How to Live Longer—and Better—According to Science

Here’s a reminder that stacking good habits can lead to major benefits.

When it comes to what will truly extend your life, you can likely guess the handful of strategies that can combat chronic diseases: don’t smoke, limit your alcohol intake, stay active, maintain a healthy weight, and eat nutritious foods.

What’s next, the breaking news that water is wet?

While these healthy habits seem to be obvious, what sets a recent study, published in the BMJ, apart is that researchers looked not only at the benefits of lifestyle choices on life expectancy, but also examined the effect on “healthspan,” a term used to describe how long you might be free of chronic diseases as you age.

Researchers gathered data from two major research projects: the Nurses’ Health Study—which ran from 1980 to 2014 and had over 73,000 participants—and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, with over 38,000 participants from 1986 to 2014.

They looked at those with a history of never smoking, normal body mass index (BMI) of 18.5 to 24.9, moderate to vigorous physical activity level of at least 30 minutes per day, moderate alcohol intake, and higher diet quality scores. They called these the five “low-risk lifestyle factors.” (It’s worth noting that BMI—which is derived by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in meters squared—doesn’t take muscle mass into account.)

That means these five factors help you live longer, but also better, according to lead researcher Frank Hu, M.D., Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“The results are not particularly surprising because our previous studies have shown that following a healthy lifestyle can reduce risk of chronic diseases and prolong life,” he told Runner’s World. “What’s interesting about this study is that the extended life expectancy through diet and lifestyle modifications is largely disease-free, which means improved quality of life.”

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For women who adopted none of these, the life expectancy free of type 2 diabetescardiovascular diseases, and cancer was 73 years, but those who had four or all five were more likely to be free of these issues up to age 84.

For men, the difference was less significant, but still notable. Zero low-risk lifestyle factors also potentially put them at 73 with a life free of those major diseases, but with four or five factors, they might still be free of them at age 81.

As for how much exercise you should get, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion’s (ODPHP) physical activity guidelines for Americans recommends that adults should get 150 to 300 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise per week or 75 to 150 minutes of intense aerobic exercise per week. In addition, strength training two or more days per week is also recommended.

When it comes to healthy eating, the ODPHP’s dietary guidelines for Americans say that adults should eat 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 6 ounces of grains, 3 cups of dairy, and 5.5 ounces of protein for a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. In addition, less than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from added sugars and saturated fats. As far as alcohol consumption goes, women should only have up to one drink per day and men should only have up to two drinks per day.

Adhering to even just two or three of the study’s five factors extended life expectancy free of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes, but the biggest gains were seen with those who had all five.

“These results are very important for healthy aging,” said Hu. “People don’t just want to live a longer life. They want quality and health to go along with those years.”

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