Six ways to improve your odds of living longer—and better.
Ask 10 people how to live a healthy life, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. Some will advocate for extreme exercise or strict diets. Others will say moderation rules. A few will believe in silver bullets: garlic, turmeric, olive oil, red wine.
Where most people agree: The best way to judge health, at least on the population level, is to look at who lives the longest.
Researchers have been studying these folks for decades, and in the process have uncovered the habits that centenarians largely have in common to explain their longevity. Hoping to blow out 100 candles someday? Here’s your plan.
Lesson #1: Never, Ever, Ever Smoke—or Quit Right Away
You know this, so we won’t belabor the point. Tobacco smoke has more than 80 chemicals shown to cause cancer, according to a British Journal of Nutrition study, and we’ve known for decades that it’s also linked to heart disease.
If you want to live longer, not smoking is “first and foremost,” says Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., a family physician and weight management specialist based in Ottawa, Ontario.
If you smoke, quitting now has tremendous benefits—even after age 60. Just 20 minutes after you quit smoking, your blood pressure drops to more normal levels, according to the National Institutes of Health. At one month, you’ll cough less and be able to breathe easier. Over time, you’ll lower your risk for heart disease, lung cancer, and diabetes.
Already living with a chronic condition? Quitting smoking will make it easier to manage and relieve symptoms.
Lesson #2: If You Drink Moderately, You May Be Drinking Too Much
The same study, from a Danish research team, notes that while alcohol is also a carcinogen, moderate drinking has been shown to reduce heart disease and is linked to a lower risk of dying of any cause.
But don’t read too much into that correlation. “Moderate drinking may correlate with many things, including affluence, which in turn is quite good for one’s health,” says Dr. Freedhoff.
Put another way: Unlike smoking, which is known to be unequivocally bad for everyone, people who practice moderate drinking tend to do lots of things moderately. They’re also typically better educated, says Dr. Freedhoff, which means they’re more likely to pay attention to health news, follow their doctors’ advice, and model their behavior on what they see from other health-conscious people.
If you currently enjoy an occasional drink, a little goes a long way. The study defines “moderate” as seven or fewer drinks a week for women and 14 or fewer for men. But other research suggests those numbers may be too high. An Archives of Internal Medicine review of 34 studies that involved more than a million people found that the health benefits of alcohol peak at around half a drink per day.
If you have a chronic condition or take medications, check with your doctor about what’s safe for you. Alcohol can make symptoms worse or interfere with treatment.
If you don’t currently drink? “I certainly wouldn’t encourage someone to start drinking in the name of health,” Dr. Freedhoff says.
Lesson #3: Move at a Brisk Pace on Most Days
“My mantra is easy,” Dr. Freedhoff says. “Some exercise is good. More is better. Everything counts.”
That said, vigorous exercise counts more. In a 2015 study in JAMA Internal Medicine, Australian researchers found that people who did at least 30 percent of their exercise at a challenging pace had a lower risk of death from any cause.
What counts as vigorous? In this case, any activity that measures 6 METs (metabolic equivalent of task) or higher. The MET scale goes from 1 (sleeping) to 23 (running 14 mph). But you might be surprised at what counts around 6 METs:
- Hiking or walking hills, either in nature or using the incline function on the treadmill
- Biking at a moderate speed
- Aerobic or dance fitness classes
- Water exercise or swimming
- Just about any sport that’s more fatiguing than golf
Lesson #4: Leaner Is Better, But It’s Not Everything
There’s a pretty big paradox when it comes to weight and longevity. According to a 2016 study in The BMJ, when researchers look at only the most health-conscious people—those getting a lot of exercise, eating a healthy diet (more on that in a moment), drinking moderately, and not smoking—the ones with a low body mass index (BMI) have the lowest mortality risk.
How low is low? They’re talking about a BMI between 18.5 to 22.4. For a man who’s 5-foot-10, a 22.4 BMI would put him at just 156 pounds. For a woman who’s 5-foot-4, it would be 130 pounds. Since the average American woman in her 60s weighs 169 pounds, and the average American man tips the scales at 200 pounds—and both have a BMI over 29—it’s fair to say that few of us will be able to maintain the “healthiest size.”
The good news is Dr. Freedhoff offers two caveats. First, he says, “a healthy lifestyle, especially if it includes consistent exercise, may mitigate many of those risks.” Second, the risk may change with age. “Excess weight when we’re older may provide a reserve tank of energy to weather a medical storm or two,” he says.
Of course, unless your doctor has said you’re underweight, most of us shouldn’t try to gain weight. Your best strategy: Talk to your doctor about your healthiest weight, and work on being as strong and fit as you can be.
Lesson #5: Get Strong and Stay Strong
A substantial body of research from across the globe shows that the strongest people live longer, with less risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke. These studies usually measure grip strength, simply because it’s a simple, efficient, and inexpensive way to test a lot of people in a short amount of time. (Here’s how to measure your grip strength.)
The best way to build and maintain strength, no surprise, is with a structured strength training program. Dr. Freedhoff says he recommends it for all his older patients to help them stay independent as long as possible. A stronger body will help you move on your own—getting into and out of bed, going to the bathroom, running errands, meeting up with friends and family—for as long as possible.
Get started with this beginner’s guide to strength training, or get better results by fixing these bad strength training habits. Want a little more guidance? Many SilverSneakers classes combine cardio and strength exercises for a fun, effective routine. Check out your class options here.
That brings us to the final and, for some, the most contentious lesson.
Lesson #6: Eat Like an Adult
Arguing over the “best” diet can be a fun rhetorical exercise, but good luck finding research showing that any single diet helps you live longer. For example, a 2017 review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that the following foods are linked to a lower risk of dying of any cause:
- Whole grains
Of those, whole grains have the most powerful effect, and eating all of them every day would result in a 56 percent reduction in mortality risk, compared with not eating any of them.
On the flip side, the researchers found that not eating any red meat; processed meat (bacon, sausage, hot dogs); eggs; or sugar-sweetened drinks would reduce mortality risk by 52 percent.
Interesting? Sure. Practical? Perhaps for some people, but not for everyone. That’s why Dr. Freedhoff says he doesn’t tell his patients to focus on any specific diet. Instead, he recommends a few practical tips that, as research and experience have shown, are linked to better weight control:
- Prepare as many meals and snacks as possible.
- Share them around a table with loved ones as often as possible. (Loneliness and isolation are linked to a higher risk of premature death.)
- Avoid ultra-processed foods.
- If you have to drink anything with calories—whether it’s soda or sweetened coffee drinks—make it something “you genuinely love, and in the smallest quantities you need to be happy,” he says.
- If you’re going to dine out, make sure it’s a truly special occasion.
Your Simple Guide to Longevity
In daily life, it’s pretty hard to remember all the longevity research out there. Luckily, if you sum up all the lessons from all the research into the healthiest people and practices in the world, you end up with a fairly simple template:
- Don’t smoke, or quit as soon as you can.
- Minimize alcohol.
- Move as often as possible, and make some of that movement hard enough that it feels like exercise.
- Include some form of strength or resistance training.
- Watch your weight. If you don’t like weighing yourself regularly, at least pay attention to how your clothes fit or how you look in the mirror.
- Avoid junk food and liquid calories. The more food you prepare and enjoy at home, the easier this will be.
You could certainly make it more complicated and restrictive, but what’s the point of living longer if you don’t enjoy yourself along the way?
Check Your SilverSneakers Eligibility Instantly
SilverSneakers gives you free, unlimited access to more than 15,000 gyms and fitness centers across the nation, plus classes and tools designed to keep older adults strong and independent. Check your eligibility instantly here.