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.
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.”
“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,” our nation’s top health organization says.
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.
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.
Accomplish 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 — and 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 exercise can offer the benefits of stress reduction, better sleep and a more robust sex life.
If you need some ideas on how to get started, sign up for CNN’s Fitness, But Better newsletter series. The seven-part guide will help you ease into a healthy, expert-backed workout routine.
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.
The largest gains in longevity were found from eating more legumes, which include beans, peas and lentils; whole grains, which are the entire seed of a plant; and nuts such as walnuts, almonds, pecans and pistachios, according to the study.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.”
Want to learn more? You’ll find amazing recipes, shopping guides and tips on starting to eat the Mediterranean way in our eight-part Eat, But Better: Mediterranean Style newsletter.
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:
4. What’s next?
It just takes one small step to get started. Then congratulations are in order! You’re well on your way to a happier, healthier life. These actions will also help reduce stress, improve your mood and invigorate your sex life. (For more hints on the latter, check out this gallery.)
And remember that you don’t have to make all these changes at once. Choose one thing — exercise, sleep or diet — to tackle first. And allow yourself some time to establish these habits — here’s how.