In these times of uncertainty, the one thing we can do is take charge of our health.
Many of the key steps to a healthy, happy and longer life are easy, free (or at least cheap) and within reach of almost all of us.
We’re all stressed (that’s one to work on) so let’s keep this brief and top line. Master these three science-based healthy habits and you’ll high-five your way to feeling great.
1. Exercise regularly
Years ago a doctor told me, “If there’s one thing in life you can do to live a longer, healthier life, it’s exercise.”
While that may have been one man’s opinion, even the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks exercise sky-high on its bucket list of activities.
“Only a few lifestyle choices have as large an impact on your health as physical activity,” says our nation’s top health organization.
“People who are physically active for about 150 minutes a week have a 33% lower risk of all-cause mortality than those who are physically inactive.”
Let’s just say that again in people-speak: If you get up and move for 21.43 minutes each day of the week, you cut your risk of dying from anything by one-third.
That’s a no-brainer, right?
In addition, exercise — even just walking at a moderate pace — has been shown to improve cognitive function, help you control your weight, reduce your risk for disease and, of course, strengthen your bones and muscles.
Note: If you are a person with a disability, there are options for you as well. Don’t give up.
Some benefits are immediate: After finishing one 30-minute physical activity you’ll have less anxiety, lower blood pressure, more sensitivity to insulin and you’ll sleep better that night.
Get the recommended 150 to 300 minutes a week for adults of moderate-intensity exercise — such as brisk walking, dancing, bicycling, doubles tennis and water aerobics — as the benefits go up.
Within a few months, you’ll see improvement in your blood pressure, heart and lung functions as well as a lowering of risk for depression, anxiety, type 2 diabetes and bladder, breast, colon, kidney, lung and stomach cancers, according to the CDC.
Not to mention the benefits it can have for stress reduction, better sleep and a more robust sex life.
2. Eat a plant-based diet
Keeping a healthy weight — defined by doctors as having a body mass index (BMI) between 18.5 and 24.9 — is another key way to stay healthy and reduce your risk of all manner of diseases and conditions.
There are lots of excellent diets out there to help you lose and keep your weight under control, such as the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), which helps with hypertension, the MIND diet (Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay), which focuses on food to slow cognitive decline, and the Flexitarian Diet, which combines the words flexible and vegetarian.
But the gold medal goes to the Mediterranean Diet.
Science has shown meals from the sunny Mediterranean can reduce the risk for diabetes, high cholesterol, stroke, dementia, memory loss, depression and breast cancer. The plan has also been linked to stronger bones, a healthier heart and microbiome and longer life. Oh, and weight loss, too.
It shares a key element with the rest of the diets mentioned above: It’s plant-based, meaning you’ll eat a lot of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds.
Use all kinds and colors of veggies to get the broadest range of nutrients, phytochemicals and fiber. Cook, roast or garnish them with herbs and a bit of extra virgin olive oil.
Add whole grains and fruit to every meal, but use nuts and seeds as a garnish or small snack due to their high calorie and fat content.
You’ll also eat less red meat, sugar and saturated fat and more omega-3-rich fish (twice a week) and olive oil. Think of chicken, beef and pork as a “seasoning” to a dish, instead of the main course. (It’s better for the planet, too.)
And here’s the real secret to the success of the Mediterranean Diet — it’s not dieting at all. It’s a lifestyle, with the greatest emphasis placed on exercise, mindfully eating with friends and family and socializing over meals.
“We encourage at least 20 minutes per meal,” said Atlanta registered dietitian Rahaf Al Bochi, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, in a prior interview.
“I understand that can be hard for a lot of people to implement, but start small. Turn off the TV, put away the cell phone, focus on meaningful conversations, chew slowly and pause between bites. That could be the start to your mindful eating journey.”
As for exercise, it doesn’t have to be in a gym.
“The Mediterranean lifestyle is walking with friends and family,” said registered dietitian Kelly Toups in a prior interview. “Instead of thinking of exercise as something that you have to do, just walk or dance or move in joyful ways.”
3. Get good-quality sleep
You may choose to exercise or eat healthy, but your body is going to demand sleep. The quantity and quality of it, however, is under your control.
Depending on your age, you are supposed to get between seven and 10 hours of sleep each night. Getting less has been linked in studies to high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, weight gain, a lack of libido, mood swings, paranoia, depression and a higher risk of diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, dementia and some cancers.
Not convinced? Sleeping less than the recommended amount each night on a regular basis may double your risk of dying. In a longitudinal study of 10,308 British civil servants, researchers found that those who reduced their sleep from seven to five hours or fewer a night were almost twice as likely to die from all causes, especially cardiovascular disease.
Oh, and as you head toward death, your chances of developing a major disease or medical condition skyrocket if you don’t get enough sleep. That’s because during sleep, your body is literally repairing and restoring itself on a cellular level.
You can train your brain (and your willpower) to get more restful sleep with a few key steps:
- Make sure your bed and pillows are comfortable and the room is cool: Between 60 and 67 degrees is best. Don’t watch TV or work in your bedroom; you want your brain to think of the room as only for sleep.
- Avoid stimulants (coffee, tea) after 3 p.m. and fatty foods before bedtime.
- Eliminate all lights — even the blue light of cellphones or laptops can be disruptive. Dull sounds, too. Earplugs or white noise machines can be very helpful, but you can create your own with a humidifier or fan.
- During the day, try to get good exposure to natural light, as that will help regulate your circadian rhythm.
- Establish a bedtime routine you can follow each night. Taking a warm bath or shower, reading a book, listening to soothing music, meditating or doing light stretches are all good options.
- Does that sound hard? Then sign up for our sleep newsletter and take steps toward better sleep.
Congratulations! You’re well on your way to a happier, healthier life. These actions will also help reduce your stress, improve your mood and invigorate your sex life (for more hints on that, check out the gallery at the top of this story).