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4 Steps for Leading a Longer, Healthier, Happier Life

Tips to bolster mind, body and spirit.

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illustration of older man and woman running and reading, healthy lifestyle
Seb Agresti
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With our busy lives, it’s easy to neglect the essentials for good health. It’s time to get your body moving with exercise, your brain firing with learning, and your soul nourished with friendships.

Body

Run for your life. Or walk or dance.

I’m a lifelong exerciser. A ballet injury at age 30 sent me to the swimming pool where I still do laps a few times a week. But time and again, I stare down at the forbidding cold water, wishing someone would just toss me over.

Then I take the plunge and am reminded of the reason I’ve committed to wrecking my hair: I feel joy. And therein may be your best motivation to exercise.

Exercise spurs a natural release of brain chemicals such as endorphins and dopamine that create a positive, if not buoyant feeling.

Even if you’re at the point in life where you rather sit back and relax, your body needs to be in use to stay healthy. And it’s telling you so every time you feel good about going for it.

We all know that exercise is physically good for us, and dozens of studies have shown its benefits. But the message bears hammering home because physical activity targets the very ills that worry us most as we age.

Exercise may be one of the few ways to ward off dementia, as was found in a study published in Neurology that included 500,000 Britons. And researchers from the National Institute of Cancer and the American Cancer Society affirm that exercise may reduce the risk of breast, lung and colon cancers by boosting the immune system and regulating certain cancer-related hormones.

It also lowers blood pressure, strengthens the heart and helps control blood sugar levels for those with diabetes.

Even if you haven’t exercised a whit before, it’s time to get going.

You’ll need to work your way up to at least 150 minutes a week of moderate to intense exercise for the most benefit. Brisk walking, dancing and yard work all count toward your tally. If you up your game with, say, jogging, you can cut the weekly time requirement by half.

Soul

Me, myself and I — no more!

We are the world, tied together by a most innately human trait: We need each other. And it’s friendship that may hold the key to fulfillment. According to the 85-year-long Harvard Study of Adult Development, meaningful long-lasting relationships are what spark a happy life, more so than wealth, socioeconomic status or intelligence.

As we age, it’s tempting to stay siloed and let friendships slide, made easier by the endless hours we spend staring at screens, hunkered down at home. Some people treasure solitude. But loneliness is something different. It’s a subjective feeling of dislocation, a yearning to connect. Lonely people are at greater risk for anxiety, depression, heart disease and stroke as well as drug and alcohol abuse.

It’s time to make the extra push to reach out.

Get out of your own head and focus on others by volunteering for a cause you believe in. Join a place of worship. Take a course. Always opt for in-person rather than online. If you exercise, do so in a health club rather than alone in your living room.

And start connecting — and reconnecting. Call an old friend and pick up the phone if one calls you. When you run into someone and say “let’s get together,” actually do it!

Mind

Grow your brain.

Something is happening while I’m writing this sentence. And infinitesimally more of that something as I read studies and interview people to research this article.

My brain is being stimulated. We have billions of brain cells, called neurons, sitting in our heads. Each time we learn something, neurons fire up and send out impulses to form newly fashioned neural connections, creating exactly what we need: new networks of neurons pulsing throughout the brain.

The beauty of this brain-strengthening dance is that it can occur no matter your age. Researchers have learned that throughout life our brain remains flexible, meaning it can continue to stretch and grow with new stimulation.

The result is that learning seems to increase what neurologists call our cognitive reserve.

With our pliable and potentially growing brains, you’d think that if we spent every minute learning something new, we could prevent dementia. Unfortunately, there is no solid evidence that this works. The encouraging news is that if you’re headed for dementia and build up your cognitive reserve, you may delay the appearance of symptoms.

“Learning makes your brain more resilient,” says clinical neuropsychologist Paul Nussbaum, president of the Brain Health Center in Pittsburgh. “You’re smarter, more articulate and more able to engage.”

The trick is to try something novel and complex. I’ve covered health for Time magazine for two decades, so my brain knows the drill of getting information and writing about it. What’s better is to try a totally new mental challenge. Learn a language, take up a new hobby or sport. If you are artistic, take a painting or pottery class. Athletic types can learn how to roller blade or ski. Just be sure to wear a helmet to protect that fabulously humming brain of yours from injury.

Keep up with checkups

Check in with doctors as you begin to improve your health so you can fully participate in these ventures that boost mind, body and spirit.

If you don’t already have an internist — or one you love — find a doctor who has experience treating older women. Geriatricians are your best bet starting at around age 70, though if you’re not ready for one, choose an internist whose specialty, such as cardiology or pulmonology, requires him or her to see a lot of seniors.

Medical professionals can advise you how to proceed if you want to start an exercise program and you have heart problems, diabetes or arthritis. You might be surprised if your doctor tells you to go for it, albeit slowly, because exercise can help with chronic conditions.

For your new healthy endeavors, such as learning and socializing more, you’ll also want to be sure you can hear and see well, so do regular check-ins with an audiologist and ophthalmologist. While you’re on this self-care trek, make sure you’re up to date with your mammograms and colonoscopies. And then expect your calendar to be pretty full of health-boosting appointments, at least for a little while.

What's one thing you try to do regularly for your health? Let us know in the comments below.

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