When it comes to staying healthy, most people have the same motivation: living as long and fulfilling a life as possible. And while science has yet to find a true fountain of youth, researchers have identified certain behaviors that can increase longevity.
One study, published in the journal Circulation last year, even argued that adhering to just five healthy habits could extend your lifespan by roughly a decade. Here’s what they are, and what research to date says about living your longest life.
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Eating a healthy diet
Diet is strongly linked to longevity. Research has long suggested that following a Mediterranean diet—which includes plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and healthy fats, and not much sugar, red meat or processed food—brings a host of health benefits, including a longer life.
Other studies have also found longevity benefits associated with some of the specific foods and nutrients included in a Mediterranean diet, such as whole grains, fiber, fish, plant-based proteins and healthy fats. On the other hand, foods including processed snacks and meats, fried foods and sugar-sweetened beverages have been linked to higher risks of chronic disease and death.
Even if your diet isn’t perfect, research suggests that making smart changes can add up to sizable benefits. One paper published in 2017 concluded that people who ate 20% more healthy foods than they had at the beginning of the study, over the course of 12 years, decreased their risk of early death by up to 17%.
Working out regularly is a boon for both your physical and mental health, boosting everything from cardiovascular fitness to mood and energy — so it’s no surprise that it can also extend your life. Federal physical activity guidelines recommend aiming for at least 150 minutes of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week, plus twice-weekly muscle-strengthening sessions, to reap health and longevity benefits.
But you don’t have to go overboard. Even short bouts of light physical activity, such as walking and cleaning, increased the lifespans of older men and women in studies from 2018 and 2017, respectively. And a study published in January found that simply moving instead of sitting for 30 minutes each day could reduce early death risk by 17%.
If you do opt for a more vigorous workout, some research suggests that team sports like tennis and soccer are best for longevity, because they encourage social interaction as well as exercise.
And if you don’t exercise now, you can still start. A recent study found longevity benefits associated with both life-long and later-in-life exercise.
Maintaining a healthy body weight
Diet and exercise habits help people maintain a healthy body weight, which the Circulation study defined as a body mass index between 18.5 and 24.9. Obesity is associated with chronic conditions including Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer, all of which can shorten your life. A 2018 study found that widespread obesity shaved a year off the U.S. life expectancy and is responsible for up to 186,000 deaths per year.
Drinking only in moderation
For years, moderate drinking was touted as a harmless—and maybe even healthy—habit. But recently, scientific opinion has begun to shift toward a more cautious stance on alcohol.
Last year, a large meta-analysis of prior alcohol studies concluded that there is no safe amount of drinking, because the net risks to a population—addiction, cancer, traffic accidents and so on—outweigh any potential benefits, such as improved cardiovascular and cognitive health. And while each person’s risk-benefit analysis depends on his or her family and medical history, research is increasingly supporting the idea that people should limit their alcohol consumption to avoid health problems and increase longevity.
Moderate drinking, according to federal dietary guidelines, means that women should have no more than a drink per day, and men should have no more than two per day.
In addition to causing lung cancer, cigarette-smoking is associated with serious health problems including heart attack, stroke and mouth and throat cancers, making it a significant threat to longevity. The best way to reduce your risk, of course, is never to smoke at all — but if you do, experts advise quitting as soon as possible to minimize threats to your health.
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