You want to live for a long time. Currently, the average life expectancy is 73.5 years for men and 79.3 years for women.1 But your goal is to be above average. And there are ways to do that.
Just think: The average age people lived to in the year 1900 was just 47 years. It increased to 68 years in 1950. And it’s risen ever since.2 But life expectancy declined slightly in 2020 and 2021, dropping 1.8 years and nearly 1 year, respectively — the biggest two-year decline since 1921–1923.3
Deaths from COVID-19 and drug overdoses played a big role in the decline.4 Heart disease, chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, and suicide also contributed to the two-year decline.3 The American Indian/Alaska Native population experienced the biggest drops in life expectancy, while the Asian American population fared the best.2
Thankfully, the pandemic is no longer a federal Public Health Emergency, as of May 12, 2023.5
Along the lines of setting yourself up for a longer life, there are many things a person can do — including diet and exercise — to make a difference in your quantity and quality of years.
Here are some healthy habits you can implement today so that you live longer tomorrow.
Get Healthy Lifestyle
Research says it takes an average of 66 days for a habit to become automatic.6 And good habits build happier lives. So what are you waiting for?
Opt for whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and nuts and legumes over processed foods. Nutrient-dense, dark leafy greens and broccoli and orange vegetables (such as carrots and sweet potatoes) are especially good for you.7
Eating nutritious foods will help you have healthier skin, hair, and eyes and contribute to your breathing and digestion.8
Healthy eating patterns reduces your risk of an early death by nearly 20%. That means you can keep cancer, cardiovascular illness, and respiratory and neurodegenerative diseases at bay for a longer time.9
Thankfully, there are many different ways of eating that constitute healthy eating. They include Mediterranean, DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), and vegetarian and semi-vegetarian diets.9 So, if you become bored with one way of eating, you can shake it up.
It’s also important to keep in mind the importance of eating in moderation. Eating slowly and with purpose will help you do this. That along with living by the traditional Okinawan saying, “Hara hachi bu,” which means “Eat until you are 80% full.”8 Good advice from a people who once lived longer than any other people on the planet.10
Regularly exercising lowers your chances of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, some cancers, and depression. It can be moderate but it’s important to do it 2.5 hours per week, even if it’s for 10-minute spurts.10 That amounts to about 30 minutes/five days a week of bike riding, walking, swimming laps, hiking, dancing, or whatever your heart desires.8
Interestingly, if you exercise more than the recommended amount, you increase your chances of living longer. Exercising two to four times more than what’s recommended lowers your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Those who engaged in moderate exercise for 300 to 599 minutes each week lowered their all-cause mortality by 26% to 31%, and their cardiovascular mortality lowered by 28% to 38%. Additionally, non-cardiovascular mortality decreased by 25% to 27%.11
Those are pretty good reasons to get more exercise.
There’s no shame in starting small. Daily exercise for 11 minutes a day can boost life spans, says a recent study. That means doing a short yoga flow or dancing to a few of your favorite upbeat songs is good for your health.12
A person’s age, height, gender, muscle-to-fat ratio, body type, and genetics play a role in determining a healthy weight. People with a high body mass index (BMI) are more likely to experience weight-related conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea, high cholesterol, and osteoarthritis.13
As we age, we tend to put on the pounds. Most adults gain 1–2 pounds every year, which increases our chance for chronic illness. For example, middle-aged men and women who had gained 11 to 22 pounds after age 20 were three times more likely to have heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and gallstones, compared with their counterparts who had gained 5 or fewer pounds. Also, women are more likely to develop post-menopausal breast cancer, even when gaining the weight later on in life.14
These facts should drive home the point of maintaining a healthy weight. If you need to lose weight — even if it’s more than 25 pounds — take heart that a modest weight loss of 5% of your body weight will put you on the path to better health.14
Here are a few tips to keep in mind so that you shed the pounds safely.
Gradual and steady weight loss vs. rapid weight loss is better to help you deal with cravings and to keep the pounds off. A support system, such as a family member or friend, a physician, health coach, or registered dietitian, can offer encouragement and accountability. Eating mindfully will help increase your awareness and appreciation of good food. That means put away your phone when it’s time to eat. And, of course, stay active.14
Eliminate unhealthy habits (like smoking and too much alcohol)
Everyone knows that smoking is bad for your health. It makes you age faster and it causes heart and lung diseases. People who smoke have a shorter life expectancy than those who don’t — by at least 10 years.15
Luckily, if you quit before you turn 40, you might live for as long as someone who never smoked. And if you quit by age 54, you could cut your chance of dying early from a smoking-related disease by two-thirds.8
Drinking too much alcohol poses significant health risks. Even low levels of alcohol, such as a glass of red wine, aren’t necessarily good for your heart, as it was once believed to be. A recent study in Britain found that the risk of disease increased even with the moderate intake of alcohol. (Low levels of alcohol are considered to be less than 1 ounce for women and 1.5 ounces for men, per day.) A standard drink in the U.S. is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits.16 So, perhaps, to help you unwind at the end of the day, opt to get some fresh air instead of going to happy hour.
Live a life of purpose and meaning
Living a fulfilling and purposeful life is linked to longevity in older adults. Having a sense of purpose means different things for different people. It could mean contributing to their community, having a successful career, taking care of family, or something else.
More than 13,000 adults over the age of 50 participated in the study. People with the strongest sense of purpose decreased their risk of death by 15.2%. It could be because they engage in more healthy behaviors. The study found that women lowered their mortality by 34%, while men lowered it by 20%.17
If you’re caring for an elderly loved one, be sure to give them something purposeful to do, no matter how simple it may be. According to one experience, nursing home patients who had a plant to care for lived longer.17
Create social connections
Feeling cared for, valued, and supported by the people in our lives greatly influence our minds, bodies, and behaviors — leading to a longer and healthier life. That’s because these relationships make us feel stable and supported. In turn, we’ll make healthier choices for our mental and physical well-being. And we’ll also be able to better cope with stress and anxiety.18
Social connections are so vital that if you don’t have them, you open yourself up to a health risk that’s comparable to an unhealthy diet, physical inactivity, alcohol misuse, and smoking.”19
Stimulate your brain
Introducing yourself to new activities is good for your cognitive health. One study found that adults who learned a new, complicated skill, such as quilting or digital photography, improved their memory. That’s because when a brain is exercised it develops new connections.19
Get quality sleep
Getting enough sleep does your body good. A recent study that acquired data from more than 172,000 adults with the average age of 50 — 54% of them being women — shows that sleep behavior and sleep duration might influence how long you live.20
So, seek help if you have any sleep disorders and practice good sleep hygiene, such as putting away electronic devices well before bedtime.
Choose the sunny side of life
Choosing to be optimistic gives you a greater chance of living past 90. One study reports that men and women who were highly optimistic lived on average 11% to 15% longer than those who didn’t practice positive thinking. And you don’t have to be wired to be a optimist. On average, 25% of our genes account for our optimistic nature — the rest is up to us.21
Here are three ways to get you in a more positive mindset:
- The Best Possible Self method encourages you to picture your future self, when you’ve achieved all of your goals and your problems no longer exist.
- For a sunnier outlook, keep a journal in which you write about only your positive experiences each day.
- To improve your coping skills, practice gratefulness by writing down what you are thankful for.21
Also, being mindful and meditating puts you in a better mindset, and studies are showing it even slows the effects of aging and could prolong your lifespan.