sitting around.
What the research shows: In the past year, several studies on the effects of sitting startled the medical field by demonstrating that sitting for long hours is bad for you even if you’re not overweight and you exercise vigorously at other times. Yep, that’s right: When researchers study only healthy people who exercise regularly, they still find that those who sit a lot each day have higher blood pressure, greater risk of diabetes, and larger waist circumference than those who sit less.
Even scarier: One study followed 17,000 Canadians and found that those who sat the most were more than 50 percent more likely to die during the follow-up period, regardless of age, physical activity level, and whether or not they smoked. Another study found that adults who watched more than three hours of TV a day had significantly poorer cardiovascular health, again even when other health conditions, weight, and physical activity level were taken out of the mix.
Researchers are still studying the issue, but experts are warning of a “physiology of inactivity” that seems to set in, causing your body to release dangerous molecules that affect how you process fats and sugars.
How to make this work for you: Change your habits. Watch TV or use the computer while bouncing on an exercise ball or walking on a treadmill. Work standing up with your computer on a high desk or counter. Before your favorite show comes on, get out a yoga mat and some hand weights and resistance bands and do some gentle stretches and strength training while you watch. If you are sitting for a long while, pause and take breaks to stretch or walk the dog. Even rocking in a rocking chair keeps you moving a bit.
During the day, stand and walk as much as possible, even if all you do is park your car further away in the parking lot or stop asking family members to fetch things for you. When waiting in line or in a waiting room, don’t be shy about getting up and moving around.
You can also get a pedometer and count steps. One study found that when men who normally walk a lot were asked to drastically cut back their physical activity for two weeks, their sugar and fat metabolism became impaired in just that short period of time.
2. Drink pomegranate juice.
What the research shows: Positive studies on pomegranate juice just keep coming. In the past six years, researchers have found that eating pomegranates or drinking the juice may prevent hardening of the arteries, reduce blood fats in diabetics, prevent gum disease, and slow the growth of several types of cancer, including lung cancer. Most of this has come from preliminary studies involving mice, or small studies involving humans — but the sheer number of studies with similar results, coming out of different countries, is impressive.
How to make this work for you: Drink one glass of pomegranate juice a day, or eat the fruit itself, which has the benefit of including the natural fiber in the seeds. Some people don’t like the taste of pomegranate, which can be sour. If that’s you, add honey or mix into a smoothie, or add the seeds to a fruit salad with yogurt.
You can also take a supplement, which certainly makes things easier. But most research studies have been done with the fruit itself, so the benefit of supplements isn’t as well established.
3. Go green and orange for dinner, red and blue for dessert.
What the research shows: Ongoing studies at Tufts University’s Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging and other institutes show that certain fruits and vegetables are nutritional powerhouses, packed with disease-fighting phytochemicals, with the potential to ward off cancer, protect against heart disease and diabetes, and even slow aging itself — at least to some degree.
Blueberries, for example, have been shown to reverse balance, coordination, and memory problems. Cranberries deactivate bacteria and prevent infection. Broccoli made headlines last year when it was shown to ward off prostate cancer in men who were at risk.
How to make this work for you: Anti-aging “superfoods” give themselves away by virtue of their color: The dark green of broccoli and kale; the rich orange of squash, sweet potatoes, and mangos; the deep purple of grapes; and the rich reds, blues, and purples of berries all indicate these foods are essentially medicine in food form. Nutritionists say the best thing to do is “eat a rainbow,” choosing brightly colored foods and steering clear of those that are light-colored or colorless. Here’s a quick color-coded guide:
- Red = lycopene
- Orange/yellow = carotenoids
- Green = lutein and chlorophyll
- Blue/purple = anthocyanins
The exception: White vegetables like garlic and onions contain important phytochemicals too. In addition, cruciferous vegetables including broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts, which are eaten in “bud” form before they leaf out, have chemicals called indoles that protect against cancer; and leafy greens like spinach are rich in folate, which protects the heart and prevents birth defects and colon cancer.