Healthy Habits for Healthy Aging: More Steps You Can Take

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Would you describe yourself as a “successful ager”? Most of us probably don’t think of getting older in those terms, but it’s not a bad approach. We all want to be able to enjoy health and vitality in our later years. Last week, I shared the results of a study of healthy British men and women. The study identified four habits that likely contributed to these men and women aging without issues like chronic disease, disability, and loss of mobility or memory.

I addressed two of those “healthy habits” last week: not smoking and having a moderate alcohol intake. Let’s look at the other two habits this week.

Regular exercise. It’s hard to refute the benefits of exercise. Becoming and staying active helps to lower blood glucose and A1C levels, along with cholesterol and blood pressure levels. It helps ward off heart disease and cancer. It’s crucial for weight maintenance. It’s a natural stress reliever and sleep enhancer. Exercise can also make you feel happier and more positive about your life. And if you’re worried about memory loss, start moving! People who exercise regularly are less likely to have cognitive dysfunction.

Here’s something else to consider (as if you need more convincing): As people get older, they tend to gradually lose muscle mass. This loss of muscle is called sarcopenia, and it’s something that you want to avoid. Loss of muscle means a higher chance of falling and suffering fractures and other types of injuries. Actually, sarcopenia can start in when we’re in our 30’s, believe it or not. We lose between 3% and 5% of our muscle mass each decade after age 30, and the process can speed up when we’re in our 70’s.

Sarcopenia occurs due to several factors, including a decrease in nerve signaling; insufficient physical activity; a decrease in the production of certain hormones, like testosterone (yes, women have testosterone, too!); a drop in the body’s ability to make certain proteins; and an insufficient intake of calories or protein or both to sustain muscle mass. Picture a frail, elderly person subsisting on a diet of tea and toast and you’re looking at someone who has sarcopenia (along with other health issues).

Some of the natural occurrences of aging are beyond our control. But the International Osteoporosis Foundation (IOF) Nutrition Working Group looked at factors that can help prevent sarcopenia. Guess what’s number one on the list? Exercise! Specifically, exercise in the form of resistance training.

You don’t need to head to the gym to start lifting dumbbells (unless you want to). Also known as strength training, resistance exercise strengthens muscles and bones; it also helps to reduce body fat. Weight machines, free weights, kettlebells, resistance bands, soup cans, and even your own body weight can be used to strength train. Aim for two to three sessions per week. A quick search on the Internet will help you find numerous types of resistance exercises that you can use, either with weights, resistance bands or your own body weight.

Eating fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are packed with the nutrients that we need to ward off heart disease, stroke, cancer, high blood pressure, gastrointestinal problems, and vision loss. Also, the IOF Nutrition Working Group recommends eating fruits and vegetables to guard against sarcopenia. Fruits and veggies help to neutralize the acid-producing nutrients found in meats and grains, which can adversely affect muscle and bone. So think of eating produce as yet another way to keep your muscle mass from dwindling.

Dietary guidelines tells us to eat about 2 cups of fruit and 2 ½ cups of vegetables everyday. Most of us fall short. One of the best ways to meet your daily requirements is to aim to have fruit and/or vegetables at each of your meals and at snack time. Now, before you become alarmed at all that fruit affecting your diabetes control, realize that a serving of fruit isn’t all that much: a small (tennis ball size) piece of fruit or ½ cup of berries is a serving, according to Dietary Guidelines. Roughly 10 to 20 grams of carbohydrate. Vegetables have less carb (don’t count corn or peas as vegetables), so you can munch away on these without impacting your blood glucose. Snack on baby carrots. Whip up a batch of kale chips. Add vegetables to anything you can think of that makes sense: soup, green salads, tuna or egg salads, omelets, spaghetti sauce…

So those are the four habits that can help you stay healthy and active in your later years. Here are a few more tips that I’d like to add to mix:

Get enough vitamin D. Vitamin D does more than just keep bones healthy; it’s needed for preserving muscle mass, too. In fact, one study of older adults found that those with low vitamin D levels had a 30% increase in risk of mobility problems (meaning, walking and activities of daily living). The daily vitamin D recommendation for older adults is 800 IUs, but some people may need more. Talk with your health-care provider about the dose that’s right for you.

Get enough protein. You don’t need to overdo protein and you certainly should not increase your intake if you have kidney problems. But older adults may need more protein to preserve muscle mass. Some experts recommend 1 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. To make it easier, aim for between 25 and 30 grams of protein per meal.

Eat fish at least twice a week. Not only might fish help protect heart health, it may also guard against macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in people age 50 and older. Thank the healthy fish oils called omega-3 fatty acids for that.

Stress less. That may be easier said than done, but if you’re making an effort to eat better and move more, it’s important not to overlook your mental health. Exercise and doing hobbies can help, as can deep breathing or meditation. And if your stress is too much for you, seek help from a professional.

Seek happiness. Health, financial, and family worries can get you down and make it seem like there’s little joy to be had in life, at times. Little things in life, however, can boost your mood. The key is finding what works for you. Talking with friends or family may help, as does listening to music, getting outside and enjoying nature, or curling up with a book. In other words, making time for yourself and doing something that you like each day can help. And may help you be a “successful ager.”

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