You’ve set your new year’s resolution to look younger and change your body. Your favorite workout class is brimming with new recruits, you’ve stocked up on those leggings you just “had to buy” after the holidays, and you’ve made your vision board, which is chock-full of lean bodies and motivational quotes (in all caps). But what about the activities that don’t involve eucalyptus towels and sneakers? While physical exercise remains an important aspect of preventing aging, there are other components to consider.
From a scientific standpoint, the aging process goes much deeper and is more complex than whatever lavish skin creams and freezing fat cells can combat. Within the cells of the body exist components called telomeres, which keep DNA strands from coming apart. The shortening of telomeres eventually destabilizes the ends of chromosomes, which in the end, results in death. Therefore, lifespan appears to be governed by cell division, not time, and we have a role in our own longevity. Our lifestyle choices can either shorten and damage these crucial clocks, or they can lengthen and revitalize them. Regular, moderate exercise is one contributing factor to (literally) staying young, but there are other activities you should incorporate outside of the gym as well.
It’s no surprise that nutrition weighs heavily on telomere length, yet calorie counting isn’t enough to ensure a long life. Evidence indicates that over-consumption of animal products and meat reduces telomere length, a discovery which has prompted many to turn to plant-based diets. In addition to perhaps incorporating “Meatless Mondays,” try increasing your dietary intake of fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants (such as vitamin E, vitamin C and beta-carotene), as well as consuming moderate amounts of healthy fats (derived from avocados, fish and nuts).
Incorporating effective strategies for stress management is another key component in the anti-aging game. Before dismissing stress as an unavoidable part of your life, consider that in one study between two groups of women, the difference in telomere length between the control group and the group under additional daily stress was equivalent to 10 years of life, indicating that the women under stress were at a risk for early onset of age-related health problems. While we all experience stress, incorporating a few minutes of yoga, meditation, or time spent outdoors can help manage the impacts of stress on your health.
You may also find an anti-aging agent in a social support system. Doctor Elissa Epel explains that “a strong social network is probably the biggest buffer from toxic stress, next to exercise. Yet we often lack quality long-term social connections. There is frequent loneliness among high-risk groups like the elderly, who may be more isolated. For those of low income, many are working long and inflexible hours. Part of the problem is that there are limited minutes in the day, and if you are overworking, you are under-caring for your social network and for yourself.” Although more conclusive research needs to be done, preliminary findings indicate that social isolation does result in reduced telomere lengths, and subsequently shorter lifespans. If you work long hours or are trying to be frugal in 2017, try to fit in an hour-long hike, book club meeting, or game night with friends.
Looking to maximize your time with friends even more? Try actively learning a new skill set. Our cognitive functions also age as our bodies wear out, and yet, doing Sudoku and having dinner with friends may not be enough to keep our memory functioning optimally. For Baby Boomers, findings suggest that sustained engagement in cognitively demanding, new activities (like learning digital photography, for example) enhances memory function in older adulthood. Although it may be easier to watch “The Price is Right” reruns at home, make sure to also carve out time for challenging and stimulating the mind.
So the next time you find yourself debating between a second daily workout or another activity, remember that your mind and body also benefit from a mindful diet, stress management activities, social engagement and learning new things. It may take a bit of effort and creativity to cover all of your bases, but the extra years you may tack on to your life will be well worth the investment.
Chelsea Vincent has been teaching fitness for almost ten years. Prior to teaching, she had 15 years of formal dance training. Chelsea has a BFA from Carnegie Mellon University and is a certified power yoga instructor, spinning instructor, barre instructor, and weightlifting Instructor, as well as an ACE-certified personal trainer and wellness specialist.