1. Go for a walk
Even if you’re 50 and have never taken part in a physical activity, a brisk half-hour walk three times a week can “basically reverse your physiological age by about ten years,” says Gareth Jones, director of the Canadian Center for Activity and Aging in London, Ont.
His source? A three-year study of 220 retirement-age men in which half didn’t exercise and the other half walked briskly for 30 minutes three times a week. After a year, the exercise group showed a 12 percent increase in aerobic power and a ten percent increase in strength and hip flexibility—equivalent to what they would have lost over a decade had they not exercised at all.
2. Eat more fish
Eating fish once or twice a week can cut your risk of having a fatal heart attack by more than a third. It may also reduce the risk of several cancers and ease the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.
Omega fatty acids modulate the production of powerful hormone-like substances known as eicosanoids. Those produced by omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and reduce blood clotting, and scientists are now certain that omega-3 fats lower the risk of heart attacks for that reason. If an attack does occur, it’s less likely to be fatal. One study of heart attack survivors showed that if they took one gram of omega-3s daily in a capsule, they lowered their risk of dying from heart disease by 25 percent. Omega-3 fats also lower blood triglycerides (a type of stored fat that is associated with increased blood clots), reduce abnormal heart rhythms and the incidence of stroke, slow the buildup of artery-hardening plaques and lower blood pressure.
3. Lift weights
Scientists once believed that nothing could be done about the withering of muscles associated with aging. Then, in 1990, a study was published by the August Krogh Institute in Denmark that indicated there was one group of aging athletes who maintained the strength of men half their age: weight lifters.
Studies from Tufts University in Boston confirmed that muscle and bone loss could be stopped and even reversed through weight training. After lifting weights twice a week for a year, a group of postmenopausal women in their 50s and 60s made gains in bone density, and their scores on strength tests soared to levels more typical of women in their late 30s.
4. Get a pet
Seniors who own pets are less likely to be depressed than those who don’t, according to a study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Cindy Adams, a professor and specialist in the human-animal bond at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, believes positive effects stem from the fact that pets force us to focus on something other than ourselves. “It takes our minds off our own aches and pains,” she says.
5. Talk to your doctor about supplements
Vitamin B12 deficiencies can result in dementia and memory loss, so make sure you’re getting enough (vegetarians and vegans may be more likely to have low levels). Boost calcium intake, too, to guard against osteoporosis.
6. Quit smoking
If you quit smoking by age 30, your survival rate can rival that of lifelong nonsmokers, according to a report in the British Medical Journal. Quit by 50 and you have half the risk continuing smokers have of dying in the next 15 years. Even if you’ve already developed a smoking-related health condition, you’ll benefit. “People who quit smoking after having a heart attack reduce their chances of having another by about 30 percent,” says Neville Suskin, MD, a cardiologist at the London Health Sciences Centre in Ontario.
7. Challenge your mind
Stimulating mental activities, such as learning a foreign language, reading a challenging book, playing bridge or attending a lecture may keep you mentally alert as you age, says Angela Troyer, a psychologist specializing in aging and memory. “People who do more of these things in older adulthood tend to develop dementia at a lower rate.”
Studies indicate that the more time you spend in school, the better able you will be to keep dementia at bay. Ultimately, learning is the most fundamental brain workout—and the more you do it, the more you’ll benefit. Whether it’s a crossword puzzle or a game of Sudoku, doing challenging puzzles is a way of activating the brain—and a surefire way to help keep it sharp.
8. Be optimistic
One quality most centenarians share, according to the large-scale New England Centenarian Study, is an ability to not dwell on difficulties. Stress provokes a physiological response that’s hard on the body, says Hymie Anisman, professor of neuroscience at Carleton University in Ottawa. Your body pumps out adrenaline and cortisol, which are meant to help you cope with danger in the short term but which can damage your immune system, heart and brain when you’re constantly keyed up.
Dr. Becca Levy, from the Yale School of Public Health, has found some extraordinary benefits of an optimistic outlook. In one study, she looked at 660 people who’d completed a survey about their attitude to aging in 1975, then correlated their responses to the ages at which they died. “We found that individuals with a more positive view of aging tended to live seven-and-a-half years longer than those with more negative views of aging,” says Dr. Levy. “This advantage remained after adjusting for a number of factors such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, loneliness and functional health.”
9. Spend time with friends
If you can’t stand to jog and refuse to swear off chips and dip, here’s good news: A poker game with your pals may be equally beneficial. When Thomas Glass, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, tracked participation by almost 3,000 people aged 65 and up in a range of activities over 13 years, he found that social engagements may add as much to your life span as healthy measures such as cutting cholesterol or lowering blood pressure.
10. Help someone else
In a York University study participants were asked to behave helpfully or considerately toward another person for just a few minutes a day. After six months, participants reported much greater self-esteem and happiness than those in the control group.
Not only is doing good deeds sure to spike your happy meter, but more and more research proves there are physical benefits, too. Studies have found that people who make a habit of helping others report better health than those who don’t, and seniors who do volunteer work may actually live longer.