Adapted from AARP’s Love Your Age, by Barbara Hannah Grufferman (National Geographic)
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I stood on First Avenue in Manhattan with my two daughters and my husband, a few friends and neighbors, and lots of strangers. It was a glorious fall day, and we were watching packs of runners go by, caught up in the excitement of the New York City Marathon.
Yet despite the beauty of the day, all I could think about was how far I felt from the determined athletes passing just a few feet away. Facing 50 and not exactly loving this new age, I was feeling sluggish, low energy and anything but strong and ambitious. I didn’t like how my clothes fit or how my hair and skin looked. Having packed on a few new menopausal pounds didn’t help, though neither did the fact that I wasn’t doing anything about them.
On that day, I vowed to make some changes.
I couldn’t have imagined it at the time, but adopting the habit of running three times a week — rain or shine, all year long — became the foundation of a whole new life. My one new habit led to others.
As each small step built on the last, I realized that my former grumpy, frumpy, lumpy state of being wasn’t the inevitable result of getting older. It was the inevitable result of continuing to make the same unhealthy choices I’d been making for years.
These days, at age 61, I feel fantastic. I’m living proof that the little steps we take each day don’t stand alone: They all combine to determine how good we’ll feel today, tomorrow and in five years. While it’s never too early — or too late! — to let healthy habits into your life, you have to choose them over and over again every single day. That’s how the small steps add up.
Give your face an ice bath. Instead of starting the day bleary-eyed, try an ice bath for your face. Fill the sink with water and ice, dunk your face … and then do it twice more. Result? Radiant and glowing skin. Bonus: Some longevity experts claim an icy dunk helps build the immune system, too.
Stick with protein. Instead of carb loading at breakfast, start your day with protein. Recent studies have demonstrated that eating a sizable portion (25 to 35 grams) of protein in the morning makes us feel fuller and decreases snacking for the rest of the day. A benchmark: A 4-ounce chicken breast has 35 grams of protein.
Try office glasses. Instead of squinting at the screen at work, try office glasses. A computer screen is typically farther from you than a magazine or book is when you read it, so your usual reading glasses frequently don’t work. Instead, use cheaters with half their magnification. (If 2.0 works for you with books, try 1.0 for the screen.) And after 20 minutes on the computer, make sure to take a break and look at something far away for 20 seconds, to rest your eyes and prevent headaches.
Fitness breaks. Instead of skipping your workout to do work, turn your coffee breaks into fitness breaks. Every few hours, I do exercises such as push-ups, squats and planks. If your work environment is a little more formal or public, get creative by taking short walks, either inside or outside, or spend five to 10 minutes of every hour standing up while you work.
Switch up your snacks. Instead of denying yourself treats, switch up your snacks. Dark chocolate (the kind that’s at least 70 percent cacao) helps lower your blood pressure naturally. Milk chocolate doesn’t. If you love frozen yogurt, try stirring a bit of honey and 2 teaspoons of unsweetened cocoa powder into some Greek yogurt.
Avoid mouthwashes. Instead of using mouthwash for bad breath, rinse with water and nibble on mint or parsley. Most mouthwashes have too much alcohol, which can dry out your mouth and make it more susceptible to bacteria and bad breath.
Choose healthy fats. Instead of eating low-fat foods, choose healthy fats in small amounts. Concerns about dietary fats have led many of us to switch to processed low-fat foods, which are often full of sugars, starches and additives. Instead, go for modest levels of beneficial fats such as olive oil and avocado, to add flavor to meals. If you’re a bacon or cheese lover, buy the real thing but use just a bit.
Beef up your brain. Instead of vegging out after dinner, beef up your brain. Although cat videos may be addictive, they don’t improve your focus the way puzzles or knitting or woodworking projects can. And if you don’t have the energy to do more than watch TV, stream an online course or TED talk — to feed your mind.
Preserve your bedroom. Instead of making your bedroom command central, reserve the master suite for S&S. Sound sleep is essential to good health and a sense of vitality. Make your bedroom conducive to it: Reserve it solely for sleep and sex. If your bedroom also serves as an office, TV room or internet hub, your brain will associate it with higher levels of stimulation and you’ll have a harder time winding down.
Focus on the good stuff. Instead of replaying bad memories, bring the good stuff into focus. We can train our brains to emphasize positive memories. Start by catching yourself when your mind turns negative, then switch the script. It takes practice, but eventually happy thoughts will become your default.
Embrace technology. Instead of being a technophobe, use your devices to the max. Set calendar reminders to alert you to your next doctor's appointment or fitness walk. Use the alarm on your phone to tell you when to feed the parking meter, and use your phone’s camera to photograph where you parked. Use the notes function to write your shopping list or that book recommendation. A modern phone is filled with great tools. Use them!
Enjoy your empty nest. Instead of crying about an empty nest, turn your home back into a love nest. If the kids have moved out, give your house a romance makeover. Spruce up your boudoir, upgrade the couch and replace the school photos with images that remind you of your playful side.
Limit alcohol. Instead of wondering if you’ve had one too many, admit it. Experts agree: Women should have just one glass of alcohol per day, two only on occasion. Red wine has its place in a healthy diet, but if you overimbibe, the benefits fade quickly. If drinking has become an unhealthy habit or a stress reliever, try better ways to cope (such as fitness). If it’s a challenge to succeed, talk with your doctor.
Go public. Instead of making changes silently, make a public commitment. Let lots of people know you want to make a change in your life. Once it’s “out there,” it’s much harder to go back. It’s a mind game you can play with yourself and always win.
Be persistent. Instead of quitting after two weeks, give a new activity 90 days. Research shows that most life changes take at least three months to become a habit. That was true for me. When I started running, I pledged to stick with it for three months. Sure enough, in that time I saw my health and life markedly improve.
Think better. Instead of thinking “younger,” think "better." We all need to get real when it comes to aging. Cosmetic treatments and procedures might, in some cases, shave a few years off your appearance. But if you aim to look and feel “better” rather than “younger,” you’ll wind up taking good care of yourself, which is almost guaranteed to show.