Getting older has its perks. Chances are you’re more confident, have more direction and a defined sense of self. But while your health may not yet be a major concern, it’s important to take steps now to stop subtle changes before they become major health issues.
Your 40s is the decade that your habits start to catch up to you. If you’ve been taking care of yourself, you’ll reap the rewards of more energy, a more youthful appearance and better health overall. And if you haven’t been as good as you should have been, well, you’ll start to notice that too.
You may feel sluggish, look older than your years and may have early risk factors for heart disease, including being overweight and having high blood pressure. Now is the time to commit to a healthier lifestyle — it’s not too late!
Here are nine small lifestyle tweaks to make now that will keep you healthy and happy for decades to come:
1. Eat a healthy diet.
In your 20s or 30s, you may have been able to get away with regularly eating burritos for lunch and frozen pizza for dinner with copious amounts of coffee in between, but in your 40s, it’s time to grow up, nutritionally. You may find yourself feeling sluggish after an indulgent multicourse dinner or notice that your fingers have puffed up after a dinner of takeout Chinese food. These habits have longer-term effects on your waistline and cholesterol or blood pressure levels.
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In yours 40s, your metabolism slows down by about two percent from a decade earlier and that creates a host of new problems. For one, you’re digesting your food slower, which can lead to indigestion. Second, you have to try harder to lose and, even simply, maintain your weight. Extra pounds up your risk of heart disease, diabetes and other diseases.
Eating healthfully doesn’t have to be boring — try having one meatless dinner a week and substitute fish or beans for your regular protein, search out different quinoa recipes on Pinterest or sign up for a healthy cooking class to get inspired.
“It’s easy to appreciate the convenience of eating out, but studies have shown that in comparison to meals prepared at home, eating out at both fast food or full-service restaurants are equally unhealthy in terms of calories, fat and sodium,” said Helga Van Herle, MD, MS, associate professor of clinical medicine at Keck School of Medicine of USC and a cardiologist from the USC Cardiovascular Thoracic Institute. “By eating meals prepared at home, you will be able to save around 190 calories, 10 grams of fat and around 3-400 mg of sodium. Plus, this gives you another excuse to spend quality time with your loved ones.”
2. Lift weights.
Even if you’re fit and trim, it’s important to add weight lifting to your regular fitness routine. As you enter your 40s, the average woman has lost about 6 to 7 pounds of muscle from a decade ago and your metabolism may be slowing down, too. Lifting weights helps you build muscle mass, which also helps boost your metabolism. Another benefit: weight bearing exercises help you maintain your bone mass, which has been dropping by about 1 percent since you turned 35.
You don’t need to lift ultra heavy weights, either — you can do more repetitions with weights as low as three to five pounds to keep you healthy.
3. Get flexible.
Years of sitting behind a desk will start taking their toll. And when you combine that with a natural loss of muscle elasticity, you’ve got a potential recipe for disaster. If your muscles are short and tight, a quick jerky movement (like a sudden lunge to stop your phone from falling or a tennis match over the weekend) can result in a painful tear.
While a full yoga class is excellent, even five to 10 minutes of stretching can make a big difference. Do a series of toe touches first thing in the morning, stretch out your shoulders at your desk or rotate your neck from side to side the next time you’re stopped at a stoplight.
4. Take care of your eyes.
It may creep up slowly: one week you can’t read the menu at a dimly-lit restaurant, and then reading a magazine in a well-lit space becomes trying. All of the sudden, it’s time for reading glasses. Reading glasses will help prevent headaches and stop you from squinting, which can cause wrinkles.
While it’s fine to pick up a pair of non-prescription specs at the discount store, don’t skip the optometrist altogether. It is recommended that men and women 40 years old and older have regular eye exams every two to four years.
5. Make time for romance.
It’s not unusual for your sex drive to take a nosedive in your 40s, due to hormonal changes and high stress levels. However, it’s important to make quality time with your partner a priority. Intimacy helps your body produce the hormone oxytocin, aka the “cuddle hormone.” Not only does this help you bond with your partner, a study has shown that higher levels of oxytocin help keep blood pressure and stress levels in check.
Not in the mood for sex? Holding hands, hugging and kissing also release oxytocin.
It’s pretty inevitable that as you age, your stress levels go up. In your 40s, your plate may be full of varying potential worries, depending on your lifestyle. You may be worried about school tuition for your kids, your parents and their declining health, your own career demands or how you’ll ever have enough savings to retire … the list goes on.
Dealing with all of these stressors makes it particularly important that you learn how to de-stress. Meditation is one of the most proven ways to do it. If you’re not sure where to start, try downloading an app like Calm, which offers a variety of guided meditations. If meditation seems like a tall order, try staying more mindful in your day-to-day life.
“When you stay present, you don’t have to worry about events that happened in the past or events that are coming up in the future. Instead, you are able to live in the moment,” said Rick A. Friedman, MD, PhD, professor of otolaryngology – head and neck surgery at Keck School of Medicine and the division director of otology, neurotology and skull base surgery in the USC Tina and Rick Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery. “This fosters meaningful relationships that are critical to a healthy and happy life.”
7. Go out with friends.
You don’t need science to tell you that spending time with your friends is fun, but often friendships fall by the wayside in your 40s when you’re caught up with the demands of everyday life. So if you need another reason to schedule that lunch date, consider that research has shown that women who have a large social circle have lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of heart disease, strokes and diabetes than women who don’t. The same goes for men. A study found that men without friends were 20 percent more likely to die over the course of a 10-year period than those with a strong social network. Research has also shown that men and women with no close friends were 50 percent more at risk to have a first-time heart attack.
The benefits don’t stop there. Increasing social contact later in life was found to be one of the factors that could reduce the incidence of dementia by 15 percent, according to a study conducted by the Lancet Commission on Dementia Prevention and Care that was published this year.
“The potential magnitude of the effect on dementia of reducing these risk factors is larger than we could ever imagine the effect that current, experimental medications could have,” said Lon Schneider, MD, professor of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at Keck School of Medicine of USC and a psychiatrist at Keck Medicine of USC, who presented the report at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference this year.
Consider that the next time you think about rescheduling a friend date!
8. Consider taking a low dose aspirin.
If your cholesterol or blood pressure levels are high or you know you are otherwise at risk for a heart attack or a stroke, it may be time to start taking a therapeutic dose of aspirin. Aspirin thins your blood to improve your circulation. Consult with your doctor to see if he or she thinks it’s a good idea for you.
9. See a physician annually.
If you haven’t been getting checked out regularly, now is definitely the time to start. In addition to your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and weight, your 40s may be time for you to start getting regular mammograms (if you’re a woman) or prostate cancer screenings (if you’re a man). Schedule your annual appointment with your primary care physician.
If you’re in the Southern California area and are in search of a primary care physician, call (800)USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit www.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/ to schedule an appointment.
By Anne Fritz