Madonna and Michelle Obama seem to have little in common. But together, they have awakened American women of a certain age to the allure of tight, toned arms. They've sent the message that those arms and toned, taut bodies may be within reach for other 40-somethings and older.
That message has been helped along by a legion of other celebrities who have passed their 40th birthday, yet remain virtually flab-free. The list includes Sarah Jessica Parker, Ellen Barkin, and Mary Tyler Moore.
Don't slow down. "Exercise and physical activity is where the strongest evidence lies, not just for reducing mortality, but also for across-the-board health benefits," Whitson says. She ticks off exercise's advantages: fewer heart risks, improved sleep and memory, less depression and pain, better bone strength, and fewer falls.
What kind of fitness is best? "If you're only able to do one kind of exercise, aerobic exercise is what you want to do," she says. In other words, walk briskly, ride a stationary bike, or take a dance class. Even better, alternate aerobics with strength and flexibility training for a well-rounded program.
Go Mediterranean. With its emphasis on fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, the Mediterranean diet has some solid evidence to show it can help you live longer. One study found that, compared with a low-fat diet, the Mediterranean way of eating can cut the risk of life-threatening heart attacks and strokes by 30%.
Stay connected. As family moves away and friends move on, you can lose touch and get isolated. Loneliness isn't just a state of mind. It takes a toll on the body, too. One study linked loneliness with a 45% increased risk of death. "The more connectedness people have, the better outcomes they have," Whitson says. Build a support network through your doctor, community center, or religious organization. Learn to use social networking web sites like Facebook and voice/imaging technologies such as Skype.
No butts. Whether heart disease, lung disease, or cancer eventually develops, a smoker's life will be cut short by roughly 13 to 14 years. It takes an average of seven attempts to ditch the habit for good. "Just because you've tried in the past doesn't mean you're incapable of quitting. It just means you're closer to the time when you succeed," Whitson says.
The Mediterranean Meal Plan
The Mediterranean diet has been linked to better heart health and greater longevity. Whitson recommends it to her patients.
Ban butter. Switch to unsaturated olive oil for cooking, and use olive oil for salad dressings. Vegetable oils such as canola and grape seed are also healthy.
Switch to fish. Twice a week, substitute a serving of salmon, herring, or albacore tuna for red meat.
Load up on veggies. Leave more room on your plate for vegetables like broccoli, kale, carrots, and tomatoes. Grill or steam them, or serve them raw, instead of frying.