Whenever I get together with friends, the conversation frequently turns to the woes of getting older. Talk quickly moves from lighthearted banter to tips for breezing through your next colonoscopy, new injuries to body parts we never knew existed, or a pitch for the newest vitamin regimen. The reality is that we all want to live a long time, just as long as we’re relatively healthy. While there are no guaranties, there are some things you can do to stack the deck in your favor. Here is a list, in no particular order, compiled from what I’ve learned from my patients, Chinese medicine, the scientific community, and some just plain common sense:
1) Get enough sleep. Your body rejuvenates, heals, and recharges while you sleep. Go to bed with enough time to get seven to eight good hours. Slow down before trying to sleep. If you struggle with insomnia, get some help. Ahem…acupuncture is pretty effective in treating sleep problems.
2) Laugh. It feels good, it’s invigorating, and actually releases chemicals in your brain that are good for your health.
3) Go outside. Get in touch with the nature around you. This is the foundation of Chinese medicine, in which the natural world is reflected in your body. Slow down in the winter, eat new green shoots in the spring, be especially active in the summer, and check out your locally harvested produce in the fall (well, all year round.) Know also, that extreme weather conditions have the ability to make you sick, whether it’s a dry sore throat in the fall or heat exhaustion in the summer.
4) Quit smoking. Okay, duh. This may seem obvious, but if you’re a smoker, quitting now is the single most important step you can take to improve your health and increase your life span.
5) Make sure you’re getting enough Vitamin D. Vitamin D may sound like the magic supplement du jour, but D boosts immunity, helps with depression, and offers a whole host of health benefits. And most of us aren’t getting enough. You can get your serving of D through 15 minutes of direct sunlight, or by supplementing with Vitamin D3. Those of us who live near the northern ends of the earth may not be able to get adequate D from the sun year round. So think about supplementing if you own and use long underwear more than a few times a year.
6) Exercise. I can’t say this enough. It’s the fountain of youth if there were such a thing. Physical activity keeps your heart and lungs in shape, your muscles toned, your bones strong, your butt tight, and studies are indicating that it also may slow or reduce the progression of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
7) Exercise your mind, too. Play word games, do puzzles, or learn a new language. The adage “use it or lose it” also applies to your mind.
8) Change the behaviors that are making you sick. You know stress, junk food, and toxic relationships aren’t good for you. If you want to feel good and live long, now’s the time to jettison those negatives in your life.
9) Stand up straight! Poor posture can mess with your digestion and breathing, and can give you back and neck pain. Stand and sit tall; your body will thank you.
10) Eat for good digestion. In Chinese medicine, your digestion is every bit as important as what you’re eating. You can eat the healthiest foods on the planet, but if you don’t digest them well, you might as well be doing the drive through at Burger Doodle. Slow down, chew your food, and avoid the rich and greasy chow. Choose more cooked vegetables than raw, and go easy on the frozen foods and drinks.
11) Get regular health screenings. You can laugh all you want at your friends’ colonoscopy stories, but you had better be keeping up with your own. Make sure you’re getting regular mammograms, Pap tests, blood pressure checks, mole screenings, etc. based on the guidelines for your age and risk factors.
12) Calm down. The Chinese say that the emotions are the cause of 100 diseases. That means that staying angry at your obnoxious neighbor or stressing out about a nosy co-worker will only make you sick. Do whatever it takes to defuse and de-stress.
13) Almost anything is okay—in moderation. According to Chinese medicine, a little sweetness may help your digestion, but eating a half of a cheesecake is a toxic food bomb. In the same vein, the right amount of exercise is good for you, but too much can cause your body to break down. Too much of anything over time can be damaging, so aim for variety.
14) Garden. Whether it’s a stretch of your back yard or containers on your balcony, growing your own vegetables outside is beneficial on so many levels. You’re getting the best kind of exercise, you’re connecting with nature, you’re growing your own organic food (if you lay off the pesticides), and you have the joy of going out your door to pick something you’ve grown yourself.
15) Get in touch. Connect with your sense of purpose through journaling and self-exploration, connect with others in social situations, and connect with the divine through prayer and meditation. In Chinese medicine, connection feeds your heart, which is the home to your soul.
16) Eat for the long run. Eat breakfast, don’t skip meals, and get a little protein at each meal. Try to get a variety of colorful foods into your diet each day, especially the darkly colored fruits and vegetables. Strive for a diet made up of lots of veggies, some whole grains, a little protein, a little fruit, and small amounts of everything else (Okay, maybe not hydrogenated oils or high fructose corn syrup, but mostly every thing else.)
17) Just breathe. Breathing deeply opens up your lungs, oxygenates your brain for mental focus, and wards off fatigue and anxiety. In Chinese medicine, your lungs are an important component in immunity, so strong and healthy lungs translate into a strong ability to fight off colds and flu. Try taking a deep breath to the count of four, holding it for the count of seven, and releasing it to the count of eight.
18) Just say no. The ability to prioritize your life and say no to some of those annoying and unimportant things you don’t want to do and don’t really have to do is incredibly freeing. It helps decrease that stressful feeling of being overwhelmed, which can be exhausting and depleting.
19) Cultivate compassion. By being kind to others, you’re being kind to yourself. Kindness is embodied by generosity and service to others. Compassion and kindness dissolve anger, annoyance, and competition—all feelings which diminish both the quality and length of your life.
20) Cook and eat with joy. It has been said that how you approach food mirrors how you approach life. Do you approach eating and life with joyfulness or do you worry about every little thing you do and eat? Lovingly prepare your meals, sit down, and share them with people you love—as often as possible.
21) Listen to your body. Your body is infinitely wise. It knows what it needs, how to heal, and how to signal you when it’s in trouble. Listen to those little signs; headaches at work, an upset stomach when you’ve eaten poorly, an achy lower back, or fatigue.
22) Indulge in your passion. This is simple. Figure out what you like to do, and figure out how to do it more often.
23) Go green. The cosmetics you put on your body and the products you use to clean your home have the ability to either enhance or harm your health. Become savvy about what’s in your shampoos, lotions, bathroom cleaners, etc., and if the ingredients are sketchy, find cleaner, greener alternatives.
24) Live in the moment. We spend most of our time rehashing the past or fixated on some future event. The reality is that the only moment that’s real is right now. Impatience means that we’re anxious to move onto the next thing—the next moment; however that next thing is a moment like this one. Slow down and enjoy right now.