These 8 Science-backed Habits Could Significantly Increase Your Lifespan
Taking responsibility for our own health can seem daunting. But it doesn’t have to be.
Anyone can fall prey to the false logic that making every healthy choice available will extend your life. Always opting for salad over a burger and fries, exercise over sleeping in, or fruit over refined sugar should add up to extra decades of life enjoyed in good health, right?
If so, this can make taking responsibility for our own health daunting. Instead, a group of public health researchers argue that small healthy habits throughout our lives, rather than an all-or-nothing approach, could be most beneficial.
Mai Nguyen, a health science specialist at the Department of Veterans Affairs and a medical student at Carle Illinois College of Medicine, studied some of the most impactful health habits. She presented her findings on July 24 at the annual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition in Boston.
She found that integrating these eight habits into your daily life could make a significant difference in a person’s chances of living a long and healthy life. To find that out, she studied the daily habits of 700,000 U.S. veterans. She pulled data collected between 2011 and 2019 for the Veterans Affairs Million Veteran Program. The analysis looked at adults between 40 and 99, as well as over 33,000 deaths among those included.
To her surprise, she found that even adopting one or two daily habits by age 40 made a difference in an individual’s lifespan. Disclaimer: None of these are magic tricks or shockers. However, they do take effort to obtain. But you probably already have a few under your belt.
The 8 habits
- Being physically active
- Being free from opioid addiction
- Not smoking
- Managing stress
- Having a good diet
- Not regularly binge drinking
- Having good sleep hygiene
- Having positive social relationships
These habits, many of which appear on the American Heart Association’s Life’s Essential 8 list, exist on a spectrum. This means that they don’t require an all-or-nothing approach. For instance, it’s possible to have sleep hygiene habits that are consistent and healthy five or six days a week but stray occasionally. Still, that doesn’t mean one day of wandering from a consistent schedule ruins the benefits of a regular habit.
Which habits are most important?
Crucially, Nguyen says these aren’t all weighted equally. Regular exercise, she found, seemed to have the biggest impact. She looked at the metabolic equivalent of task (MET), a measure of the amount of oxygen consumed during a certain activity. Sitting quietly takes one MET; four METs would be walking up a flight of stairs without getting winded. Physical activity that increased longevity clocked in at seven or more METs per week. Moderate exercise, like brisk walking, translates to three to six METs, while vigorous activity, like jogging, comes in at seven or more.
The habit that had the least impact was positive social relationships, but its absence could still be detected. “You could see a 5 percent decrease in mortality compared to not having positive social relationships,” Nguyen tells Inverse.
Physical activity, opioid use, and smoking shortened lifespan most dramatically. These three factors presented a 30 to 45 percent higher risk of death during the study period, while stress, binge drinking, poor diet, and poor sleep hygiene added a 20 percent increased risk of death, according to the study.
It’s never too late to start
Nguyen found that men who integrated all eight habits by age 40 were predicted to live, on average, 24 years longer than men with none of these habits. For women, it came to 21 years.
“Even if you just adopt one thing, you can gain four years of life at the age of 40,” Nguyen says. “If you're past 40, in your 50s or 60s, you can still make one change, and that still can expand your life expectancy there.”
Imperfection during youth doesn’t disqualify you, either. “If there's a reader out there who's like, ‘I don't have all eight of these things, I've already [been] smoking since I was a teenager,’ that's okay,” she says. “What I really want people to understand is that — and I was really surprised by this — if you just adopt one or two of the lifestyle factors, you can actually see a positive change in terms of your life expectancy.”
Living for longevity
Nguyen’s study is part of a practice known as lifestyle medicine. Lifestyle medicine focuses on addressing underlying issues rather than their symptoms.
“Literally everything is within their power, whether or not they want to make the change,” Nguyen tells Inverse. She says that medicine tends to overemphasize lab tests and medication, so investing in a person’s confidence to manage their own chronic illness or simply take care of themselves holds a great deal of power.
“Small changes make a difference,” she says. “Bigger changes obviously make bigger differences, but every little thing counts.”