Body

How to live a long and happy life

Want to turn back time? While the fountain of youth is yet to be discovered and growing older is inevitable, there are a few easy lifestyle tweaks that can add years to your life.

By Bonnie Vaughan

We are all ageing, and that's a fact. According to research, things start going downhill bit by bit at the ripe old age of 24. It might sound like depressing news, but it doesn't have to be. With just a few simple lifestyle tweaks, you can reverse some of the damage caused by the ageing process and even add some years back to your life.

You already know you need to eat fresh, whole foods, exercise regularly, drink alcohol in moderation and avoid tobacco entirely, but did you know that dancing like no one's watching and gazing into your beloved pet's eyes can actually make you live longer? We asked a group of experts and here's what they told us about the healthiest habits you can work into your daily schedule.

Get a pet

Pets give their owners an abundance of health benefits.
Pets give their owners an abundance of health benefits.

Chronic stress is a killer. It produces cortisol, a hormone that in high doses weakens muscles and bones, spikes your blood sugar, compromises your immune system, increases your blood pressure and increases your risk of heart disease — all of which can send you to an early grave. You can reduce stress by regular exercise, meditation and doing things you enjoy. You can also get yourself a fur baby.

Studies show that pets give their owners many health benefits, from lowering blood pressure to boosting your sense of wellbeing. There's even a phenomenon called the oxytocin-gaze positive loop, whereby you and your dog give each other surges of the feel-good hormone when you look into each other's eyes. That's why it's called puppy love.

Be nicer to your friends

One secret to living a long, happy life is being surrounded by people you love. Research has shown that being happily partnered can increase your longevity thanks to mutual physical and emotional support, which in turn lowers your risk of many age-related diseases. Don't worry if you're on your own, you can get the same benefits from family and close friends.

"Devote time and energy to your intimate relationships, not just to your kids and work," advises Professor Briony Dow, director of the Australian National Ageing Research Institute. "Maintain those relationships when you're younger to ensure they last in the long term."

Practise standing on one foot

Losing your balance and falling isn't just something that happens to over-65s. According to Professor Dow, your sense of balance begins to decline at around age 40. You can put the brakes on that slippery slope, she urges, by practising your balance every day, starting now.

"Stand on one leg while you clean your teeth," she says. "Incorporate the tree pose into your morning yoga routine. When you go walking, walk across rocks. Anything that involves challenging your balance is going to be beneficial."

Get up and dance

If you love to bust a move, keep it up because dancing keeps you young. A recent German study found that a group of men and women in their late 60s who were put on a regular program of learning dance routines compared with another group assigned to an endurance training program showed more improvements in brain health (specifically, the region associated with cognitive decline), muscle strength, balance and flexibility.

It's believed that in addition to the physical exertion, the challenge of learning the routines plays a huge part – not to mention the positive psychological benefits of music. "There's all sorts of interesting research around dance," says Professor Dow, "It has a lot of potential benefits we don't even know about yet."

Sit down on the ground and get back up again using no support

Believe it or not, your ability to do this can tell you how long you're going to live. In 2012, Brazilian researchers tested 2000 middle-aged and older men and women, and it's all down to muscle strength, flexibility and coordination.

Starting with a score of 10, you lose one point for every body part you use (hands, knees, arms) and half a point for wobbling. A score of 8-10 means you may live to see 100; 3.5-5.5 means your final curtain call might be earlier. But don't despair – you can improve your score with practice, and therefore add some years back on.

Work on your muscle strength

Open that stubborn jar of pasta sauce yourself. The day you hand over that jar to the man around the house – or any other simple chore because it's become a bit too hard – is a significant one. "That's an indication you're losing muscle strength," says Professor Dow. "So you need to recognise that signal and get yourself into a program that specifically targets muscles."

Pilates, strength training and exercises that use your own body weight, such as planks and pushups, are great places to start — just be sure to devise a program with a professional trainer or instructor first to avoid injuries.

Always look on the bright side

Optimists live longer – they are more likely to exercise regularly, adopt a healthier lifestyle and reduce their stress levels. And if you're not naturally inclined to see the glass as half full, you can learn to through mindfulness.

"People who train themselves through courses and who practise regularly tend to have more positive health outcomes," says Professor Nicolas Cherbuin, director of the Neuroimaging and Brain Lab. "They're shown to have less brain ageing and less depression."

Never stop learning

Learn Spanish, Japanese or Mandarin — any language you don't already know. You can keep your brain healthier for much longer if you challenge your mind continually throughout your life. "Mental flexibility as you grow old tends to decrease, so you must continue to conduct difficult mental tasks," insists Professor Cherbuin. "Learn another language, play an instrument, or take on any other complex task." And be warned puzzle fans – Sudoku and crosswords don't count.

Eat purple foods

'Eating the rainbow' of fruits and vegetables has always topped the to-do list — bright, vivid colours mean high concentrations of antioxidants as well as other beneficial vitamins and minerals.

What you might not know is that purple foods contain a specific compound called anthocyanin, the motherlode of antioxidants."The deep purple pigment protects the plant and helps it to fight off diseases and UV radiation," says Dr Tien Huynh, a senior lecturer at RMIT University's School of Biosciences and Food Technology. "We know that anthocyanin is really good for fighting off different biological abnormalities in humans, such as cancer."

Blueberries are known for having whopping doses of anthocyanin, but you'll also get loads of it in any fruit or vegetable with a deep red, purple or dark blue hue, such as beetroot, eggplant, figs, red and black grapes, plums, passionfruit, amaranth, and purple cabbage, kale, sweet potato and carrot.

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