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Strengthening the Body

When it comes to aging well, we’re all looking for the magical fountain of youth that will keep us healthy and vigorous well into our senior years.

It turns out there really is a tried-and-true method for aging well physically, mentally and spiritually. It’s not magic, and it takes effort, but it can add years to your life, help keep your brain fit, and boost your mood.

The secret formula: regular exercise and a healthy diet.

“Only thirty percent of how you age is determined by your genes,” says David Heber, M.D., Ph.D., Director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition. “The other seventy percent is in your hands.”

For example, he notes, Asians who live in China and Japan typically have low rates of cancer and diabetes. However, once they come to the U.S. and adopt our dietary habits, their rates dramatically increase.

Physical Activity

Active people are half as likely to develop heart disease than those who are inactive. They are less likely to develop diabetes and osteoporosis; make fewer visits to the doctor and the hospital; and take fewer medications. Unfortunately, more than half of Americans age 65 and over are inactive.

“Exercise of the right types can maintain muscle mass … which improves overall metabolism, puts less stress on your pancreas, and helps you achieve a healthier body,” says Dr. Heber.

Here’s the catch: You need to do physical activity regularly in order for it to work. By scheduling time for physical activity and making it part of your regular day, you are more likely to stick to a routine. You don’t need to join a gym: Lift two-pound weights while you watch TV or walk the entire mall when you go shopping.

Be sure to include these different types of exercise, each of which provides unique benefits:
  • Endurance activities are those that make you breathe hard, like dancing, swimming, biking, or running. Build up to at least 30 minutes of endurance activity most days of the week. You can break the 30 minutes into shorter sessions.
  • Strength exercises involve lifting weights. This helps build muscles and strengthens bones.
  • Balance activities help improve balance and prevent falls. Your doctor can show you some exercises to do on one foot to improve balance. Here are some examples: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/balance-exercises/SM00049
  • Flexibility activities generally refer to stretching, which can improve your freedom of movement.

The other part of the equation is diet. Studies show that following a healthy diet can reduce the risk of osteoporosis, high blood pressure, heart diseases, and certain cancers. What does a healthy diet look like? At least half of your plate should consist of fruits and vegetables. Eat a variety of colors of produce in order to take full advantage of what Dr. Heber refers to as “nature’s pharmacy.”

In ancient times, Dr. Heber notes, our diets were filled with fruits and vegetables. These foods contain chemical compounds that protect us against cell damage and disease. However, modern food processing has removed many of these compounds from our diets.

The part of our plate not filled with fruits and vegetables should include a combination of low-fat dairy products, grains – at least half of them whole grains – and lean protein such as fish or chicken. Nuts and beans also count as protein.

We need some fat in our diets, but not all fats are created equal. Red meat and full-fat dairy products -- such as cheese, milk, ice cream and butter – contain trans and saturated fats, which increase the risk for certain diseases. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, on the other hand, are good for the body. They are found in such foods as salmon, nuts and seeds, plant oils, and avocadoes.

Dr. Heber says that most of us consume more sugar than we realize because many of the processed foods we eat contain high fructose corn syrup. Soft drinks are a major source of “empty” calories. Thirty-three percent of the sugar consumed in the average American diet comes from soft drinks.

The secret’s out: For a healthy body, exercise regularly and choose foods wisely.

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Here’s one more powerhouse tip for aging healthfully: Get preventive health screenings and appropriate vaccinations. Here are guidelines for women and men:

Always check with your physician before beginning a diet or exercise program.

Nancy Sokoler Steiner Nancy Sokoler Steiner is a freelance writer and author based in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Los Angeles Times Magazine, The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and Lifestyles Magazine, among other publications.

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