There is no secret to longevity – don’t smoke or binge drink, eat well and exercise regularly. These have long been the pillars of a healthy lifestyle, and a 2023 study once again shows how much these habits pay off.

At the Nutrition 2023 conference in July, a group of researchers presented new longevity findings based on health data collected from more than 700,000 U.S. veterans.

The researchers zeroed in on eight habits that have consistently been linked to improved health and longevity.

Those habits are regular exercise, a proper diet and sleep, low stress, positive social relationships, and the avoidance of tobacco, opioids, and binge drinking.

People who ticked all eight of those boxes lived between 21 and 24 years longer than those who practised none of them, the study found.

Exercise, tobacco, and opioids were the habits most strongly linked to longevity.

People who lived sedentary lifestyles and also used these two substances were at a 30 to 45 percent higher risk of death compared to those who exercised regularly and avoided tobacco and opioids, the study found.

“Adopting a healthy lifestyle is important for both public health and personal wellness,” says Xuan-Mai Nguyen, PhD, one of the authors of the study and a health science specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs. “The earlier the better, but even if you only make a small change in your forties, fifties, or sixties, it still is beneficial.”

While the internet has no shortage of “health hacks” that purport to help you live longer, actual longevity experts tend to adopt the kinds of habits outlined in Dr. Nguyen’s study.

“I would never say ‘Do this one thing’ because that isn’t true, that’s not how it works,” says Allison Aiello, PhD, the James S. Jackson Healthy Longevity Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University in New York City.

Longevity, she says, depends on a complex interplay of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors – some of which are largely or totally out of a person’s control. Also, the devil is in the details, and experts are still sorting many of those details out. “We know, for example, that exercise is really important, but when you get down to the amount of exercise, it’s still not exactly clear what’s best,” she says.

All this is to say that the habits she and other longevity experts have adopted themselves should not be misconstrued as ideal or optimal. “I can tell you what I do, but I don’t want to send the message that my choices are right for everyone, because the research doesn’t support that,” she says.

Think of this as a fun and instructive glimpse into the ways two longevity experts have incorporated their work into their own lives.

1. Setting Aside Time Every Day for Exercise

“We know that exercise improves health and longevity,” Dr. Aiello says. “In an ideal week, I try to get an hour a day of moderate-to-vigorous exercise.”

Some recent work on “training for longevity” has found that, consistent with Aiello’s routine, between two and a half and five hours per week of moderate or vigorous exercise confers maximal longevity benefits.

Aiello is a runner, so that’s her physical activity of choice. “But there are a broad array of exercises that are good for you,” she adds. “We have a lot of research now showing that strength training is really important going into old age in order to prevent frailty.”

A review of studies on resistance training shows it can help fight age-related physical decline by lowering your risk for cardiovascular disease, increasing bone density, and maintaining cognitive function, among other benefits.

2. Making Some of That Exercise High Intensity

Recently, a handful of studies have found that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) may offer some targeted longevity benefits. In one study published in 2022, three 23-minute weekly HIIT workouts were found to reduce specific genetic markers of ageing in sedentary middle-aged adults.

“I’ve made particular effort to maintain high levels of vigorous activity,” says John Beard, PhD, professor of health policy and management and epidemiology and director of the International Longevity Center at Columbia University. “I don’t think it’s necessarily right for everyone, but just reading my own body, I feel that high-intensity training is really good for me.”

Dr. Beard says that he tends to swim in the summertime and ski in winter. “But when I say swim, I mean I do a couple of kilometres that include very high-intensity laps, not just a gentle swim,” he says. “When I ski, I ski hard off-piste and really push myself.”

When he can’t ski or swim, Beard says he will do a light weight workout with dumbbells. “I think it’s all helped me to maintain good muscle mass, and I’m physically in pretty good shape,” he says.

3. Eating More Vegetables and Less Meat

“I eat differently than I used to,” Beard says. “I eat a lot of Japanese food these days – a lot of seafood – and I have a higher vegetarian intake than I used to.”

In line with Beard’s choices, some research has found adherence to a “Japanese diet” rich in rice, miso soup, seaweed, and vegetables is associated with an increase in lifespan. He also says he tends to eschew red meat, and there’s a lot of research linking diets rich in plants and low in meat with health and mortality improvements.

“I think my diet does tie into the evidence on health and longevity, but I also do it because I think eating more vegetables and less meat makes sense from a planetary perspective,” he adds.



4. Meditating

Research from the University of California in San Francisco has found that meditation practices such as mindfulness can help counteract DNA damage associated with ageing. Meditation seems to do this because it  reduces stress. Other research teams have come to a similar conclusion.

Beard says that he used to meditate for an hour every other day. While he’s since given up his regular practice, he still feels that the experience has done him good. “I think even now I’m able to maintain a more focused and relaxed attitude to the rest of life,” he says. “I think I’ve become less stressed and more accepting, and meditation contributed to that.”

5. Prioritising Social Get-Togethers

Some of Aiello’s own research has found that social animals (including humans) can reduce their disease risks and maybe even lengthen their lifespans by spending more time in the company of others.

“Research has been uncovering the detrimental impacts of social isolation on healthy longevity, and research has also shown that social connections are protective of longevity,” she says. “So I think more about social connections than I used to.”

She says she tries to get together socially with friends or family members at least once a week, and that’s a target research supports.

That said, you don’t have to have a big network of friends in order to tap the longevity benefits. Especially as people reach their thirties and beyond, some research has found that the quality of one’s interactions – spending time with very close friends or family members – seems to matter more than the quantity of get-togethers.

6. Eating More Berries and Plant-Based Fats

Studies going back more than 20 years have found that Mediterranean-style diets rich in plant foods (fruit, vegetables, whole grains) and low in meat are associated with longer lifespans.

“Since I’ve been doing this research, I’ve definitely increased my greens and whole grains and the number of vegetables I eat,” Aiello says. “Given the research around berries, I’ve also tried to eat more blueberries and raspberries.” That research has found that berries (not just blueberries and raspberries, but other types as well) are associated with anti-oxidant and anti-cancer effects.

Also in line with the Mediterranean diet research: replacing animal fats with plant-based fats from sources like olives, nuts, and avocados. “Olive oil is definitely something we eat and cook a lot with in my house,” she says. “I try to substitute it for butter.”

An analysis of data from two large-scale health studies, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2022, found that people who had two or more servings of avocado a week lowered their risk of cardiovascular disease.

7. Sticking to a Consistent Sleep-Wake Schedule

You’ve heard that sleep is important for health and longevity, and there’s plenty of scientific evidence to back that up. Sleep experts also often talk about the importance of maintaining a regular sleep schedule, which means going to bed and getting up at the same time every day.

“I try to be very consistent about when I go to bed and when I get up,” Aiello says.

Some research has found that the oldest-living adults tend to follow a very regular sleep-wake routine. That work also found these adults had improved lipid profiles compared with other old adults.

SOURCE: Everyday Health