Maybe it’s my age. (Nearly 40!)

Or maybe it’s my studies in nutrition.

Or maybe it’s the increasing evidence that we’re all on course to live longer, but not necessarily healthy, lives.

One way or the other, I’ve become fascinated by the science of longevity. How can we live long lives…all the while avoiding the worst of the degenerative illnesses of old age?

Imagine if you had an extra 20 years on earth – but happy, healthy ones. Years of old age that allowed you to contribute your wisdom and energies to your family and your community. Years when you finally came into your own and got to express yourself in the world, free of the crippling responsibilities of middle age.

From what we know so far, there are ways to age well. What you do now and over the coming years matters. It’s worth rethinking some aspects of your life to ensure you feel amazing now…and later. When it perhaps matters most.

 

1. Ditch the Food Pyramid!

 

Even when I was at school, I didn’t understand how the food pyramid could possibly be right. I had a very big appetite back then but still I couldn’t fathom how anyone (who was not an athlete!) could eat 6 portions of carbs every single day. If this was combined with 3 servings of dairy….well, where on earth was I supposed to find room for the 5-7 portions of fruit and vegetables or the protein?!

Following this advice, there were going to be a lot of people overeating.

Ireland's Safefood Pyramid

Ireland’s Safefood Pyramid

The Irish food pyramid right now follows almost exactly the recommendations being made by the United States (where over one third of adults are obese!).

The American food pyramid was drawn up in 1992 and has been hugely controversial, given that it was influenced much less by public interest and more by corporate interest. Powerful food industry lobbyists in the U.S. are known to have exerted incredible pressure on government, resulting in promotion of foods that are more profitable than healthy.

When there are vast numbers of people on earth who manage to live long and healthy lives with little to no wheat or dairy, something has to be wrong with a food pyramid which highlights them as essentials.

And when the people who are being educated using this food pyramid are some of the heaviest and sickest in the world, then you know that there has to be a real problem.

If you want to live longer, lose weight and feel amazing, then the first thing you should do is ditch a food pyramid that coincided with (and probably encouraged) an explosion in our weight gain.

Australia has recently updated their official food pyramid and they’ve done such a great job, it’s worth adopting it ourselves!

 

Healthy Living Pyramid

Australian Food Pyramid

 

What the Australian recommendations get right:

  • Instead of breads and cereals, the vast majority of our food intake should be fresh fruit, vegetables, legumes and whole grains – in a wide variety of colours and types. The Australian model suggests plant-based food should make up 70% of our diet.

WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT? An array of fruit, vegetables and whole grains in our diet ensures we get the range of vitamins, minerals and fibre we need to feel fantastic – and ward off obesity and disease.

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Don’t worry if it’s a huge leap to move from where you are now to 70% of your diet being fresh and plant-based. Just get started where you are. Rather than taking away the food you love, a better strategy is usually to add new. So rather than a drastic overnight replacement, just start adding new foods. So add some berries and banana to your morning porridge or cereal; add a vegetable soup or side salad to your lunch; try vegetarian meals once or twice a week for dinner; snack on fruit you love.

Over time, your tastebuds will change and you will begin to crave these fresher, healthier alternatives (yep, this happens!). It then will get easier and easier and you will reap the benefits in how you look and feel.

Give it a go!

  • Whole grains play second fiddle to fresh fruit vegetables and legumes in term sof importance. And grains should be in as close to their natural form as possible.
  • Herbs and spices get a special mention – they are some of the most nutritionally dense foods around, as well making our food taste delicious!
  • Junk food doesn’t feature at all – not even “in moderation”. It really is best we don’t even think of processed, high-fat and sugary ‘food’ as food at all (sorry!).

 

2. When Darkness is Your Friend

 

If there is one thing missing in our modern lives, it’s sleep. Are you one of the 60% of adults regularly getting less than 7 hours of sleep?

Artificial light, electronics, TV’s and smartphones all disrupt our natural sleep cycles, forcing our bodies to stay awake and wired, even when we’re actually exhausted. We are so overstimulated that we have no idea what true relaxation even feels like.

Though we know we should just switch off and rest, it’s so tempting to watch just another half hour of mindless TV or check for a dopamine hit from Facebook ‘likes’ or email updates. Our mind is constantly whirring and our bodies are not receiving the sleep signals they should from a slow decrease in light towards the end of the day.

When natural light wanes at the end of the day, melatonin is produced by the body, which lulls us into our sleep state. However, artificial light, especially the ‘blue’ light emitted by our phones and electronics, suppresses melatonin, leading us to stay awake longer than is healthy.

There are long-term repercussions for this light exposure. Suppression of melatonin impairs the immune systems and has been linked to cancer, heart disease, obesity. Not to mention the everyday difficulties of just feeling miserable, lacking concentration and overeating because you’re tired.

A very interesting study recently showed another life-altering result of switching off our lights at dusk and actually going to sleep. While participants in the study did, indeed, sleep an hour longer than normal, they also began to enter a meditative state for two hours in the middle of the night. This state is likely to be one of deep relaxation and inspiration, enjoyed by our ancestors but completely absent from modern life.

 

WHAT YOU CAN DO: Consider switching off all overhead lights after dinner, using only lamps and candles to light your space. Put blackout blinds on your bedroom windows. Two hours before you go to sleep, opt to switch off all electronic devices, such as TV’s, computers and smartphones. Instead, have a conversation, take a relaxing bath or read a book. Ensure you go to bed early enough to allow you a minimum of 8 hours sleep.

If the idea of switching off your phone fills you with panic (you’re not alone), it’s probably an indication that this is something you really need to do!

Try this for a month and see if you feel more energised, more refreshed and generally calmer.

 

3. Move (Because You Love It!)

 

I love what Dan Beuttner has to say about exercise. He studied the ‘Blue Zones‘ – the 5 locations in the world where people live the longest, healthiest lives. In none of these locations does anyone engage in Crossfit, Bootcamps or any form of exhausting cardio. Instead they simply work exercise into their everyday lives.

They walk everywhere, they knead bread, they do housework without all the mod-cons – they very gently keep themselves active as part of their consistent daily routine. And, in doing so, they manage to keep their hearts healthy and their bones, muscles and joints strong and limber well into old age.

 

TWO QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF:

  • How can I work exercise into my everyday routines, so I don’t even notice it’s there? Think about getting to work on foot or by bike, walking to the shops and carrying back your bag of groceries, walking your dog or cycling with your kids to school. Could you have walking meetings at work?
  • How do I actually enjoy moving my body? If movement brings you joy, you’ll continue with it. Perhaps you’d like to join a dance class or try yoga, tai chi or pilates? Maybe you just enjoy a walk on the beach or through the woods? Maybe you can bring some friends along and make it a social occasion and time out?

 

 

4. Calm Your Overactive Mind

In an Age of Speed, Nothing could be More Exhilarating than Going Slow - Pico Iyer

It’s hard to avoid the articles everywhere right now proclaiming meditation as the answer to….well, everything!

Meditation has been proven to preserve your brain as you age and keep the body in a less stressed state by reducing anxiety and promoting calm. It is worth checking out local meditation groups and classes. Restorative yoga and yoga nidra are also wonderful ways of entering into a state of blissful deep relaxation.

WHAT ELSE YOU CAN DO: If you just can’t bring yourself to stay still for that long, it worth knowing that many activities can also calm the mind and bring you into that calming, blissful, meditative state.

  • dancing
  • walking in nature
  • sitting in stillness (especially if outside and in quiet)
  • gardening
  • watching the ocean
  • climbing a mountain
  • jogging
  • colouring
  • calming music (listening to or playing)
  • reading a book
  • enjoy reiki or massage

We are starved of stillness right now. When we have that little distraction tool (phone) in our back pockets at all times, we never have the chance to get uncomfortable, to quiet our minds, to get in touch with what we are really feeling and experiencing in the moment. Any time we turn away from the constant distraction that is our world and instead focus our attention on one activity in which to be present right now, we are calming ourselves and getting in touch with our joy, our bliss – and our true selves.

We need to find time in each and every day to be still and be present. What else is there, after all?

 

5. Invest in Relationships, Not Things

Did you know that a close circle of friends and family ties can boost your health more than giving up cigarettes, alcohol or losing weight?!

Feeling connected to others is one of our most basic human needs, yet loneliness and social isolation are becoming an increasing feature of modern life. Many of us no longer live close to family and barely know our neighbours to even say ‘hello’ to. As we get older, we tend to spend less and less time with our close friends, as we move to different parts of the world, or get caught up in work and parenting commitments.

A recent study in the UK found that 48% of people believe we are getting lonelier. And surprisingly, it was not the oldest, but the youngest – children and young people – who were most upset and concerned about isolation.

 

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

  • Don’t allow yourself to lose contact with friends and family you love. Be diligent to stay in touch, even when you feel there are a hundred things to do with your day.
  • Organise regular girls night out or weekends away
  • Join a group. Build new relationships through meetup groups, running or walking groups or crafting groups
  • Take a course. Meet new people through taking a course in something your enjoy. I’ve found the best courses are those where you’ll be working on project with other attendees, and so get to bond through your shared experience.
  • Host get togethers and dinner parties at your own home – invite friends of friends to enlarge your social circle.
  • Say ‘yes’ sometimes to those social invitations you’d really prefer to ignore in favour of lounging on the couch. You never know how much better they could make you feel!

 

So hopefully this got you thinking about ways you can improve your life – helping you live longer and feel amazing in the process! Let me know if anything in particular struck you. Were you surprised at any of these points? Is there anything you will try to change or add to your life to help you live a longer, healthier life?

I’d love to hear! 

 

Niamh x