6 simple steps for staying healthy at any age

Growing older is a given. Becoming unwell is not. Put these strategies into practice, and you’re on your way to proving that age really is just a number.

K. Aleisha Fetters
mature White man doing sit-ups

When you get behind the wheel, you secure your seat belt. When the weather looks iffy, you pop an umbrella into your bag. And when you leave for the day, you lock your door.

These instincts are what’s called a prevention mindset — the act of making conscious choices to help avoid a bad outcome. Turns out you can cultivate a prevention mindset for your long-term health, too.

Healthy aging is about more than fixing what ails you today, says Paul Chiang, M.D., medical director of HomeCare at Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group. It’s about taking steps that will help you stay strong, sharp and active with each turn of the calendar page.

“I take care of a lot of older patients who struggle with chronic disease, and I’ve often wondered if my patients’ lives would be different now if they were able to go back in time, say 20 or 30 years, and they could see how they lived then and the potential negative effects on their lives later,” says Dr. Chiang. “How would their mindset and lifestyle be different? How would their health be impacted?”

Dr. Chiang doesn’t have a crystal ball, of course. But he says he believes they’d be more proactive about protecting their health. After all, staying on top of things like blood pressure checks, cholesterol tests and other medical screenings and vaccinations can help adults maintain good health into their later years, suggests 2018 research from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

In fact, the report shows that preventive services to reduce the risk of heart disease could alone help save tens of thousands of lives every year. Unfortunately, only 8% of U.S. adults receive all the preventive services they need, the AHRQ notes.

“If we can wrap people’s minds around the idea of prevention and give them a strategy, we can go as far as to reverse many diseases,” says Alexandra Sowa, M.D., medical director of SoWell Health and a clinical instructor at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine.

Ready to embrace a prevention mindset for yourself? Start by putting these six keys to healthy aging into daily practice.

1. Make Your Checkups Work Harder

At your annual wellness visit and physical exam, take an inventory of your current health, habits and goals with your health care provider. Before your appointment, gather background information — your current list of medications, your physical activity levels and any limitations, fall history, mental health, bladder control and more. Don’t hold back; an open and honest relationship between you and your provider is important, says Dr. Sowa.

This information will help your provider set you up with a personalized preventive care plan that’s right for you. This plan will outline the medical screenings and vaccinations you need. It will also include recommended healthy habits that will help you maintain or even improve your health from checkup to checkup and year to year.

Download Your 2021 Annual Care Checklist

Nothing is more important than your health. Take this checklist with you to your next doctor’s appointment. Find your copy by signing in to your plan website and going to Health & Wellness. Then type Annual Care Checklist into the search bar. Not a member? Learn more here

2. Prioritize Rest and Recovery

Sleep and stress management are the foundation of good health, says Dr. Sowa. “We’re not always aware of how much chronic stress spreads throughout our lives,” she says. “But if stress goes unchecked, moving the needle on other healthy behaviors becomes impossible.”

As for good sleep, the natural aging process is often a roadblock. Older adults often report having a harder time falling asleep, Dr. Sowa says, and wake up more often during the night. Plus, they spend less time in that all-important deep-sleep stage, during which the brain has a chance to recharge and reset for the day ahead, she says. Stress can also get in the way of good sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).

Dr. Sowa recommends doing an audit of your overall sleep and stress levels. Ask yourself:

  • How many hours do I sleep each night?
  • How rested do I feel in the morning?
  • How stressed do I feel on a daily or weekly basis?

Repeat these questions for a week or two, and keep track of your answers along the way. It’ll help you get a good picture of your current stress and sleep status. From there, put some thought into finding activities and routines that will help you relax, unwind and find clarity. Dr. Sowa says she’s a big fan of spending time in nature, going for frequent walks and journaling.

In the evenings, it’s important to have a pre-bedtime routine, the NSF notes. This is part of what sleep experts call “good sleep hygiene,” and it sets the stage for quality sleep. Here’s what the NSF suggests: Start by committing to a consistent bedtime. About an hour before you hit the sack, silence your phone and turn off your computer. It’s fine to watch some TV before bed, but go for something light — not a crime drama or news program. Also limit late-in-the-day caffeine.

If you’re still struggling to get a good night’s sleep after making healthy lifestyle adjustments, check back with your provider to see if one of your medications or another underlying condition could be getting in the way.

3. Sneak in More Movement

Move more, sit less. You’ve likely heard this recommendation from your provider — for good reason. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that adults who sit less and do more of any type of physical activity will gain health benefits.

To improve your heart health and muscle strength, the CDC recommends doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity — such as a brisk walk — and two total-body strength workouts each week.

The simplest way to hit those totals is to make 30 minutes of intentional movement a part of your daily routine, Dr. Sowa says. It could be a structured workout, or just walking around your neighborhood or house.

That movement doesn’t even have to happen all at once. In a study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, adults who exercised three times throughout the day for just 10 minutes per session showed greater reduction in arterial stiffness (a marker of heart health), compared with those who exercised 30 minutes in a row. And moving more often throughout the day, even if it’s in short stints, can be vital to easing tight muscles and joint pain, increasing energy and feeling your best, adds Dr. Sowa.

Look for ways to add “movement snacks” into your day: Do kitchen-counter pushups while you wait for the microwave to ding. Do squats or calf raises during commercial breaks. Park farther from the supermarket entrance. It all adds up, says Dr. Sowa.

Get moving with Renew Active™1

If your plan includes Renew Active, you’ll enjoy a free gym membership, at-home workout videos and more. Renew Active has something for everyone, at every fitness level. To learn more, sign in to your plan website, go to Health & Wellness and look for Renew Active. 

4. Eat With Intention

Eating right has always been important, but the aging process can work against you in some ways, says Dr. Sowa. For one thing, age-related changes to your digestive system and shifting hormones can dampen your appetite. Meanwhile, your body’s needs for certain nutrients, including protein, calcium and vitamin D, increase with age. That means you’ll have to work harder to prioritize good nutrition, she says.

At your annual wellness visit and physical, share your current eating habits and ask your provider if you should have your levels of certain nutrients checked. Together, you and your provider can figure out the best way for you to get the nutrition your body deserves.

In addition to those physical changes, other aspects of growing older can get in the way of healthy eating. For example, it’s not uncommon for older adults to hang up a “kitchen’s closed” sign when the nest is empty or a partner passes away, says Dr. Sowa. That’s when people turn to takeout foods or processed convenience foods, she adds.

She encourages her older patients to look up new recipes and experiment with different flavors and ingredients as a way to get excited about home cooking again. “If you focus on making most of your meals at home, then you’ve got a great healthy foundation,” she says. That means filling up with whole foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats, eggs, low-fat dairy, legumes and nuts.

UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage plan members with Renew by UnitedHealthcare® have access to dozens of simple recipes that can make it easier to find a new healthy favorite. To access Renew's recipes, sign in to your plan website, then look for the Recipe Library in the Quick Links section.

5. Make Time for Daily Chats

Social connections are critical to good health, says Dr. Chiang. “We’re more than just physical beings,” he says. “We thrive on relationships.”

Having a strong circle of friends, family and community ties is good for your emotional and cognitive health, a Harvard Medical School report confirms. Your support network also plays a role in helping to prevent many chronic diseases, while also helping to boost longevity and quality of life.

You don’t need to be the life of the party, says Dr. Chiang. What matters is having someone you can call when you need help, want to talk through a problem or want to share a laugh or good memory. In a 2018 study of adults 65 and older, for example, those who enjoyed more frequent social interactions were significantly less likely to develop dementia during a nine-year follow-up, compared with those who had fewer opportunities to talk to others. The findings were reported in the journal Scientific Reports.

Whatever your current living situation, make a point to have at least one conversation a day with someone, suggests Dr. Sowa. Call a friend, join an online community or schedule a recurring video family game night. Soon, we’ll all be able to enjoy more face-to-face time with loved ones.

6. Challenge Your Brain

Your brain isn’t just another organ — it’s the organ. As command center for everything you do, says Dr. Chiang, your brain deserves special attention.

He encourages his older patients to do something every day that nurtures a healthy brain. A few ideas:

  • Test your memory power, reaction time and problem-solving skills with one of Renew’s many interactive brain games. To find them, sign in to your plan website and go to Health & Wellness. Then look for Brain Games in the Quick Links section.
  • Check out a few books from the library (or download them on your e-reader).
  • Watch a documentary on a favorite subject.
  • Listen to a podcast.
  • Get into deep conversations with friends and family.

“All of these are good for cognitive function and working memory,” he says.

Fortunately, every healthy aging tip that’s been mentioned — annual checkups, rest, exercise, nutrition and social interaction — have a positive impact on your mental and cognitive health, says Dr. Chiang. “Taking care of your physical health,” he explains, “will bring benefits to your brain health as well.”

This information is for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for the advice of a doctor. Consult your doctor prior to beginning an exercise program or making changes to your lifestyle or health care routine.

1. Participation in the Renew Active™ program is voluntary. Consult your doctor prior to beginning an exercise program or making changes to your lifestyle or health care routine. Renew Active includes standard fitness membership. Equipment, classes, personalized fitness plans, caregiver access and events may vary by location. Certain services, classes and events are provided by affiliates of UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company or other third parties not affiliated with UnitedHealthcare. Participation in AARP® Staying Sharp® and the Fitbit® Community for Renew Active is subject to your acceptance of their respective terms and policies. AARP Staying Sharp is the registered trademark of AARP. UnitedHealthcare is not responsible for the services or information provided by third parties. The information provided through these services is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for the advice of a doctor. The Renew Active program varies by plan/area. Access to gym and fitness location network may vary by location and plan. Renew Active premium gym and fitness location network only available with certain plans.