In the 1930s, Harvard researchers began following 800 men and women from adolescence into old age and were surprised to find that the most predictive behaviors for living a long happy life were simple: not smoking, having good coping skills, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising regularly, having strong relationships, a stable marriage, and the pursuit of learning.
The wonderful thing about this list of predictors is that many of them are completely under our control. We all know that smoking causes premature aging, but why is it important to have good coping skills? When we can roll with the punches, and make lemonade out of lemons, we experience much less stress and anxiety.
The effect of stress on our body is vast and ranges from premature aging to an increased risk of heart disease. Something as simple as taking a short break outside in the company of Mother Nature and away from our electronic devices, can decrease our level of stress, improve our mood, and increase our sense of comfort and well-being.
Maintaining a healthy weight and eating a healthy diet makes sense; we know we need to eat more fruits and veggies, lean protein, whole grains, and healthy oils while avoiding processed foods, refined sugars, and high levels of salt. We also need to do our best to stay within a normal height to weight ratio, since a normal BMI is predictive of good health and long life.
Exercise is reasonably simple as well—regular exercise significantly lowers our risk of heart disease and cancer and helps us retain mobility as we age. It also improves sleep, skin and bone health, and mood. Exercise does not have to be complicated; walking, riding a bike, using resistance bands, or dancing to music in our living room are all examples of aerobic, muscle strengthening exercises.
No one knows exactly why social connections are so important, but it seems that having people in our lives who make us feel loved and cared for enhances our mental well-being. At the same time, having a partner or close friend to remind us to go on a walk or take our medications, benefits our physical health as well. If we live alone, a loving pet can also help bridge our human need for meaningful connections.
Staying mentally active and continuing to learn throughout our lives seems to be more important than the influence of our inherited genetic weaknesses. Although we may have genes that negatively influence longevity, we inherit both good and bad genes that for the most part tend to average one another out. Finding new and meaningful interests can also help us maintain a sense of purpose and keep us happier during our lives.
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle may sound simple, but it can be a challenge for many of us—in that case, consulting our healthcare provider would be a good move in the right direction.
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