We’ve learned a lot about longevity. For example, in the 1960s, 40 percent (!) of adults smoked, and it wasn’t unusual to die of a heart attack in one’s 50s. (source) Since then we’ve learned that smoking isn’t doing us any favors, and we’ve seen a commensurate increase in longevity of 8.7 years between 1970 and 2010. More than 70 percent of the rise in life expectancy is attributable to fewer deaths from cardiovascular disease, primarily heart attacks and strokes.
We’ve also learned that a good diet is critical for a long, healthy life. Many of us are confused about what this means because we’ve been fed so much misinformation. Is fat bad? Should we count calories? Avoid meat? Take supplements?
The keys to longevity go beyond diet, though that is a critical piece of living longer. Many diseases, including cancer, can be prevented through healthy diet and lifestyle habits, even if you’re genetically predisposed. Diet and lifestyle can change gene expression, meaning your DNA isn’t necessarily a death sentence.
We know the obvious: don’t smoke; don’t drink too much; don’t eat McDonald’s every day. But there are several habits you can work into your daily life that will make you healthier so you’ll live longer.
How to Live Longer
Here are my tips for living a longer and healthier life. I’ve included diet recs that go beyond the blanket “eat healthy,” because who knows what that even means anymore?
1. Fix your relationships. I prioritize this with my clients because so many of them are struggling in one or more key relationships, and it’s dragging them down. We know that stress is a killer because it suppresses and weakens your immune system. You need a strong immune system to target and kill abnormal cells before they multiply. Relationship stress can be insidious: It can be constant criticism, not feeling heard, emotional or physical abuse, neglect, stonewalling, contempt. This transcends romantic relationships; it can describe a relationship with a boss, parent, close friend. Identify relationships in your life that cause you stress or pain. Fix them. Seek help if needed. Understand that you may show up ready to work on the situation but the other person may not be able to meet you there. Consider letting the relationship go if this is the case. Explore other employment opportunities if you have an abusive boss (something I hear about regularly in my practice). It’s difficult to face these situations, but your health will improve for your efforts.
2. Spend time in nature. We are built to move around frequently and spend time outside, among the trees, in nature. There are myriad benefits to getting outside, from stress relief to inflammation reduction to cancer prevention. (source) Our modern lives have us disconnected with the natural cycles of light and dark, which is why so many of us struggle with insomnia. Those working a desk job may spend entire days indoors without a break. Get outside daily for at least 20 minutes, preferably 90 (you can break this up into chunks). Take a walk in the woods; the trees emit compounds that reset your nervous system. Spend time in the sun to get vitamin D, which is critical for immune health (note: sunscreen prevents D synthesis, so spend 10-20 minutes in the sun, or however long it takes before your skin changes color).
3. Mind your diet. Because most of are confused about what it means to eat better, I’ll break it down for you. Bottom line: focus on an anti-inflammatory diet. We know that inflammation is a factor in every disease.
- Reduce consumption of sugar. After years of being told saturated fat causes heart disease, we now know the culprit is sugar (source). The average American consumes about 22 teaspoons of sugar per day. For children it’s 32. That’s about 3 pounds per week. (source) Sugar is linked to a laundry list of diseases, but most notable is that it increases inflammation and suppresses immune health. Inflammation causes disease, and a suppressed immune system can’t fight disease properly. So cut it out. Here are some tips. The easiest fix? Ditch the sodas.
- Eat more plants. No surprise here. Fill 2 cereal bowls full of vegetables of all types daily and eat them. This could be as easy as a big salad with protein for lunch and roasted veggies alongside dinner. Try to get 6-9 cups. We require a plant-based diet to thrive. Fruits and vegetables give us the necessary fiber and antioxidants we need to fight disease. You don’t need to be a vegetarian or eat only raw foods, just eat more plants. Focus on the leafy greens and cruciferous and brightly colored things.
- Choose organic proteins as often as possible. The antibiotics and hormones in meat cause illness to the animal and inflammation for you. (source). Conventionally raised red meat has altered fatty acid levels that cause inflammation. Increase your intake of wild, fatty fish like cod, salmon, and sardines. Eat organic red meat sparingly. Include legumes for their fiber and beneficial phytochemicals. Think Mediterranean diet.
- Don’t overeat. Some studies show calorie restriction increases lifespan. While you don’t need to consciously restrict, don’t stuff yourself. I like to go by the old adage “eat til you’re 8 parts full.”
- Include superfoods as often as possible. These foods have particular disease-fighting and inflammation quelling benefits. Think turmeric, blueberries, green tea and matcha, medicinal mushrooms (shiitake, maitake, reishi), fermented foods. Read more here and here.
4. Get active. We’re designed to move, yet barely 20 percent of adults get the recommended minimum of 30 minutes a day of physical activity, and fewer than half of adults get enough activity to achieve any meaningful health benefits. Often my clients can’t exercise because they’re so tired. Figure out what’s causing your fatigue, and get moving, which increases energy naturally. Just start with a 15 minute walk daily and build from there.
5. Get good sleep. This is a big one that helps combat fatigue! (duh) Sleep is a critical time for healing, detox, repair, and recovery. Skimping on sleep makes you fat, sabotages hormone balance, and prevents your brain from detoxing itself, a key factor in Alzheimer’s prevention. Get 8 hours. Read how here.
6. Support detox. We’re bombarded with chemicals daily from our environment, food supply, and body care products. Help your body neutralize these toxins by supporting detox health. You need a whole lot of antioxidants to combat free radical damage, so eat those fruits and veggies. You can also support detox on a daily basis and do a more targeted cleanse once or twice a year.
7. Mind your gut. Did you know that over 70 percent of your immune system is in your gut? And that your gut bacteria outnumber your cells by about 2-3:1? This means that in many ways your microbiome, or the 3-4 trillion bacteria living in your digestive tract, profoundly influence your health status. Nearly everyone with whom I work struggles with digestive issues. Feed your microbiome like you would tend to your garden, and boost your immune health. Here’s how.
BONUS: Get a pet. Pets help you live longer, especially dogs, who boost physical fitness (shout out to my fellow dog lovers!).
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. In addition to her coaching practice, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and kick nagging digestive issues for good. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.