5 steps for getting healthy in middle age
The president of the Tufts Health Plan Foundation offers research-based advice.
We boomers are already healthy, right? We jog, do yoga, and take group fitness classes. We eat organic, hike, kayak, and mountain bike. And all of that certainly pays off: On average, we smoke less, have lower rates of heart attacks, and will live longer than our parents' generation. And yet a large 2013 study found that, in some key ways, we boomers are actually less healthy than those before us, with higher average blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as higher rates of diabetes and obesity.
Staying healthy is tough for any generation, which is why the Tufts Health Plan Foundation commissioned research through the Gerontology Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Here are five ideas we learned that go beyond the typical "eat right, exercise, lose weight, don't smoke" advice:
1) STICK TO THE WORKOUT BASICS...
You don't need fancy equipment or a special diet to stay in shape. Brisk walking is great exercise (aim for 30 minutes a day). So is the physical activity that comes with doing household chores, gardening, or taking care of grandkids. Maintaining a healthy weight is important because extra pounds can exacerbate diabetes, hypertension, arthritis, and other chronic diseases. Healthy eating can be boiled down to the author Michael Pollan's maxim: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."
2) . . . BUT DON'T STOP AT CARDIO
The importance of aerobic exercise has long been a boomer mantra (thanks, Jane Fonda). But even though jogging, biking, and hiking are excellent for cardiovascular fitness, health professionals increasingly emphasize the need for regular strength training. At least twice a week aim for exercise with resistance — use weights, bands, or your own body weight — following a structured routine that targets all major muscle groups and promotes flexibility.
3) KEEP YOUR FEET UNDER YOU
Every 14 seconds, an older adult is treated in the emergency room for a fall — it's the most common cause of fatal and nonfatal injuries for those 65 and older. So minimizing your risk of falling is one of the best things you can do to protect your health. Look around your house. Do you have loose rugs, no handrails, poor lighting? Addressing these can help, as can classes such as tai chi or Matter of Balance. Don't forget that alcohol, sleeping pills, and many anti-anxiety medications can increase your risk of taking a spill.
4) GET VACCINATED
Vaccinations aren't just for toddlers anymore. Roughly 2 out of 3 adults age 60 or older in Massachusetts get their annual flu shots and the pneumonia vaccine, which is great. But the state average for getting the shingles vaccine is only 15 percent. Talk to your doctor about which vaccines make sense for you.
5) MAKE THE MOST OF YOUR VILLAGE
Everyone has some personal responsibility for their own health, but nobody lives in a bubble. Your income and education level, geography, and even the degree to which you are socially engaged all matter. If you're considering downsizing, look for communities with clean air, high levels of civic engagement, pedestrian- and bike-friendly infrastructures, access to health care facilities (including fitness centers), and affordable and accessible transportation. And there are plenty of ways to make your current community age-friendly: Engage civically, stay involved with friends and family, volunteer, and continue lifelong learning. Research shows that purposeful engagement correlates with better health — and longer life.