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AARP Smart Guide: Health

22 daily lifestyle tweaks that add up to a healthier, stronger you

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Living healthfully has no start or finish line, no official score, no single point of arrival. Neither should living healthfully pose any great challenge or hardship. The secret to improving your health, say countless doctors and decades of research, is to make sound, simple, healthy choices each day. The apple, not the potato chips. A walk, not another TV show. Responding with a laugh rather than with anger.

With that in mind, we’ve provided 22 ways to add a little health to your day. Try some now, try some later. Make a few a habit. In time, living healthfully will reveal itself in lost weight, better heart measures, more energy and fewer struggles with disease. And with healthy habits like these, you will be on the path to sustaining your gains moving forward.

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Stocksy

EATING WELL

Do a taste test at a vegetarian restaurant ... 

A plant-based diet (as opposed to a diet heavy on meats and refined carbs) has been linked to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes risk. Think you’ll sacrifice too much eating pleasure? Remedy that by going to a good-quality vegetarian restaurant and sampling a few dishes. Vegetarian chef Kate Jacoby, owner of the restaurant Vedge in Philadelphia, notes that ancient grain-based proteins like seitan have a similar texture to meat, and seared portobello mushrooms have the same sort of umami flavor that makes steak so satisfying. Try ’em once; if you like ’em, both are inexpensive and easily prepared at home. Or simply try one of the meatless burgers now being offered at many fast-food and family restaurants.

… And embrace this new veggie trend

Food companies, seeing a growing market for health food, are responding by offering vegetables in creative new ways, such as zucchini noodles, cauliflower pizza crust or riced squash. Many cost just a few dollars; give them a try.

Swap soda for sparkling water

You know enough to skip drinks like soda or many juice products that have sugar, corn syrup or other sweeteners added in. But even drinks that have no- or low-calorie sweeteners added come with health risks. “Our research and other observational studies have shown that artificially sweetened beverages may not be harmless, and high consumption is associated with a higher risk of stroke and heart disease,” says Yasmin Mossavar-Rahmani, of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York. Your goal: Make water (or if you prefer, sparkling water) your primary drink at meals and through the day.

Restrict your eating hours

A recent trend in diet and nutrition circles is called intermittent fasting, which reduces the number of hours in a day that you allow yourself to snack or have meals. One form, called “early time-restricted feeding,” means you only eat the first 8 to 10 hours a day. While some such programs are narrow and difficult to abide by, a sensible approach would be to implement a “no more food after 7 or 8 p.m. each evening” rule. The benefits are more than just fewer calories and, therefore, weight loss; it also helps improve your metabolism.


workout outfit and accessories such as hang weights headphones and water bottle are spread out on the floor atop yoga mats

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BOOSTING YOUR FITNESS

Stand up! 

Merely getting up from your chair every 30 minutes and taking a few moments to walk around can reduce some of the long-term health consequences of sitting for prolonged periods, according to a study in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Switch to a standing desk or set an alarm to remind you to get up and move. “Do whatever it takes to send the message that your job is to get up and move,” says Prianka Chawla, a primary care physician at Tufts Medical Center.

Gain 30 minutes for exercise …

For the first week, set your alarm 15 minutes earlier than usual each morning and go outside for a walk. The next week, set it another 15 minutes earlier, and double your walk length. The fresh air will help keep you awake, and a sunrise dose of vitamin D will help you feel more alert. Plus, it’s a chance for daily aerobic fitness, which is particularly important as you age. And you will have gotten it out of the way first thing of the day.

… Or try a morning yoga routine

Not inclined toward a morning walk? Then simply do a handful of yoga poses after you roll out of bed. What’s great about yoga is it can be done nearly anywhere — whether in your bedroom or at a studio. “Practicing yoga is helpful for increasing energy, improving flexibility and promoting whole-body strength, which can ward off the aches and pains that can zap your desire to get up and go,” says Kate Hanley, author of Stress Less. Beginner yoga poses to look up include the Mountain, the Sphinx, the Cobbler, the Tree and the Downward Facing Dog. Research shows that the mental health benefits of yoga are especially strong in older adults. It also improves your posture.

Spend 25 minutes outside each day

Whether it’s the first thing in the morning (as suggested above) or right after dinner or any time in between, being outdoors almost guarantees you’ll be walking, breathing fresh air, flexing, balancing and simply enjoying life more. And studies show that spending two hours in nature every week can have a measurable impact on your health. “In the winter months, getting [mood-boosting] vitamin D is so important,” says Teresa Jordan, a physician assistant at the Mayo Clinic.  If you need some encouragement, volunteer as a dog walker with the local humane society.

Muscle up your TV time

The goal here is to spend 15 minutes each day exercising a different set of muscles. It’s easily done while watching TV, so why not? A regular strength training routine can help improve sleep and mood, and prevent falls. Smaller weights, kettlebells or stretch bands are small enough to fit under a coffee table, where they are easily accessible (and can serve as a visual reminder). Consider upper-body exercises one day; core body (abs, back, hips) exercises the next; and lower-body exercises the third. Take a day off, then repeat the cycle. “It’s not so much about building up muscle mass that people can see, but keeping the muscle you have nice and strong,” Chawla says. A physical therapist can help you modify moves to build strength while preventing injuries.


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VICTOR TORRES/Stocksy

LIVING SMART

Create a private relaxation spot in your home

The goal here is to have a space where you spend 15 minutes alone every day meditating or simply relaxing. A comfortable seat is a must. Many successful meditators also add a music player, a few beloved personal items and some nice art. Keep the space clean, uncluttered and comfortable. Taking time each day to sit quietly with your eyes closed could lead to fewer sick days and fewer health care visits (and was even more effective than exercise for warding off colds and flu), researchers found. While silence works for some meditators, others prefer to hum or chant. Apps like Headspace, Calm and Insight Meditation Timer walk users through the process, Hanley says. For those not prone to meditating, consider playing a musical instrument, drawing or knitting. What matters is the daily routine of thoroughly relaxing.

Keep electronic devices out of your bedroom

Reducing pre-bedtime exposure to the blue light emitted by digital screens (be it on a smartphone, tablet or computer) for one week can improve sleep quality and reduce feelings of fatigue, lack of concentration and mood swings. Chawla suggests declaring the last hour before bed as screen-free in order to help calm your mind and prepare yourself for sleep.

Volunteer a few hours every week

Giving back is good for your health. Activities that provide a feeling of purpose and meaning are linked with better sleep, improved mood and reduced risk of health disease and stroke; volunteering may also help you live longer. Adults over 50 who spent time helping others and had a strong desire to live a happy life were 2.5 times less likely to die early than their peers who did not have a strong sense of purpose, according to one study.

Volunteer a few hours every week

Giving back is good for your health. Activities that provide a feeling of purpose and meaning are linked with better sleep, improved mood and reduced risk of health disease and stroke; volunteering may also help you live longer. Adults over 50 who spent time helping others and had a strong desire to live a happy life were 2.5 times less likely to die early than their peers who did not have a strong sense of purpose, according to one study.

Have one friendly phone call every day

One-third of adults 45 and older admit to feeling lonely, according to an AARP Foundation report. Social isolation is associated with adverse health consequences ranging from high blood pressure and depression to cognitive decline. “Being socially engaged is important for your happiness,” Chawla says. Regular phone calls are great; even better are face-to-face activities. Invite a friend over for lunch or sign up for group exercise classes. 

Take a pre-bedtime bath

Soaking in the tub is more than just relaxing; taking five hot baths per week was linked to improved heart health in older adults. Add in a bath bomb or Epsom salts for an even more relaxing bath. For a better night’s sleep, Shahab Haghayegh, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, found that the optimal time for a hot bath or shower is one to two hours before bed. “[The hot water] causes declines in body temperature … aiding in the natural circadian process and increasing [your] chances of not only falling asleep more quickly, but also of getting better sleep,” he explains.

Do more tasks to music

Listening to 78 minutes of music each day was found to increase feelings of relaxation, reduce sadness and improve concentration. We suggest you get in a habit of putting on music while you cook, clean, exercise, garden or go through your morning bathroom routine.


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Kelly Knox/Stocksy

STAYING SHARP

Develop a daily puzzle habit

Spending a little time each day on a crossword or sudoku puzzle keeps your brain active. “Using those mental muscles can help make new connections in the brain and make it better able to withstand aging,” says Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs for the Alzheimer’s Association. Hosting a game night can also give you a cognitive boost. Fargo suggests choosing games — such as bridge, Risk or chess — that require you to think strategically.

Rekindle your love for books

Reading for 15 minutes or more each day is a great way to engage your brain. All books, from romance novels to true crime stories, are great for a mental workout, but Fargo suggests occasionally choosing a book outside of your favorite genre. “You want to reach outside your normal routine and exercise different mental muscles,” Fargo explains.

Really commit to a full night’s sleep

Sleeping for seven to eight hours allows our bodies to recuperate from physical, emotional and intellectual fatigue. And REM sleep — a deeper stage of sleep where we do a great deal of dreaming — is believed to be important for procedural memory, or the part of memory that helps us carry out tasks such as riding a bike. Consistently sleeping well can help lower blood pressure, improve mood and concentration, and reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other health issues. Get enough uninterrupted shut-eye by limiting your alcohol and caffeine consumption in the evenings and by adding ambient noise, such as a fan or humidifier, to block out unwanted sounds.  


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Audrey Shtecinjo/Stocksy

MINDING YOUR HEALTH

Know your key numbers

Knowing your blood pressure, resting heart rate and cholesterol numbers will help you and your physician monitor your health and know when things go awry. In 2017, the American Heart Association, the American College of Cardiology and nine other health organizations lowered the threshold for hypertension (elevated blood pressure) to 130/80 milligrams of mercury, or mm Hg. (Previous guidelines were 140/90 for those younger than 65 and 150/80 for those ages 65 and older.) Buy an automated monitor that goes around your upper arm and has a digital readout. Some even plug into your smartphone to create a graph of your readings. As to your resting heart rate, you’ll want between 60 to 100 beats per minute (bpm). (Very fit people may have rates below 60 bpm.) Consult your doctor if you have a rate of more than 100 bpm. A rapid heart rate, or tachycardia, may be caused by a number of factors, including alcohol, anxiety or cardiac issues.

Strategize for cold and flu season

You know the germs will be more prevalent come cooler weather, so shift your daily habits to include more handwashing (particularly when in public), sleeping longer and eating more immunity-boosting vegetables. Most importantly, get a flu shot in the early fall before influenza activity ramps up. Your body typically needs about two weeks to build up immunity to the virus, so this will give you a head start. Those 65 and older are encouraged to ask for the high-dose (adjuvant version). If that’s not available, get the regular shot.   

Schedule your routine doctor and dentist appointments well in advance

If you don’t have appointments made at this very moment, then get on the phone in the next day or two and make them. Having standing appointments on the calendar will help keep you accountable for any issues that crop up. Also consider getting your doctor to authorize lab work prior to your visit so that he or she can explain in person what those numbers mean to your health as well as discuss healthy decisions going forward. 

Look over yourself. In between your yearly dermatologist appointment, take a look at your skin — yes all of it — in the mirror

You want to see an even texture across individual body parts and no noticeable changes in your skin’s appearance. Pay particular attention to your face, ears, scalp, neck and back. You should tell your dermatologist about any new moles or previous ones that have changed shape or color. Any skin growth that is asymmetrical, has uneven borders or coloring, or that is larger than a pencil eraser should be checked for melanoma. If you see a small, sandpapery patch of skin or a shiny bump or nodule that is pearly, clear or often pink, red or white, have it checked for basal cell carcinoma, the most common skin cancer. It may also be tan, black or brown and can be confused with a normal mole. It can also be a pink growth with a raised or rolled border. Be sure to have these growths checked, especially if they weren’t there the last time you looked.

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