Simple food swaps and lifestyle choices can boost your health and prolong your life. Paula Goodyer gives you a glimpse of your bright future.
Trawl the net, and you’ll find plenty of dietary supplements claiming to help slow ageing and promote longevity. But if you’re looking for solid evidence about what lifts our odds of living a long and healthy life, you need to know that habits have proved more powerful than pills.
The combination of following a well-balanced diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and shunning smoking is your best bet. These moves result in a huge reduction, of up to 80 per cent, in the risks of the most common chronic diseases — heart disease, diabetes and cancer — according to Healthy Living Is the Best Revenge, the wonderfully titled 2009 study of more than 23,000 European adults. Furthermore, a large Dutch survey of 120,000 people has concluded that these same four healthy habits can add an extra eight to 15 years to your life.
All these numbers add up to one simple fact: you often need make only small changes to reap big rewards — especially if you revamp your diet and ramp up the amount of movement in your day.
Eat to live well into the future
So is the way you’re eating improving your health and lengthening your lifespan? An important new study from University College London — which underscores the benefit of sneaking extra vegies into your diet — may help you decide.
When researchers analysed the lifestyle data of more than 65,000 adults, they found that the more fruit and vegetables subjects were eating, the less likely they were to die at any age. Although the biggest benefit came with eating seven serves of fruit and veg a day — especially vegetables — study author Dr Oyinlola Oyebode, PhD, stresses that people shouldn’t feel daunted by this daily target.
“Whatever your starting point, it’s always worth eating more fruit and vegetables,” she says. “In our study, even subjects who were eating one to three serves had a significantly lower mortality risk than those who were eating less than one.”
Better health starts with baby steps towards better eating habits, agrees dietitian Dr Helen O’Connor, PhD, a senior lecturer in The University of Sydney’s Discipline of Exercise and Sport Science. Her advice? Make small gradual changes that are easy to sustain rather than adopt a sudden and dramatic diet makeover that’s hard to maintain.
Exercise your right to a long life
As for exercise’s positive effects on your health and longevity, those baby steps work better as grown-up strides. Walking is an easy way to boost your well-being, and many studies confirm that just 30 minutes of physical activity a day does the trick: You’ll not only halve your risks of diabetes and heart disease, but also reduce your chances of developing colon cancer and breast cancer, two of the most common cancers affecting Australians, says Tim Crowe, PhD, associate professor in nutrition at Victoria’s Deakin University.
“Studies show that for people who are recovering from or at risk of either of these cancers, physical activity can reduce the risk of recurrence or onset,” explains Crowe. “However, the reason is still unclear — it could be movement’s positive influence on the immune system or its effect on growth hormones that increase the risk of cancer.”
If you want to move even more, but the idea of running makes you burrow deeper into the couch, the heartening results of a major new US study might just coax you into your shorts. Running for a mere seven minutes a day (yes, just seven!), even at a slow pace, can reduce the risk of death from all causes by nearly a third, according to the study, which was published in Journal of the American College of Cardiology. In other words, you can do your health a big favour in the time it takes to make a phone call or have a shower.
Best of all, it’s never too late to start: A 2009 Swedish study concluded that men who became more physically active at the age of 50 had the same reduced mortality risk at 60 as men who’d been active for a longer time. So let’s get moving!
Shift gears and upgrade your health with these easy ideas
Make your own fast food
Swapping fast food for home-made meals is a healthy move. A 2012 survey of Taiwanese people aged over 65 shows that those who ate home-cooked meals at least five times a week were 47 per cent more likely to be alive 10 years later (compared with those who never cooked).
Food doesn’t get much faster than tossing a fresh garden salad and sizzling juicy lean meat on the barbecue — and simple home cooking puts you in control of the ingredients.
Takeaway foods and pre-prepared meals can be too high in salt and unhealthy fats, such as trans fats. If you’re used to buying a lot of takeaway food, eating even one home-made evening meal a week is a start. Gradual changes are easier to make, and evidence shows they’re more sustainable.
Choose a better breakfast cereal
Switch to a breakfast cereal based on traditional oats, or to a variety made from wholegrains. This simple swap can make you feel full for longer, so look for high-fibre products.
Swap the couch for the table
Sitting at the table to eat makes you more aware of what you’re eating and more likely to feel satisfied, but eating in front of the TV can have the opposite effect. You’re likely to eat mindlessly, and studies suggest you’ll probably eat more.
Enjoy vegie substitutes
Swap ham for hoummos in wraps and sandwiches, bacon for mushrooms (with breakfast eggs), and butter for avocado on toast. Cooking pasta with pesto? Replace half of the pasta with steamed cauliflower and toss with pesto for comfort food that delivers extra veg.
Stir up your own salad dressing
You can make a salad dressing in less time than it takes to track down a commercial variety — and enjoy its many health benefits. Simply whisk olive oil and a vinegar of your choice with a dollop of seeded mustard.
Studies link olive-oil consumption to lower risks of heart disease and stroke, and though this may be due to the antioxidant properties of the oil itself, it could also be because olive oil makes vegetables taste so good that we simply eat more of them!
Extra-virgin olive oil delivers more antioxidants than any other olive oil does, says Associate Professor Catherine Itsiopoulos, head of the Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition at Melbourne’s La Trobe University and author of The Mediterranean Diet.
Go a little nutty
Unsalted raw nuts are the ultimate snack. Even when you allow for nut eaters’ other healthy habits that might explain their lower rates of heart disease, your health will still benefit from eating nuts alone. So why are nuts such a heart-healthy nibble? Experts are still unsure, but it’s probably thanks to their mix of essential nutrients, such as healthy fats, vitamin E, zinc and magnesium.
Say no to convenience
It’s tempting to outsource household chores, but pushing the mower or picking up the mop could lengthen your lifespan. When US-based researchers followed 302 people aged 70 to 82 over eight years, they found that those who were the most physically active with everyday tasks (such as housework, shopping and gardening) were more likely to live longer than their less-active peers.
Take a walk with a friend
People with long lives share two key healthy-lifestyle factors: they have social networks, and they practise some purposeful physical activity. This doesn’t mean they’re donning Lycra for a gym session; it means they’re doing everyday activities, such as walking to the shops or working in the garden. Walk with friends, and you’ll tick two boxes at once.
Stand up for your health
If you commute to a sedentary job on public transport during the week, stand rather than sit whenever possible, says Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, associate professor of exercise, health and physical activity at The University of Sydney’s Charles Perkins Centre.
Research into the risks of prolonged sitting is in its early days, says Stamatakis, but the evidence we have suggests that the main problem with sitting for long periods is that your blood-glucose levels can increase, heightening your risk of diabetes. Idle muscles are the problem: Blood glucose is fuel for active muscles, so when muscles are inactive, glucose builds up in the blood.But before you quit your desk job, consider Stamatakis’s comment that “even the small contractions that muscles make when we’re standing or moving may help counteract this”.
Maximise meals’ nutritional value
People who enjoy long lives eat plenty of vegetables, but any extra serve of veg is beneficial. Add vegies to dishes such as curries and pasta sauces instead of cooking them separately. This way, vegies stop being a pile on the side of the plate and become part of the dish, which some people find more appealing.
Legumes (such as beans, lentils and chickpeas) count as vegetables, too, and a 2004 University of Melbourne study links them to longevity. Adding canned legumes to casseroles, curries and soups is another easy way to add extra nutrients and filling fibre.
Walk up and down stairs
Whether it’s climbing a flight of stairs or stepping onto the escalator (instead of taking the lift), walking up stairs is a good-health ‘best buy’ that helps improve cardiovascular fitness in people who don’t exercise regularly.
When sedentary young women increased their daily stair-climbing time from two minutes to 10 minutes over a period of eight weeks for a UK study, they improved their cardiovascular fitness by nearly 20 per cent.
Seize any opportunity to climb stairs. It’s an excellent form of physical activity that you can build into your life without having to make plans or use special equipment.