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Healthy Habits Work, No Matter Your Age

January 13, 2017 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks…but that isn’t necessarily true. It’s never too late to get healthy. I know lots of patients—and friends!—who don’t want to change unhealthy habits, or adopt healthy ones. After all, I’m often asked, “What good can it do? I’ve done X my whole life, so changing now won’t make a difference.” But that’s entirely wrong. In fact, stopping harmful patterns—or starting beneficial ones—can make an even bigger difference, the older you are. Today, I’ll show you a few examples.

And I hope they inspire you to make changes in your own life—before the consequences of bad behavior come down the pike.

Scared Straight

I have two friends who share similar stories.

Both lived sedentary lives. Despite repeated encouragement, both decided they didn’t have the time—or interest—in exercise.

And both had to get stents after having major heart issues. That’s no coincidence.

While I wouldn’t wish an episode like that on anyone, heart surgery has a way of magically focusing one’s attention.

One of my friends, after his scare, is now a devoted fitness fanatic. He obsessively checks his Fitbit through the day. And he’s never felt better.

This damaging belief that it’s too late to change, unfortunately, is why many people get sick. But, as you know, an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure.

And changing your habits—no matter how long you’ve waited—will always create better health outcomes.

In fact, in many cases, the later you change a habit, the more dramatic the change can be.

Get A Move On

Lots of people don’t like to exercise. It’s something that always gets put off until tomorrow.

After all, it’s easier to sit on the couch watching TV than going for a walk. And the gratification of an indulgent meal is more immediate than the progress that comes with sweating at a gym.

What’s more, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of lethargy. When you’re young, your body can take pretty good care of itself without exercise.

And, as you get older, moving around becomes more difficult. Especially if your body isn’t used to moving around.

But of course, the worst diseases in the world are caused or exacerbated by a sedentary life.

Your heart doesn’t work and becomes weaker.

Your cardiovascular system becomes less flexible and resilient.

Your bloodwork suffers, as you fail to burn carbohydrates and sugars at the same rate you eat them, so they become dangerous fat and triglycerides. Which—especially if stored around your midsection—increases your cholesterol level, encouraging blockages like heart attacks and strokes.

And that’s not to mention the atrophy of your muscles and joints, which lose strength, flexibility, and elasticity.

Here’s the good news: When you start exercising, you can reverse all of those issues. No matter how old you are or what shape you’re in when you start.

Even better, you’ll notice the difference more immediately and the benefits will come more quickly.

After all, if you don’t go to the gym for a year in your 20s, you might gain a little flab, but your body will function just fine.

If you fail to move enough as a senior, you can quickly lose the ability to go up stairs, maintain your balance, or even walk around.

But when you start moving regularly, you can quickly see the results. Your bone density improves, your balance gets better, and things like afternoon strolls or a flight of stairs become standard fare, instead of dangers.

It doesn’t matter how old you are. Moving around will always lead to a jump in your quality of life.

If you’ve been sedentary for a long time, start slow. Don’t go immediately to the weight room, but just commit to taking a few walks a week…then a few walks a day. Gradually build up both your distance and frequency.

If that’s difficult, you can always start by doing exercises in a pool. The water—perhaps assisted by flotation devices—will take away the risk of hurting yourself by falling down.

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And the water also increases resistance, so you can build up your muscles even faster.

If mobility isn’t an issue—or once you’ve worked your way into walking shape—dedicate yourself to a more involved regimen.

That can mean aerobics or yoga. It also can mean strength training, which is one of the best things you can do for yourself.

Remember—strength training doesn’t have to mean lifting weights. In fact, doing exercises that only involve your body weight—like stomach crunches or push ups—are some of the best exercises around.

Whatever shape you’re in, think about what the next level of fitness would look like. And aim for that.

Remember—this isn’t just about getting in better shape. This is about maintaining your independence—your ability to move around freely, for as long as you walk this earth. A fit body will even keep you driving much longer than you would otherwise.

Exercise has even been linked to greater mental acuity. So if you want to stay sharp, keep moving.

It’s never too late to start. Especially if you want to avoid the downfalls of the sedentary life.

Kick The Habit

Plenty of people have bad habits they’ve carried with them all their lives.

Maybe it’s that extra slice of cake for dessert. Or maybe you’ve always been a smoker, and you figure the damage has already been done. What’s the use in stopping now?

But a new study has found that quitting cigarettes has a profound effect on your life span, even if you don’t quit until your 60s. Smoking continues to cause damage with each puff, no matter when you take it.

In fact, amongst study participants who quit in their 60s, they had a 24% increase in life expectancy over those who continued smoking.

Quitting earlier is better, of course. But stopping at any point also stops the damage you’re doing to your body, and gives you a chance to heal.

The same is true of a sweet tooth, or a love of fast food, or not giving yourself enough sleep, or any other damaging habit you have.

So think about what bad habits you have, that you’ve given up trying to change.

Then think about how many years you can add to your life by changing them.

It won’t be easy. There’s a reason you’ve kept your particular bad habit for decades.

But it’s always worth it. As soon as you drop that bad habit, your health outlook improves.

And so does your quality of life.

I often recommend to my patients that you crowd out bad habits with good ones. So if you’re a smoker, take a walk after a meal instead of a cigarette.

If you love that extra slice of cake, try to fill up with a favorite fruit instead.

And if you’re a fan of fast food, skip four trips to McDonald’s and use that money for a much more pleasurable fine dining experience.

Or give yourself a sin jar that you contribute to whenever you want a hamburger or a cigarette. Put in what you would have spent and save it up.

Before you know it, you’ll be able to afford a trip or a night out at the theater. Whatever it is you enjoy—make the trade a tangible, monetary exchange.

When you can easily see the happy results of your changes, they are much more likely to stick.

The important thing to remember is this: The immediate spark of pleasure you get from bad habits is seductive. But the longer-term results you get from good habits is deeper. They will improve the quality of your life, not to mention the length of it.

And that’s true, whether you’re 9 or 90. It’s never too late to do the right thing for your health, and your happiness.

References

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