When we think of aging, many of us feel a sense of dread. Especially in Western society, we see aging as nothing but a period of decline, as we are slowly stripped of our looks, smarts and everything else we care about. We associate aging with sickness and disease capped off by death.
We can’t do anything about death. But we can do a great deal about how long we live, and the quality of life we have. That’s where the concept of longevity comes in. It’s a way of answering the question: how can I live a long, happy life?
There are as many answers to that question as there are people living long, happy lives. But while everyone’s life journey is unique, the stories of most people who live to a ripe old age and feel good about it share common themes. Boosting our longevity can be surprisingly simple—all it takes is living a certain way, and some luck.
The lived experience of traditional cultures from all over the world and the clinical observations of contemporary science both agree that aging doesn’t have to go hand-in-hand with illness. The world is full of people thriving well into their 80s, 90s and even 100s. Indeed, scientists believe that the upper limit on the human lifespan is somewhere north of 120 years old, and the people who make it that long tend to live full lives right up until the end.
While some degree of aging is inevitable—and not a bad thing at all—spending the last few decades of our lives getting sicker and sicker is not. Our years after 50 don’t have to revolve around an ever-expanding pillbox and collection of diagnoses. Health and wellness are normal at all ages—if we give ourselves the tools we need.
How can I live well longer?
Long-term wellness tends to come together as the result of finding balance on all of our levels of being. That means nurturing our bodies, learning to skillfully approach our thoughts, feelings, and emotions, connecting with ourselves and others, and making peace with the present moment. Perhaps more than anything, it means relaxing and not taking ourselves too seriously. Nobody does any of this perfectly; it’s a gradual practice that each of us can play with as we go through life.
What should I eat to live longer?
Eating the right foods is a big part of living well longer. This doesn’t mean there is one specific diet or meal plan that everyone needs to follow. There are a lot of options, but they’re variations on a general pattern. Not coincidentally, it’s the same sort of pattern most holistic health professionals recommend for people struggling with chronic disease—itself often caused by poor diet.
In short, there are certain types of foods you should avoid. These include anything processed: if it comes in box, package or can, you should probably steer clear. When you do eat processed foods, choose those that are all-natural or organic and have as few ingredients as possible. White rice or pasta is better than a package of convenience store donuts, for example, but none are truly healthy.
Additional foods to avoid: most meat and dairy, anything artificial (including flavors, colors, preservatives, and sweeteners), vegetable oils, sugar and corn syrup, soda, and alcohol.
One way to know if you should avoid a food: take note of how you feel after you eat it. Your body will tell you if what you’re feeding it is a good fit.
Fortunately, there is also a whole world of healthy food out there for you to discover. The foods that help boost your longevity are the same foods that tend to make you feel good after you eat them. These foods tend to show up in one way or another in the traditional diets of many of the healthiest cultures on earth—the Mediterranean diet is one well-known example.
Foods to cultivate a relationship with include any and all greens. Overflowing with nutrition, greens are a cornerstone of any longevity diet. Greens have essential vitamins and minerals to nourish your body, and fiber to help clean you out afterward. Eat as many as you can, along with most other vegetables.
Fruits are likewise a good idea. However, because they naturally contain sugar, you should eat them in greater moderation. Also to eat in moderation: whole grains, pasture-raised meats and dairy, wild-caught fish and starchy vegetables like potatoes.
Legumes like beans and lentils are full of vital nutrients and protein. Cook with healthy fats like olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil and ghee—really, eat as much of these as you like. Vinegar is also a wonderful ingredient to cook with—it supports digestion and nurtures your good gut bacteria. Probiotic-rich foods like miso, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, and sauerkraut also help keep your gut thriving.
Drink lots of water, and a little coffee or tea if you enjoy that.
If you’re wondering how to eat more healthy foods, traditional cuisines from the around the world are a great place to start. Pay attention to not just what foods are used, but the way that they are used: a traditional Italian meal might include pasta or fish, for example, but the emphasis is on a plate full of antipasti vegetables seasoned with olive oil and vinegar.
How should I exercise to live longer?
Exercise is another common factor among most long-lived people. However, those who roll their eyes at the thought of setting foot in a gym, take heart! There’s no need to get fancy—any form of exercise counts.
Indeed, happy, healthy octogenarians around the world often get their exercise simply by walking. Studies of cultures with high levels of longevity show that many people within those cultures walk upwards of 5 miles a day. They’re not walking specifically to exercise either. It’s just a part of their normal, everyday lives—they walk to buy groceries or to visit a friend.
In other words, don’t worry about moving the right way. Just move the way you like to move. Walking, running, swimming, playing basketball, yoga, tai chi, lifting weights—whatever works for you works.
What else should I do to live longer?
Don’t take anything too seriously—including yourself. Cultivate strong, loving relationships and spend lots of time with those people. Help others. Play. Laugh. Practicing accepting all of your thoughts and feelings, and holding on to none of them. Get plenty of sleep.
None of these are complicated concepts, but they do take attention and effort. People who live long, healthy lives tend to learn how to let stress roll off them. They often prize relationships over achievements or material successes, and consequently, feel surrounded by the support of a loving community. They listen to their bodies, give themselves plenty of time to relax and sleep up to 10 hours a night. They find purpose through giving back to others in whatever way they can. They understand that everything comes and goes.
In short, people who live long, healthy lives see that the way they live their lives is more important than what the results may look like.
Who should I go see to live longer?
A holistic physician can help give you more specific advice on what your body needs to live well. They can perform testing to figure out if you’re deficient in certain vitamins or minerals, offer individualized guidance on what you should eat, and help you work through any existing health conditions.
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The Surprising Secrets to Living Longer- and Better
Time Health, 2018