In the last couple of months I’ve read inspiring articles about men and women in their 90s leading exciting, active lives. They’re downhill skiing every day, doing martial arts, tangoing, or have daily yoga practices. Awesome, but it’s hard to picture myself skiing every day now, never mind in 45 years.
Then there’s my grandmother, Irena, who just turned 90. Though she isn’t skydiving or kite-boarding on a daily basis, she lives on her own, drives, walks daily, does exercise classes three to four times a week, cooks for herself, sees family and friends, has interests and hobbies, spends time with her grandchildren and great grandchildren, and is completely independent.
In other words, she is living a life that feels realistic and attainable and that helps me visualize the trajectory of the choices I’m making today.
I asked her to share what she’s learned about living a long and healthy life, and these are her top tips that will hopefully get us all to 90 and beyond:
1. Keep moving. Irena told me that “walking up and down stairs, stretching, exercising, and just staying active is the secret behind a healthy lifestyle”. She tries not to spend too much time sitting, goes to exercise classes for 45 to 60 minutes, three times a week, and she’s going to be adding a fourth class: yoga for seniors.
2. Make physical activity convenient. Setting up your life so that it is easy to make good choices is essential. “All my classes are close enough that I can walk, or drive there in five minutes in bad weather. I make sure that I don’t have to spend a lot of time getting there because that might be the difference of me going or not going.” When faced with two healthy choices always choose the one that is most convenient for you to make over and over again.
3. Sometimes you have to give up things you think are wonderful. Irena also credits her longevity to the fact that she gave up sodas (note: she doesn’t miss them), never drank, except for the odd glass of wine, and does not smoke.
4. You are what you eat. Irena believes that what we put in our bodies is just as important as what we don’t. “In my ’50s I started making big changes to my diet, trying macrobiotic eating, the raw food diet, and veganism. In the end, I realized that moderation works best for me and now I eat a mostly plant-based diet with the occasional piece of meat, no hormones or antibiotics.”
5. Find ways to manage your stress. Like everybody, Irena deals with stress, however she’s found some great tools for dealing with it, like being active, connecting with a friend, and mindfulness and meditation. She’s taken courses to help her learn how to use mediation in her daily life and when all else fails, “It’s always nice to phone a friend and go for a walk.”
6. Plant a veggie garden. I remember visiting my grandmother when I was child and seeing her working in her garden. She is a big promoter of gardening both as an activity and as a means for growing food that you can trust. “If you have even a little backyard I recommend growing your own veggies. Food is so different now. I haven’t tasted a real watermelon in years. It’s helpful if you can grow your own, even if it’s just a few veggies.”
7. Train yourself to have good sleep habits. We’re always hearing how critical sleep is and my grandmother agrees. She also is the first to admit that her own sleep habits have slid a little as she’s gotten older. But her message about sleep is that establishing good sleep habits is one of the most important things you can do. “Get in to the habit of going to bed at 10 p.m. in a quiet room with no electronics. It might be hard at first but it’s important to remember that everything takes work.” I think it’s a good idea to not take sleep for granted while we can still get it, i.e., that window between babies and bladders, keeping us up at night.
8. Be present and don’t forget to play. One thing that strikes me about my grandmother is that she’s never lost her youthful love of play. When she’s with her great grandkids she’s really with them. She listens to them, paints with them, and plays with them, and she did the same with all her grandchildren. The kids know that she is really seeing them without any distractions and they are crazy about her. I can’t help but think that this ability to be in the moment and play is one of the things that have kept her so young all these years.
9. There are always trade-offs. Sometimes you have to decide which healthy thing is more important for you. As a sensitive person, the pollution of the city isn’t the best for my grandmother and she thinks she’d be even healthier if she lived in a rural area. But she tells me, “My family is here and my friends are here so I would lose that connectedness, which is key to my good health and happiness”.
10. Start right now. The most important thing my grandmother told me as we discussed a long and healthy life is this: “You have to live the life you want to live later. If you want to be well when you’re 90, get around on your own, and cook your own meals, you have to start now. And if you haven’t started it yet it can still be done.”