If you’re aiming to live a long life, the quality of your years is just as important as the quantity. After all, living longer on its own can be a blessing or a curse—and living a long, healthy life is the ultimate prize.
That’s why one geriatrician (a doctor specializing in the health of seniors) is sharing a crucial piece of information about the single best way to live “longer and healthier.” While many factors contribute to the complex metrics of health and wellness, he says this one factor is “the most important thing” in order to live a long life free of disease or disability.
Read on to learn the number one way to extend and improve your life, and to find out why it’s especially important to do right now.
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A hundred years ago, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was around 54; for people born today, it’s 79. This boost in longevity is “amazing and astounding, a true testament to our rapidly increasing understanding of health, medicine, and the environment,” writes Scott G. Weiner, MD, MPH, FACEP, FAAEM an attending emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, for Harvard Health Publishing.
“We’ve had a significant increase in lifespan over the last century,” says Marie Bernard, MD, deputy director of NIH’s National Institute on Aging. “Now if you make it to age 65, the likelihood that you’ll make it to 85 is very high. And if you make it to 85, the likelihood that you’ll make it to 92 is very high. So people are living longer, and it’s happening across the globe,” she says.
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Unfortunately, recent reports have shown that over the past decade or so, that positive trend of added longevity has stopped, and even reversed. “Between 2010 and 2014, life expectancy in the U.S. plateaued. And then in 2014, something worse happened: life expectancy began decreasing,” writes Weiner for Harvard Health.
The physician notes that this is the first time the U.S. has experienced such a lasting decline in average lifespan since 1915 to 1918, during World War I and the Spanish Flu pandemic. And the current pandemic has further hindered our nation’s longevity: Since 2020, there have been more than a million untimely COVID deaths.
With our collective attention turned to health in recent years, many of us are wondering how we can boost our longevity and well-being. Luigi Ferrucci, MD, a geriatrician with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) who oversees research on aging and health, says one healthy habit ranks above all others in leading to a “longer and healthier” life: exercise.
“If I had to rank behaviors in terms of priority, I’d say that exercise is the most important thing associated with living longer and healthier,” Ferrucci said in a 2016 newsletter from the NIH. “Exercise is especially important for lengthening active life expectancy, which is life without disease and without physical and mental/thinking disability.”
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While many health authorities recommend getting roughly 150 minutes of exercise per week, some studies have shown that even smaller amounts can lead to greater longevity. In fact, a 2020 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that performing “moderate-to-vigorous” exercise for just 11 minutes per day significantly lengthened the lifespans of individuals who were otherwise largely sedentary.
“There is no least amount of exercise you need to do,” William E. Kraus, MD, professor in the division of cardiology medicine at Duke University, told AARP. “It turns out that anything is better than nothing.”
If you’re unsure what type of exercise is best for you, speak with your healthcare provider about how to incorporate more physical activity into your daily routine.