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50+: Live Better, Longer

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Improve Your Odds for a Long and Healthy Life

By Joanne Barker
WebMD Feature

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. He's a doctor at Hebrew SeniorLife, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

No one is guaranteed a healthy life. But following certain guidelines -- namely, eating well, exercising, and not smoking -- can do a lot for you.

Start with these three simple steps.

Step 1: Tap In to the Power of Food

Make smart choices. You need enough fuel to get through the day without loading up on extra calories. Start with fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, seafood, and fat-free or low-fat dairy products. Avoid trans fats and empty calories like those in sugary drinks that don't give you any nutrients.

Cut back on sweets. If you really love chocolate, enjoy it in small amounts, keeping the calories in mind. "Chocolate has some nutritional value but is also high in sugar and fat," says Jen Sacheck, PhD, a nutrition professor at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

Pass up drinks and food products with added sugar. The food label may not specifically say "added sugar," so be on the lookout for ingredients such as corn syrup, fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, and molasses.

How to Jump-Start Your Healthy Diet Plan

  • Plan meals ahead of time to ward off unhealthy temptations.
  • Upgrade to healthier ingredients. For example, make an omelet with egg whites and vegetables, instead of piling on cheese and sausage.
  • Serve yourself smaller portions.
  • Slow down when you eat. You'll give your body a chance to feel full.

Step 2: Exercise Regularly

Make fitness a part of your daily life. A good goal is 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week. You can break that into five sessions if each session lasts for 30 minutes. Or you can do it for less time, as long as you make your activity more challenging.

Any activity that raises your heart rate counts. It could be brisk walking, sports, housework, or yard work.

How to Jump-Start Your Exercise Plan

  • Remember that some activity is better than none. When you have a choice between walking or driving, choose walking.
  • Find activities that you like and that keep you coming back.
  • Start slowly. You're more likely to stick with a plan that's not too hard.
  • Make your workouts longer and harder gradually, when you feel ready.

Step 3: Quit Smoking

Get a health boost. No matter how old you are when you quit smoking, you improve your chances for a healthy life almost immediately. For example:

  • A smoker's heart rate drops within 20 minutes after the last cigarette.
  • Carbon monoxide levels in the blood drop to normal 12 hours after quitting.
  • Within 2 weeks to 3 months after quitting, a smoker's heart attack risk begins to drop, and lung function begins to improve.
  • One year of not smoking cuts the risk of heart disease in half.

Know that it’s never too late. If you’re a smoker who has developed a health problem, giving it up can still make a difference. For example, if you need surgery, chemotherapy, or other treatments, quitting smoking helps your body respond to treatment and heal. If you've had cancer, it may also lower the risk of a cancer returning or a second cancer developing.

How to Jump-Start Your No-Smoking Plan

  • Make a list of reasons you want to quit.
  • Set a quit date.
  • Prepare yourself for challenges by mapping out ways you will cope.
  • Let friends and family know about your plans to quit.
  • Clear your surroundings of cigarettes and anything that makes you want to smoke.
Reviewed on March 04, 2013

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