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Aging is inevitable, but doing it badly is most definitely not – and aging well is far more under your control that you may realize. Sure, your great-grandma may have made it into her 90s with a highball in one hand and a Marlboro in the other, but chances are you won’t, so now’s the time to work on embracing several of my favorite, super-supportive health behaviors. They’ll help you extend both lifespan and “healthspan,” allowing you to sidestep many of the health problems that can make aging so difficult. So which ones are the youth-savers you need to get into now? Start here:
1) Tune into your body’s built-in anti-aging treatment – sleep!
You need sleep — good, restful, deep, restorative sleep. And if you think sleep is a waste of time, think again. While you’re snoozing, your body is performing essential tasks, clearing out cellular debris and making repairs, system-wide. During deep sleep and REM sleep —when dreaming happens— your brain’s cleansing system (known as the glymphatic system) kicks into gear. When you don’t sleep well or sleep only briefly, you miss out and damaged proteins and other toxins build up in the brain, leaving you feeling foggy in the short-term and, in the long-term, likely more vulnerable to rapid brain aging and the development of neurological diseases like dementia.
But sleep keeps all your cells, muscles, organs and yes, your skin, more youthful by promoting autophagy – your overnight cellular recycling program. All of us are made up of trillions of cells and eventually their components start to wear out. But instead of simply throwing the diseased or just sub-par cells in the garbage, the body strips out the still-salvageable parts and recycles them to use for energy and to create new cells. When the autophagy system is bright and awake and working well – while you sleep – you give your body the downtime it needs to recover faster and better at any age.
How much sleep is enough? According to the National Sleep Foundation, the optimal range for most of us is 7 – 9 hours per night. Sure, millions of people may get by on just 6 hours (or less) a night, but for the overwhelming majority of us, it’s simply not enough. Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco discovered that only 3% of the population possess a gene that enables them to function well on 6 hours of sleep a night! Not sure which gene you’ve got? If you regularly need an assist from an alarm to wake up, hit the snooze button frequently, yawn a lot, get drowsy during the day and/or prop yourself up with coffee and sugar, you’re probably one of the 97% short-on-sleep group. Catch colds easily? Weakened immunity is also a telltale sign of being under-slept. To improve your health almost overnight, give sleep a chance – and give yourself enough time to do it – by ensuring you get at least 7 hours per night, even if you have to shut down TV, emails or social media earlier than you’re used to. To get serious about re-learning how to improve your shut-eye, check out my post, 11 Ways to Win at Sleep. And, as you age, if you’re finding it more challenging to fall asleep or stay asleep, take a look at my 8 Ways to Fall Asleep Fast.
2) Keep aging at bay with small ‘stresses’ that make you stronger.
Though I always encourage my patients to relieve stress with meditative practices, just a little bit of stress – as in the healthy, physical kind – can give you an edge in the anti-aging game. Taken in small doses, stress can actually turn on your longevity genes and enable you to age better. Scientists call this, “hormesis,” the body’s response to small healthy stresses, like biking up a steep hill or practicing intermittent fasting. These quick bouts of adversity toughen up the cells, and the body’s defenses against aging. A little pain and, cumulatively, a lot of gain!
Playing with temperature, in measured doses, is a fun, proactive way to promote wellness via hormesis. Take a dip in a cool pool, then a dunk in the hot tub or sauna; have a cold shower, then a sauna and back to the cold shower again; or spend a few minutes outdoors in the cold without burying yourself in layers of fleece. The temperature swings between cold and hot will lightly stress your cells and encourage autophagy. If there’s no sauna or pool nearby, take an advantage of a cold morning to walk the dog and skip the coat, or finish your morning shower with a cold rinse, an idea made popular by health hackers and Silicon Valley dot com dudes looking for an energizing, age-defying edge. One clue they’re on the right track? There’s growing evidence that immunity and resistance to environmental stressors may be greater for people who live in colder climes.
3) Stop the clock every day — with meditation (or a meditative activity).
The internet, social media and the 24-hour news cycle are an information fire hose which, if we’re not careful, can overwhelm us, mentally and physically. Add that to our busy work schedules and home obligations, and a stress overdose is the age-accelerating by-product. A vacation is the usual antidote, but our minds and bodies deserve a break a few times a week, not just once or twice a year. And the best way to get-away-from-it-all without leaving home is meditation, or, if you prefer, a meditative activity.
Embracing meditation, be it the more traditional “sitting” practice or simply a meditative activity that’s calming and you enjoy enough to do every other day or so, has a lot of proven benefits, short- and long-term. These mind/body time-outs help slow the aging of the brain, lower blood pressure, and lengthen telomeres (the protective end caps on your DNA strands). They give you energy, improve your concentration, and help you sleep better. And they lift your mood — you just feel happier. Adding 20 minutes of some sort of mind-quieting practice will help you find relief from the day’s endless demands and to-do-lists, all of which can contribute to symptoms like shallow breathing, tightness in the body, headaches, a clenched jaw, and so on.
If you’re new to the idea of meditation, there are some great apps for beginners, like Headspace, Oak, Meditation, Calm, Breathe, and Brightmind. You can also find in-person guided meditation sessions online, or, when they re-open, at meditation spaces and yoga studios. Meditating in a group with a teacher can be extremely helpful as you develop a practice. If the first approach or teacher or app doesn’t speak to you, find another. Keep looking till you find the method, voice, vibe that you connect to.
What do to if you’re not a “sitter,” per se? Try a peaceful practice that suits you: something simple that you enjoy, unplugged, without phone interruptions. Knit in a quiet place; play an instrument; listen to music you love, eyes closed. Or dig in the garden, color in a coloring book, wander in the woods, whatever works for you. The point is to let your mind drop into a quiet place, regularly, for 20 minutes or so. You’ll experience a shift, sometimes subtle and sometimes obvious. A daily practice is ideal, but if you can’t manage that right out of the gate, shoot for three times a week and work up from there.
4) Put aging out to pasture – not yourself.
Just as the physical steps you take will impact how well you age, so will your thoughts, emotions and overall outlook on getting older. If you find yourself saying, “I’m too old for this crap,” kvetching about how much better things used to be, or writing every minor lapse off as a “senior moment,” I have one word of advice: STOP. Unless your goal is to push others away – and shorten your lifespan – train yourself to lighten up and embrace a more positive outlook on aging. A case in point: a Yale study found that those with more positive perceptions of aging lived seven and a half years longer than those with less positive self-perceptions.
While you’re at it, be generous with yourself, and focus on what it is that feels good, motivates you and does no harm. Indulge in simple, healthy pleasures—a hot bath, a walk at sunset, a weekly treatment like an infrared sauna or massage. As long as it’s health-affirming, you’re in.
Ultimately, each day is a gift and, as they say, aging is better than the alternative. How to start the attitude readjustment? Go with the flow, practice gratitude, be thankful, and put some time into finding and spreading joy. Try letting go of guilt and regret, and start laughing more – at yourself and even at the sometimes humbling aging process. Laughter helps boost the immune system, increasing T-cell activity, those “killer cells” that help our bodies fight viruses and tumors. It also helps lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, decreases pain and can also help stabilize blood sugar – all good things no matter where you are on the aging journey.