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The question of how to live longer—and how to increase your health span, not just life span—is a centuries-old pursuit. But recent research has narrowed down some possible answers to longevity. You’ve likely already heard them: Eat nutritious foods, move more often, moderate alcohol, don’t smoke, maintain a healthy weight, and get solid sleep.
It turns out this list isn’t just for those in good health who want to spend a few more years playing pickleball and riding centuries, it’s also a powerful approach even for those with chronic conditions.
A recent study published in Age and Ageing looked at nearly 50,000 people throughout Japan during a 20-year period and found that these six habits, even when adopted later in life, were associated with longer life expectancy. That was true even with participants who had chronic diseases like cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
The biggest challenge isn’t just building these healthy habits, it’s making them stick. Fortunately, sometimes it takes only one meaningful change to gain momentum. Here are some simple tactics to help you build healthy habits that help you live longer and how to make them part of your everyday mix.
Healthy habit: eating well
Focus on: getting more fiber
Numerous studies have pointed toward plant-based eating as a way to kick up nutrition, and a large part of that has to do with fiber. On average, only 7.4 percent of U.S. adults meet the recommended daily intake of fiber, according to a study presented at the Nutrition 2021 Live online conference.
Health guidelines from the Institute of Medicine recommend eating 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories, which means that reaching that goal would involve eating about 25 grams for a 2,000-calorie diet. Here’s the good news: It really doesn’t take that long to see significant effects.
Even just two weeks of a higher-fiber diet with vegetables, fruits, and whole grains can change your gut health in a way that helps you absorb nutrients better, according to a study in the journal mSystems. That can improve far more than your digestion, says study’s lead author, Katrine Whiteson, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular biology and biochemistry at the University of California Irvine.
She tells Bicycling that better gut health can lower inflammation in the body, reduce chronic disease risk, and boost immune health. All of those outcomes can have a meaningful effect on healthy aging.
Heathy habit: move more
Focus on: making it engaging
Whether you want to establish a brand new fitness habit or you’re looking to expand what you’ve already got going, choose the same time each day to exercise to make it part of your regular routine. But here’s the hack: Every once in awhile, switch it up.
That means, swapping your 7 a.m. start time with a 7:23 a.m. start, changing the pace, route, or terrain of your ride, adding some fresh new exercises into your strength workout, or trying a brand new workout every month, like running or Pilates or a bootcamp class.
Our brains love novelty, and finding even little ways to add some into your fitness routine sets off a cascade of responses that can improve your workout. A study in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that novelty boosts perception, increases motivation, and enhances learning.
“Introducing different movements to the body provides the brain with added knowledge and keeps it interesting, which makes it easier to turn into a habit,” strength and conditioning coach Rocky Snyder, C.S.C.S., author of strength-training guide Return to Center tells Bicycling.
Healthy habit: quit smoking
Focus on: exercising to fight cravings
There are numerous recommendations for smoking cessation, from using nicotine replacement products to hypnosis. But here’s one that comes with a bigger ripple effect: Go for another ride.
Not only will this help clear your cardiorespiratory system, but research in the British Journal of Pharmacology suggests exercise (in this case, it was running) can cut down on cravings significantly. Although that study was done with mice, researchers noted that the effect is likely similar for humans. Those that went running every day showed considerably fewer withdrawal symptoms compared to a sedentary group.
According to the National Institutes of Health, studies show that even short periods of fitness, and especially aerobic exercise, can reduce the urge to smoke, with the effect lasting up to an hour after your workout.
Healthy habit: get better sleep
Focus on: your weekly hours
By now, we all know the standard advice about getting seven to nine hours of sleep per night or you’ll risk becoming sleep deprived. But what if that advice isn’t as set in stone as it appears to be?
“There’s more debate about this in the sleep research community than you might think,” says W. Chris Winter, M.D., of the Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, and author of The Sleep Solution. He tells Bicycling that some researchers suggest what matters is how much sleep you get weekly—not nightly—and that people tend to do best putting in around 50 to 56 hours on average.
“This makes it easier for people who might stay up late on a couple weeknights and then need to sleep longer other nights or take naps to get to that number,” he says.
Instead of focusing on a rock-solid eight hours nightly, a better approach is to track variables like daytime sleepiness and energy levels, as well as how long it takes you to fall asleep, and to count up your hours-per-week number to see if more or less is making a difference.
There’s no guarantee that putting all of these habits in place will make you live longer, but as you stack them up, you have a much better chance at living healthier.
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