When we talk about getting older, our minds usually go to one of two places: finances (retirement savings, anyone?) or our outward appearance (was that gray hair there yesterday?). Most of us don’t realize until much later in life that there’s a lot more to think about than money and wrinkles. As physician and author Dr. Tieraona Low Dog notes, “An important message to give anyone is: If you are putting money in the bank at 40 so you have it for retirement, you should be thinking just as much about being mobile, active, healthy and pain free. You want to invest in health habits, too, that meet the needs to live a long life.”

Why Do We Age?

Although the million-dollar questions of why we age and if we can reverse the aging process remain, Tom LaRocca, Ph.D.—instructor and research associate of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who has been studying healthy aging since 2006—says what scientists do know is that aging starts much earlier than most of us think. “Wrinkles are the least of our concern,” he says. “Most physiological functions, such as lung capacity and muscle strength, start to decline at about age 30. It’s not obvious at first, but eventually this decline reduces quality of life.” 

Two primary things happen at a cellular level to cause aging, explains LaRocca. The first is oxidative stress, which is what occurs when free radicals are left unchecked. We need free radicals for certain functions, such as detoxifying the body, but when the body’s antioxidants and free radicals get out of sync, free radicals can wreak havoc. Left to their own devices, they can damage cells, including proteins, DNA and cell membranes. This streak of damage can also create a pathway to chronic disease and inflammation, and even accelerate aging.

“Most people are familiar with free radicals. They are normal. But as we age, there is an overproduction of free radicals and we don’t clear them out as well as we used to,” says LaRocca.

The other process at work in aging is inflammation. Most people are familiar with the term inflammation in the context of injury. Yet, LaRocca explains, with aging, there is typically a much lower-grade inflammation than with an injury. “The same genes in some cases get turned on during aging that would get turned on with an injury, yet with aging this causes chronic, low-grade inflammation.”

The Good News?

Aging is a mix of genetics and lifestyle. In other words, there are things you can control. “If you smoke cigarettes, become obese, eat improperly and never exercise, you can be old at age 30. If you don’t do those things, you can be young and vibrant at 70 or 80. A lot is within your control,” says Dr. Stuart Jay Olshansky, professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “If you put junk in, you should not be surprised to get junk out. Exercise is about as magical as it gets, the elixir, the only equivalent of a fountain of youth that exists today.”

Get Moving

It’s true. Studies point to exercise being a fountain of youth of sorts at the cellular level. “We know that exercise is anti-inflammatory and reduces oxidative stress,” says LaRocca.

This doesn’t mean you have to run a marathon—it’s more about just moving your body. “We know through science that there are few worse things for your health than not moving, and it is clear that even a little bit can do a whole lot of good,” says Lisa Cohen, certified nutritionist, fitness expert and owner of lisacohenfitness.com. “Sitting is the new smoking.”

See also Improve Your Exercise Habits. 

There is no one-size-fits-all for exercise, but the most transformative effect, Cohen says, comes with people who are sedentary and simply start moving. If you are already a fit person, high-intensity interval training is the best for turning back the clock, suggests a new study published in Cell Metabolism. “In this study, the group that showed the fastest cellular regeneration and improved age-related decline in muscle were the people who did the high-intensity interval training,” says Cohen.

Although the study was done using bikes, Cohen says, “If you are walking your dog, go a little harder for 10 seconds, pushing until you are a little uncomfortable and then slow the pace and recover. Do that on and off. The more fit you are, the harder you are able to go. But absolutely, do it at your fitness level.”

Exercise also helps us to maintain a healthy weight as we age. “After age 40, it is pretty much part of the natural degenerative process that you would lose muscle mass yearly. The more muscle mass you have, the higher your metabolism is. Through the natural degenerative process, we lose that muscle mass, so our metabolism is subsequently going down each year. Thus, we have to eat less to maintain our weight,” Cohen explains. “With exercise, we not only regenerate cells, we improve muscle mass and boost metabolism.”

Don’t Forget Your Diet

Not surprisingly, like exercise, a healthy diet and lower calorie intake also reduce inflammation and oxidative stress, says LaRocca. In fact, studies indicate that eating approximately 10 percent fewer calories can delay disease, says Low Dog. The goal should be to stay within your normal weight range or on the leaner end of normal weight, she says. “Some studies have shown that small reductions in calories over time can decrease the risk of diabetes and improve cholesterol. The key is to choose to eat calories that are as nutritious as possible,” she explains.  

Your first nutrition step should be to cut out the bad stuff. “The foods that we know will age you are sugar and processed foods. Reduce or eliminate those,” Cohen says. With her clients, Cohen focuses primarily on a plant-based diet, with small amounts of fish and animal protein, whole grains and healthy fats, which is similar to the Mediterranean diet. Although there is no evidence that the Mediterranean diet will specifically make you live longer, LaRocca notes that people who consume this diet have shown to have lower levels of oxidative stress, have a lower risk for heart attacks and strokes, and are less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease.

Studies also show that antioxidants can combat oxidative stress. The key here, says LaRocca, is to get them through your diet, not as a supplement. This is in part why Cohen suggests to her clients that they get six servings of fruits and vegetables a day. “Ideally it’s one to two servings of fruit, and then four or more servings of vegetables,” she says. Antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies include blueberries, blackberries, plums, oranges, kale, spinach and brussels sprouts, to name just a few.

If you focus on diet and exercise, you’re on the right path, Olshansky says. “You make a decision every day when you wake up: ‘What will I eat? Am I going to exercise? Am I going to take care of my body?’ If you have a lifetime of making the right choices, you tend to make it out better than if you make bad choices. Don’t overthink it.”

Vanity Fair

As for the wrinkles? Vanity is not such as bad thing, says Low Dog. “It’s OK to want to feel and look your best. There is something useful about taking pride in one’s appearance. Where it’s a problem is when we do it because we feel shame for aging.” Instead of feeling shame, make it about embracing change, Olshansky suggests. “Things will change with the passage of time—you can let them affect you or adapt to them. I was a runner for about 40 years. I had to stop, but I replaced it with the elliptical and walking. It’s all about adaptation and what you can do to replace the things you can’t do anymore. Instead of fretting about what you have lost, focus on what is new that you can do.”

Healthy Aging Tips

Balance

Every time you brush your teeth, do it on one foot, says Dr. Olshansky, who says he picked up this tip from a lecture put on by the International Longevity Centre. “Balance yourself on one foot for one to two minutes while you brush your teeth every day. Balance on one foot when you brush your teeth in the morning and on the other when you brush your teeth at night. It’s a simple exercise or procedure that can help you dramatically improve your balance.”

Vitamins

In addition to taking a good multivitamin that has vitamin K to aid calcium absorption, Low Dog recommends taking the following nutrients as you age. She also suggests getting tested if you think you are deficient in any nutrients.

See also 3 Supplements for Healthy Aging.

  • Vitamin B12: Roughly 15 percent of people over age 70 are vitamin B12 deficient, and estimates vary for people ages 50 to 70. There are even some estimates that as many as 20 percent of us are deficient. The problem with B12 deficiency is that the symptoms can easily be misinterpreted as signs of aging, says Dr. Low Dog. “Joint pain, depression, memory loss, loss of taste and smell, people just think ‘I am getting old,’ not realizing that they are deficient.” The Health and Medicine Division of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, Medicine recommends adults over age 50 get B12 from fortified foods or dietary supplements.   
  • Vitamin D: As we age, our ability to make vitamin D in our skin decreases, even with sun exposure. “The kidneys are where we make the active form of vitamin D, yet kidney function decreases with age, which then impairs your ability to absorb calcium. You need vitamin D to absorb calcium,” Low Dog says.
  • Magnesium: Low levels of this often-overlooked mineral are associated with type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, colon cancer, atherosclerosis or cardiovascular disease, and metabolic health. It helps regulate blood sugar and maintain insulin sensitivity, among other things, Low Dog says.

Sleep

They don’t call it beauty sleep for nothing. Sleep can reduce levels of cortisol, which is released in response to stress, and balance hormones. “Sleep cures just about everything,” says Dr. Stuart Jay Olshansky. “Sleep deprivation leads to all kinds of health problems, especially among older individuals. When you sleep, you are physically cleaning out substances in the brain that create problems, and your body repairs itself at night. Sleep is a big deal.” The National Institutes of Health recommends that adults older than 18 get seven to eight hours of sleep each night.

See also 6 Methods for Better Sleep