Secrets to Healthy Aging

These four habits can help you stay healthier later in life

Photo: Mature couple smiling and dancing

As we grow older, our habits and routines become ever more important to our overall health. Some of the things we did in our younger days may no longer sit well with our bodies, so it's important to tune in to your physical being and adjust your routines accordingly. Here are four key ways to ease into your golden years with stamina and strength so you can continue to live well.

Eat Well to Sleep Well
Catching enough z's is harder in our later years—but letting your body cycle through deep rest cycles is key to your overall health. "Hormonal changes can wreak havoc on sleep for both men and women as we age," says Beth Misner, certified sports nutritionist and co-author of Healing Begins in the Kitchen. That's why Misner says it's key to avoid foods with added hormones and to eat a natural, balanced diet of organic fruits and vegetables (to avoid pesticides), as well as local organic meats (to avoid products from industrially farmed animals). In addition to keeping an eye on hormone disruptors, regulating melatonin production is another vital aspect of getting healthy sleep. "As the sun goes down, switching to yellow and orange color bandwidth lighting and using blue-light filters on computers and mobile devices can help preserve healthy melatonin levels," says Misner. "That leads to better sleep and aids with longevity."

Exercise (You Knew That Was on the List)
There's no magic youth pill — yet. But nothing comes closer to stopping the aging process than regular high levels of exercise. New research from Brigham Young University indicates that getting to the gym may slow the aging process that's happening inside your cells. "We all know people that seem younger than their actual age," says exercise science professor Larry Tucker, who worked on the study. "The more physically active we are, the less biological aging takes place in our bodies."

Stay Connected
In an almost 80-year study that tracked the health of 268 Harvard sophomores starting in 1938, the biggest takeaway has been that our connection to our community has a profound effect on how well we age. "The surprising finding is that our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health," says Robert Waldinger, director of the study, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "Taking care of your body is important, but tending to your relationships is a form of self-care, too. That, I think, is the revelation." "Sharing your life with someone helps keep depression away and can lower stress levels for an aging population," says Misner, citing additional research done at Brigham Young University. "The BYU research was able to show that social connections could increase the odds of survival over a certain time span by over 50 percent." That's a greater improvement than from smoking cessation or regular exercise (though you should do those, too!).

Adopt a Pet
Having a pet in your later years doesn't just keep loneliness at bay, it also helps you stay healthy. "The connection shared between pets and the elderly lowers stress and keeps people more active and alert," says Misner. "Research has shown that even petting a dog can lower blood pressure and heart rates." If you cannot care for a pet, you can still benefit from the positive impact an animal can have. Most shelters welcome volunteers to walk dogs, and some even have hours when you can come and pet the cats who love to sit in people's laps. Purrfect!