It’s never too early to start thinking about your longevity. The life expectancy for Americans is 78.7 years, which is an impressive lifespan, but if you want to maximize your chances of getting that far—or living even longer—you’ll need to establish good habits that can keep you healthy, and as early as possible.
The Most Important Habits
While some health problems occur suddenly and without warning, the majority of life-threatening or life-shortening problems come about due to gradual accumulation of damage. Accordingly, it takes decades of good habits to truly maximize your chances of living out your days in good health.
These are some of the best habits to establish early:
- Get enough sleep. Getting the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night can help you feel more alert and less fatigued throughout the day, but you may not realize it can also reduce your risk of several diseases and conditions, including heart disease, obesity, and diabetes. Many of us feel it’s not possible to schedule that much time for an activity centered around rest, but that rest is important to keep your body and mind in proper shape.
- Limit your calorie intake. Animal studies show that a reduction in your calorie consumption by as little as 10 percent can increase your maximum lifespan, and human participants in studies on a diet of caloric restriction have a lower likelihood of disease throughout their lives. It’s natural to like food, but unfortunately, our tempting, calorie-heavy Western diet has consequences for our overall health and longevity. A 10 percent reduction should be perfectly manageable; for a 2,500-calorie diet, that’s only a reduction of 250 calories, or the equivalent of a typical snack.
- Eat more plant foods. Diets rich in plant foods are linked to a significantly reduced risk of premature death, as well as a reduction in risk for a variety of ailments, including cancer, depression, and metabolic syndrome. These include fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Plant foods tend to be lower in calories than other types of processed foods, and they’re chock-full of nutrients to keep your body healthy. They also contain lots of fiber, which your body can use to stay regular.
- Exercise. Physically exercising on a regular basis, but less than the 150 minutes recommended per week, can still reduce your risk of early death by 22 percent. If you meet the 150-per-week recommendation (which amounts to little more than 20 minutes a day), you can up that percentage to 28 percent, and if you exercise even more, you can reduce your death risk by 35 percent. What’s important here isn’t the type of exercise you’re doing—cardiovascular and weight-based training both work—but rather the frequency and intensity of your exercise.
- Keep substances in moderation. Excessive alcohol consumption will negatively impact your health, affecting your liver, heart, and pancreas, but moderate consumption as actually linked to a decreased risk of premature death. Too much of anything can be bad for you, so when consuming any substance, make sure you keep your habit in moderation—and understand the full effects of whatever you’re consuming.
- Avoid chronic stress. Being chronically stressed or anxious can increase your risk of premature death three times over. Your job might bring you a decent salary, but if it’s constantly making you regret your life decisions, or if it’s stopping you from feeling good about your life, it’s not worth keeping. You can reduce stress in your life by eliminating sources of stress and anxiety, but also learning how to manage the stress you do encounter, through meditation and relaxation techniques.
- Make new friends (and keep old ones). Studies suggest that having a thriving social circle can help you live 50 percent longer, outpacing even the benefits from physical exercise. No matter how busy you get or what else is going on in your life, make the time to reconnect with your old friends and continue engaging in your social circles, and go out of your way to make new contacts along the way. As long as those relationships are healthy, the more the merrier.
Taking Baby Steps
You don’t have to radically change your lifestyle overnight to see these benefits. In fact, for the most part, even baby steps can help you start improving your lifespan. For example, exercising just one or two days a week is far better than nothing, and incorporating a few new plant foods into your regular diet is a good first step. Focus on gradually changing your lifestyle for the better, so you can sustain those changes indefinitely, and reap their value over the course of years.