You know the story: Somebody's 99-year-old aunt never exercised, smoked her whole life, and lived on a diet of red meat and ice cream. So why bother with healthy living, right?
"For every one person who lives a long life of unhealthy choices, there are countless others who die prematurely because of them," says Robert Schreiber, MD. Betting that you will be one of these people is playing a game of Russian roulette, he says.
Schreiber is physician-in-chief at Hebrew SeniorLife, an elder health care provider and affiliate of Harvard Medical School.
No one is guaranteed a life free of disease or injury. But certain lifestyle steps can help forestall illness and sometimes prevent it altogether. They can also improve your quality of life and recovery if disease or injury does strike.
Read on to learn what you can do to improve your odds of a long and healthy life.
Better Health Through Diet
A healthy diet gives you enough fuel to get through the day without loading you up with excess calories. Start with foods from plants. Guidelines from the U.S. Department of Agriculture encourage Americans to eat more:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains
- Fat-free and low-fat dairy products
You should also limit foods that may raise the risk of health problems, like sweets. "Chocolate has some nutritional value, but is also high in sugar and fat," says Jen Sacheck, PhD. Sacheck is an assistant professor at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston.
If you really love chocolate, enjoy it in small amounts, keeping the calories in mind.
Watch out for empty calories. For example, sugary soft drinks have no nutritional value.
Also, watch out for "added sugar" to drinks and food products. The food label doesn't specifically say "added sugar," but be on the lookout for ingredients such as:
- Corn syrup
- High-fructose corn syrup
Other red flags on the ingredient list include:
- Saturated or trans fats
- Refined grains
Getting Started: 4 Steps to a Healthy Diet
Begin with these strategies to eat less and healthier:
- Plan meals ahead of time to ward off unhealthy temptations.
- Replace unhealthy ingredients with healthy ones. For example, an omelet made with egg whites and vegetables is healthier than one heaped with cheese and sausage.
- Serve yourself smaller portions.
- Slow down when you eat.
Healthy Living Through Exercise
"There is a huge amount of evidence that exercise helps lower the risk for serious diseases," Sacheck says. Exercise lowers the risk for conditions such as:
- Heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- Cognitive decline
Exercise can also promote weight loss, as long as you don't use it to justify eating more food. To lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you use.
Don't let the numbers on the scale make or break your exercise goals. Being overweight and active is much healthier than being overweight and inactive.