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AARP Smart Guide to Healthy Habits

34 tips to improve your overall well-being


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The secret to improving your health — according to doctors and decades of research — is to make simple, healthy choices each and every day. To help you do just that, we’ve gathered an array of 34 diet, fitness and lifestyle-related suggestions. Try some now, try some later. Over time, regularly incorporating these habits may help you live and feel better. 

 

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FUEL YOUR BODY

1. Eat more veggies

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 visiting a high-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 such as seitan have a similar texture to meat, and seared portobello mushrooms have the same sort of umami flavor that makes steak so satisfying. Both ingredients are relatively inexpensive and easily prepared at home. Or simply try one of the meatless burgers offered at many fast-food and family restaurants. 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.

2. Put more fish on your dish

Studies have linked the Mediterranean diet to reduced cholesterol levels and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease and memory loss. Though the diet focuses on consuming mostly plant-based foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains, it also promotes eating fish. “Lean meats such as fish have the fewest calories per ounce, when compared with steak and chicken — so when you are eating out, picking the fish entrée is a delicious and healthier alternative,” says Joyce Gomes-Osman, vice president of clinical development at Linus Health. She notes that it's best to choose fish that are lower in mercury, such as sardines and salmon. These will give you the added benefit of consuming omega-3 fatty acids, which are associated with lower levels of inflammation.

3. Make fiber your friend

It’s well known that consuming fiber can help keep you regular, but studies have also shown that a fiber-rich diet may lower your risk for certain diseases such as colorectal cancer. For diabetics, there’s evidence that a high-fiber diet improves blood glucose levels. The Cleveland Clinic recommends eating a mix of foods rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber, and advises that men over 50 consume 30 grams daily and women over 50 consume 21 grams. Soluble options include apples, barley, beans and citrus fruits; and insoluble foods include nuts, whole-wheat flour, berries and vegetables such as cauliflower, green beans and carrots. You don’t have to overhaul your whole diet to beef up your fiber intake. Small changes can make a big impact, and it’s important to slowly increase your intake to let your body adjust — and drink plenty of water to help with absorption. For example, snack on nuts and dried fruit, add a few tablespoons of unprocessed wheat bran to your favorite cereal, swap your white rice for brown, add a few kidney beans to canned soup, and sprinkle in a little uncooked oatmeal when you bake muffins or cookies.

4. Choose water for the win

It might seem obvious to skip sodas or juice products that have sugar, corn syrup or other added sweeteners. But even drinks that contain no- or low-calorie sweeteners may have 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. All the more reason to choose water (or, if you prefer, sparkling water) as your primary drink throughout the day.

5. Make time for tea

Drinking water is the best way to stay hydrated, but adding a cup or two of tea can be beneficial. Yuko Hara, neuroscientist and director of aging and Alzheimer's prevention at the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation, recommends unsweetened green tea. “Unsweetened green tea is associated with reduced risk of dementia, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers,” she says. Hara notes that it’s better to drink green tea earlier in the day because it contains caffeine, which can interfere with sleep.

6. Restrict your eating hours

A recent trend in diet and nutrition circles is intermittent fasting, which reduces the number of hours in a day that you allow yourself to eat. One form, called early time-restricted feeding, means you only eat the first eight to 10 hours a day. Though some programs may be difficult to follow, 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.

 

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BOOST YOUR FITNESS

7. Take a stand

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.

8. Wake up and walk

Daily aerobic fitness is particularly important as you age. One way to start your day off on the right foot is to take a 30-minute walk first thing in the morning. You can ease into this plan by setting your alarm 15 minutes earlier than usual; then the following week, set it another 15 minutes earlier, and double your walk length. And studies have shown that starting your day outside can help you sleep better at night. Natural sunlight exposure can help keep circadian rhythms in balance.

9. Have a backup plan

Gomes-Osman notes that many adults want to start a healthy behavior but don’t always understand how to keep it going. “Three critical ingredients of successful behavior change [many people lack are]: self-efficacy (the likelihood to keep going when faced with an obstacle), self-regulation (troubleshooting obstacles) and social support. So if you’ve chosen to walk or jog outside, spend a few minutes planning what you will do if it rains," she says. Search for YouTube exercise videos or download some workout apps that you can try, so you can stay active no matter the weather.

10. Stretch for success

Not inclined toward a morning walk? Maybe try doing a handful of yoga poses after you roll out of bed. “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: Stop Stressing, Start Living. Beginner yoga poses to consider include the Mountain, the Sphinx, the Cobbler, the Tree and the Downward Facing Dog. Research shows that yoga can provide mental health benefits for older adults, and it also improves your posture. “Practicing yoga can also have positive effects on cognitive functions such as attention, processing speed and executive functions,” Hara adds.

11. Release daily tension

As you go through your day, you may find that you accumulate tension and stress in your body. Shirley Chock, a certified corporate wellness specialist, says it’s important to make sure you discharge that tension, because it can contribute to ongoing aches and pain. “Clenching your jaw for too long will cause tension headaches. If you notice your jaw is clenched, run your tongue along your teeth to loosen up the jaw. Notice if your shoulders are tight and shrugged. Lift your arms up over your head and let them relax and drop down and shake them out. The vibrations from swinging and shaking muscles will instantly dissolve tension. Notice the tension in your chest. Soften your chest to facilitate slower, deeper breathing which will help alleviate tension," she says.

12. Head outside

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 Humane Society.

13. Muscle up your TV time

Try 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.

14. Practice breath work

Qigong is an ancient Chinese practice that focuses on physical movement and the importance of proper breathing. According to master qigong expert Lee Holden, the way you breathe can have a noticeable impact on your body and your mind. Holden says that in less than three minutes, you could reduce your stress levels and increase your energy, all by practicing breath work. “All you have to do is bring one hand to your chest and inhale for two seconds through your nose while pulling your arms back. While exhaling, bring your palms together and sink your chest back in for two seconds. Repeat this technique twice more, with pauses in between,” he says. “Qigong techniques such as this breath work practice are part of a system of coordinated movement, breathing and meditation used for the well-being of the mind, body and spirit.”

15. Don’t compare your progress

Andreia White, a board-certified family medicine physician, advises against comparing yourself and your fitness journey with anyone else’s. “Many times, people won’t commit to starting an exercise routine because they are comparing where they are to someone who’s been doing it a lot longer,” she explains. White emphasizes, “Everyone is unique, and your journey is your journey. For example, if you can only walk 10 minutes a day, three times a week, then commit to that. Keep it simple, and work your way up. The goal is just to get started!”

 

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LIVE SMARTER

16. Create a relaxation spot in your home

If possible, create a space where you can spend 15 minutes alone every day meditating or simply relaxing. A comfortable seat is a must. Many successful meditators add a speaker for music, 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 is 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 including Headspace, Calm and Insight 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 intentionally relaxing.

17. Practice screen-free evenings

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 to help calm your mind and prepare yourself for sleep.

18. Volunteer your time

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.

19. Phone a friend 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.

20. Add bath time before bedtime

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.

21. Crank up the tunes

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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STAY SHARP

22. Play some mind games

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 give you a cognitive boost. Fargo suggests choosing games — such as bridge, Risk or chess — that require you to think strategically.

23. Beef up your vocabulary 

Making the effort to learn one or several new words every day is a great way to improve your mental sharpness. Holistic health physician Sony Sherpa says, “Regularly exposing yourself to unfamiliar words can help strengthen the connections between neurons in the brain, thus improving cognition and comprehension. This allows you to better process and interpret information, as well as think more flexibly and creatively.” By doing this, you can also increase your capacity for abstract thinking and problem-solving — which can make it easier to form better insights and opinions.

24. Reading is fundamental

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 your favorite genre. “You want to reach outside your normal routine and exercise different mental muscles,” Fargo explains.

25. Practice gratitude

Practicing gratitude is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to boost mental health and well-being, according to naturopathic doctor Yelena Deshko. She suggests keeping a gratitude journal and writing down three to five good things that happen each day. “Most of us spend the majority of the day focusing on various problems either at work or in our personal lives. Taking a few minutes daily to reframe our outlook and count our blessings essentially ‘trains’ our brains to consistently experience more positive feelings,” she says.

26. Commit to a full night’s sleep

Sleeping for seven to eight hours allows our bodies to recuperate from physical, emotional and intellectual fatigue. REM sleep — a deeper stage in which 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.

27. Address sleep apnea  

Approximately 39 million U.S. adults have obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), according to the National Council on Aging. There are two forms of this disorder: obstructive, in which the upper airway becomes blocked during sleep, interfering with breathing; and central, in which muscles and nerves aren’t activated enough for breathing while sleeping, causing pauses in airflow. If you’ve been feeling as though you’re not getting a full night’s worth of rest, have headaches, wake up with a dry mouth, or your partner complains of your loud snoring or gasping for air, it might be time to get a sleep study done. If you’re diagnosed with sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend using a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device, which delivers pressurized air to keep your airways open during sleep. 

28. Shake up your routine

Doing the same thing every day is a surefire way to leave you feeling uninspired. Try something you’ve never done, or ask a friend to join you to change up your routine. “Novelty keeps the brain active and engaged. [You can also] be an active participant by doing research ahead of the event and discussing it with friends and family,” says Keith Vossel, M.D., professor of neurology and the director of the Mary S. Easton Center for Alzheimer's Research and Care at UCLA.

 

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MIND YOUR HEALTH

29. Know your 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 millimeters 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 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.

30. Strategize for cold and flu season

Cooler weather means more people are indoors and germs can spread more easily, 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. 

31. Vaccinate against other illnesses

Depending on how widespread COVID-19 has been in your area or if you’ve noticed a recent spike in your circle, a vaccine booster may be a good idea. “COVID-19 can sometimes cause long-lasting symptoms long after the viral infection has passed, leading to ‘long COVID,’ with symptoms including fatigue, trouble focusing and brain fog,” Hara notes. “People who had severe COVID-19 had gene expression patterns in the brain that resembled accelerated aging.” Other vaccinations to consider include the shingles shot and pneumonia vaccine. In the U.S., 1 in 3 people will get shingles, typically after age 50, with the risk of complications climbing sharply after age 60, so talk to your doctor about Shingrix, a vaccine approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2017. The two-dose course of Shingrix is 97 percent successful at preventing shingles in people in their 50s and 60s, and 91 percent successful for those in their 70s and older. The pneumococcal vaccine — which is recommended for adults 65 and older and for individuals with certain medical conditions — can help to lower your chances of contracting the disease or reduce its severity if you do get it, possibly saving you from a stint in the hospital or even death.

32. Schedule medical appointments

Having standing health care appointments on the calendar will help keep you accountable for any issues that crop up. Consider getting your doctor to authorize lab work before your visit so he or she can explain in person what the results mean to your health, as well as discuss healthy decisions going forward.

33. Give yourself a once-over

In between your yearly dermatologist appointments, look at your skin — yes, all of it — in the mirror. You want to see an even texture across individual body parts and no 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 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, blac, 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.

34. Don’t dodge the dentist

Research suggests periodontal disease may play a role in the development or severity of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, and even some cancers. Seeing a dentist two or more times a year may lower your risk of mortality from all causes by 30 to 50 percent, according to a Journal of Aging Research study. Generally, you should get an oral health checkup and teeth cleaning at least once a year or, even better, every six months. Some insurance plans allow for up to three yearly professional teeth cleanings. If you have gum disease, diabetes or cardiovascular disease, you might be instructed to visit more often. Find a dentist you feel comfortable with, so going in for regular checkups isn’t something you dread. “I encourage patients to get into their dentist’s office on a regular basis,” says dentist Arwinder Judge, chief clinical officer at Aspen Dental in Naples, Florida. “It’s one of the most important things you can do for your oral health.” Read more oral health tips in our Smart Guide.

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