Recently my new health care provider asked me how many medications I took. “None,” I said.
“Wow, you’re easy.”
“What’s the average for a person my age?” I asked.
When she said “five,” that was an indicator to me that I’m on the right track. In fact, at 70, I’m healthier and fitter than I was 50 years ago, in large part because I’ve adopted the following strategies to stay in good health.
1. I Taught Myself To Cook
Growing up with three sisters, I wasn’t the “kitchen daughter” helping my mother, so I never learned how to cook. The family joke was that after I graduated from college I didn’t even know how to boil water.
Until well into my 20s, I subsisted mostly on Doritos and toast. When I turned 24, my mother bought me an electric frying pan, and I gradually began learning to cook, starting by simply heating a can of chili, then making tuna fish casserole with cream of mushroom soup (served at my first dinner party). Today, my husband Barry and I eat mostly at home because I love to cook. I teach a class for seniors called “One Pot: The Simple, Elegant Cooking Solution.”
2. I Don’t Eat Meat
Although I grew up eating meat (and ate disgusting bologna sandwiches on white bread for lunch every day during junior high school!), I never ate it much as a young adult. When Barry and I decided to give up meat entirely 40 years ago, it wasn’t difficult. We aren’t strict vegetarians, since we do eat fish. Studies have shown that eating red meat and processed meat can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and colon cancer.
3. Exercise Is Interwoven Into My Daily Life
At 20, I barely exercised, and at that age, I could get away with it. But a few years later I became an “adult-onset fitness love,” and never looked back. Now, moving my body is just part of my DNA. Instead of going to a gym, I walk, bicycle, paddleboard, practice gentle yoga, hike, backpack, dance, and do kettlebell exercises for upper body strengthening.
I also rarely drive. Whichever of our two homes where Barry and I live — Eureka, California or Guanajuato, Mexico — I do most of my errands on foot. Getting around on foot or by bike 90 percent of the time gives me a fitness baseline that is baked into my everyday life.
4. I Spend Time Outside
A lot of my exercise consists of spending time in places of natural beauty. When we’re in California, Barry and I go on trips in our camper van once or twice a month, to beaches, rivers, parks, and other places where we walk or hike. In Guanajuato, we can close the door to our home and be hiking in the hills within 15 minutes. To me, there’s nothing more wonderful than being physically active in nature.
There are many benefits to exercising outdoors, from the fact that you work out longer (because you’re distracted by your surroundings) to reduced stress and increased well-being. Plus, according to a 2014 study, older women who exercised outdoors stuck with their program more consistently than those who worked out indoors.
5. If I Don’t Feel Like Exercising, I Still Do A Little
I subscribe to what James Clear, author of the bestseller Atomic Habits, recommends: “Start with a habit that is so easy you can’t say no.” I tell myself just to do three reps — three kettlebell swings, three push-ups, three planks. No matter how resistant I feel, I can always get myself to do three. Almost always, that gets me over the hump.
And if I don’t have much time, I exercise in short spurts. Research shows that short bursts of exercise, like a 10-minute walk three times a day, may even be more effective than one 30-minute walk.
6. I Keep Going
I’ve learned to work with my mind, coaxing it along, since it wants to stop long before my body does. For example, if I’m riding my bike up a steep hill, I tell myself not to give up until my feet simply cannot pedal one more rotation.
7. I’ve Learned To Adapt
As we age, and as our bodies, environments, and circumstances change, in order to stay fit, we have to be flexible. In my case, I used to love inline skating, but sadly, neither Eureka nor Guanajuato are skating-friendly environments. Worse, I was forced to give up running because of a chronic ankle injury. It broke my heart, but I had no choice. After searching for another exercise, I started swimming. But chlorinated water wasn’t really satisfying, so I turned to open water swimming, which after a while evolved into stand-up paddleboarding. Now, getting out on the water on my SUP is not only great for my balance, it’s a spiritual tonic.
8. I Have An Enduring, Strong Marriage
When people ask me how long I’ve been married, I often say, “Since before you were born!” Barry and I met each other almost 50 years ago! One of the secrets to our success is that twice a year we spend several weeks apart, which helps to remind us that no matter how much we enjoy each other’s company, we aren’t dependent on the other.
9. I Enjoy Close Relationships With Family Members And Friends
It’s not that I didn’t have friends when I was 20, but I didn’t recognize their importance to my life. And I spent way too much time with my boyfriend at the expense of my friends.
Research shows the best thing you can do for your health is not to give up smoking or red meat, important as those are, but to have strong, positive relationships. Close ties are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class or even genes. I’m grateful to have close friends in Eureka, Guanajuato, and other places, as well as a wonderful, large extended family.
10. I Actively Reduce My Resentments
Unresolved anger and resentment can affect physical health, from high blood pressure to heart problems to a compromised immune system. Of course, I have my share of resentments. But I work to let go of them by talking the issue over with Barry or a friend, journaling, meditating, and walking. Ultimately, hanging onto resentments hurts me and adds stress to my life, and while some stress is good, chronic stress is not.
Genetics, of course, is part of the picture, and I inherited a set of extremes. While my father will turn an amazing 101 in May, my mother died very young, at 52, and my older sister at 60, both of cancer. With such a mixed inheritance, I figure any positive step I can take to stay healthy matters.
Fifty years ago, I had only the vaguest inkling of what today we call the mind-body connection…how the physical, emotional, and spiritual are tightly interwoven. I suspect our culture is still in the infancy of understanding this. It’s an intriguing puzzle that at 70, I’m still figuring out, and probably will be for the rest of my life.
Want more on the mind-body connection? TravelAwaits’ managing editor recommends The Anatomy of a Calling by Lissa Rankin, M.D.