By Leslie Goldman, AARP, August 2023
When does something healthy become unhealthy? When you do it too much, to the exclusion of other choices. Like most of us, you’ve probably been hit over the head for the past few years with the “power of habits”: the idea that locking in some simple, healthy everyday behaviors will set you on a course for greater well-being. And there’s a lot of truth to that conventional wisdom.
But even healthy habits can benefit from a shake-up. When you take the same handful of ostensibly positive actions day in and day out, it often means you’re missing out on a variety of options and activities that could offer a wider array of benefits. We asked experts in medicine, nutrition, exercise and more about the healthy habits they wish people would take breaks from, especially those who want to stay in tip-top shape as they graduate from their 50s, 60s and 70s.
Habit 1: You walk every day for exercise
Walking is terrific. Everybody should walk more. It helps maintain strength in your heart, brain and joints, among other benefits. But with age, people often end up pigeonholing themselves into one type of workout — usually walking — and ditching different types of exercise because they fear injuring themselves or worry that they’re “too old” to run, lift weights or play a certain sport, says Claire Morrow, a senior physical therapist with Hinge Health, a digital clinic for back and joint pain.
Don’t let fear stick you in a rut. “Your body is made to move,” Morrow says, and that need “doesn’t diminish as you get older.” In fact, as you get older, the rate at which you lose muscle mass and joint mobility accelerates — unless you embrace exercise. Without strength training, for instance, the average person will lose between 3 and 8 percent of their muscle mass per decade after age 30; the rate steepens after 60. Muscle loss is associated with increased fall risk; cognitive decline and an increased risk of dementia; diabetes and heart disease risk; and even premature death. And it’s not inevitable!
An effective exercise routine includes varied activities to challenge muscles, build endurance, keep joints feeling young and stave off chronic age-related conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity (water aerobics, doubles tennis, brisk walking) or 75 minutes a week of vigorous cardio activity (jogging, hiking uphill, swimming laps), plus at least two days a week of muscle-strengthening activities such as weight lifting, resistance bands or body-weight moves like lunges and push-ups.
Habit 2: You constantly wear supportive shoes
Most older adults wear shoes all day long, including slippers or house shoes when indoors. “They think it gives more support,” says Emily Splichal, a functional podiatrist in Chandler, Arizona.
But constantly encasing feet in shoes progressively weakens them by depriving them of the opportunity to work. “Our toes need to push into the ground to maintain balance, and our foot muscles contract to maintain balance and posture,” Splichal says. Supportive shoes and insoles do the bulk of the work, instead of the feet themselves.
Thick, cushiony soles also rob the bottoms of the feet of crucial sensory stimulation. “Part of your nervous system lives in your feet — thousands of nerves that are sensitive to texture, pressure, vibration and other stimuli,” Splichal says. They send information back and forth to the brain, helping you maintain proper posture, stay balanced and avoid falling. The more often you wear shoes, the less your brain practices those essential skills. Splichal says the nerves in our feet start to lose sensitivity in our 40s, requiring more stimulation to create the same response.
There’s a very simple solution. When home, go barefoot at least 30 minutes a day. Do that particularly when cleaning and cooking, when your movements are more varied (sideways, on your toes, bending, lifting and so on). You can also invest in a sensory insole that stimulates your feet, Splichal says. If you suffer from plantar fasciitis pain, however, check with your doctor about whether going barefoot sometimes at home is recommended.
Habit 3: You drink water when you’re thirsty
It’s not the water that’s the problem; it’s the thirst. By the time you get thirsty, you’re probably already dehydrated.
Our internal mechanisms for triggering a sensation of thirst become less sensitive as we age. About 70 percent of adults between the ages of 51 and 70 may be chronically under-hydrated, according to San Francisco–area nutrition epidemiologist Jodi Stookey. Pound for pound, muscle holds more water than fat. If we lose muscle as we age (see above), we lose some of our ability to store water.
Chronic dehydration can put us at greater risk for urinary tract infections and may even increase the risk of diabetes and colon and bladder cancer, says New York City–based integrative internist Dana G. Cohen, M.D., coauthor of Quench: Beat Fatigue, Drop Weight, and Heal Your Body Through the New Science of Optimum Hydration.
“We’ve trained ourselves not to be thirsty because we don’t want to pee so much,” she says. That’s especially true in the evenings: Age-related decreases in a urine-concentrating chemical called antidiuretic hormone (ADH) can wreck sleep; by age 50, about half of adults wake up at least once a night to urinate. But that doesn’t mean your body doesn’t need hydration, even in the evenings.
Cohen recommends drinking enough water so that you feel the need to urinate every two to three hours during the day, and then honor that urge. Or eat more water. Plants are loaded with it, and their fiber helps keep the water inside the body for longer periods, while their minerals help the water penetrate the body’s cells. “A homemade green smoothie is more hydrating than a bottle of water,” Cohen says.
Habit 4: You stay out of the sun
Inside your brain lives a collection of cells that act like a clock for the body. Called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, it controls the body’s circadian rhythms, keeping nearly every organ and system on a 24-hour cycle. Its strongest signal? Sunlight.
“Like a rooster that crows to wake you up,” the bluish light of dawn entering your eyes “tells your brain, ‘Time to start the day!’ ” says Sara Mednick, professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine, and author of The Power of the Downstate: Recharge Your Life Using Your Body’s Own Restorative Systems. This has a domino effect throughout the day and into the evening, cuing your body to feel awake and energized for the next dozen or so hours and regulating appetite, mood and more. As the sun sets at night, its orange and red hues travel into your eyes, triggering your circadian clock to release sleep-promoting hormones. And you want to be sleepy, because sleep is when “you enter your most restorative mode,” Mednick says. “Muscles are repaired, energy levels are replenished, and your brain is cleaned of toxic by-products that build up during the day.”
But today people in their 50s and early 60s typically spend less than an hour a day in sunlight. Change that: At minimum, you should go outside for 15 to 30 minutes every morning, then again in the late afternoon or evening to take in those calming red and orange sunsets, Mednick says. This will give your circadian rhythm the oomph it needs. If mobility or caregiving issues limit your ability to get outside, Mednick recommends 15 to 30 minutes in front of a light box at a consistent early-morning time to boost energy, stay cognitively sharp and enhance sleep quality.
And you’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: Turn off your smartphone an hour or two before bed. Your phone mimics the “wake up” messaging of morning light, making a good night’s sleep more challenging.
Habit 5: You eat ‘nutrition’ bars
Ditching the candy bars for nutrition or energy bars may sound like a wise choice, but think again. They’re one of many “covert sugar bombs” that pose as health foods, says dermatologist Rajani Katta, M.D., author of Glow: The Dermatologist’s Guide to a Whole Foods Younger Skin Diet. Prepackaged fruit juices and smoothies and “healthy” breakfast cereals are also high up on the list; many foods that carry a healthy halo can deliver more sugar than a person should eat in an entire day.
And more sugar means faster aging. Excess levels of sugar in the blood can combine with proteins to create compounds called advanced glycation end products — AGEs, appropriately — that stiffen blood vessels and organs in a process “similar to making caramel, where you combine sugar and butter and end up with a sticky substance that then turns brittle,” Katta says. Besides contributing to high blood pressure and heart disease, this causes something called sugar sag, as “consuming too much sugar can accelerate collagen damage and lead to wrinkling and sagging of the skin.”
Plus, even the best nutrition bars are, in the end, processed foods. That means they’re not as rich in nutrients as whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and fish, meat and dairy. A nutrition bar when you’re rushing like mad? Fine. But not as a daily substitute for real food.
One stealth way to judge the healthiness of a packaged food, according to the authors of AARP’s best-selling diet book The Whole Body Reset: Take a look at the nutrition label and add up total grams of protein and fiber. Then look at the grams of total sugar. If the protein plus fiber number is higher than the sugar grams, you’re probably eating something healthy. If the sugar grams are higher? Keep shopping.
Habit 6: You avoid eating eggs
While it’s true that eggs are high in cholesterol, with about 200 mg in each large egg yolk, research has found the cholesterol in our diets is only weakly related to dangerous cholesterol in our bloodstreams. For years, health groups including the American Heart Association (AHA) recommended eating no more than three whole eggs a week, but those recommendations have changed. Since 2015, the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans have said eggs can be part of a healthy diet.
Eggs are nutritional powerhouses, containing choline, folate, vitamin D, lutein, B vitamins and high-quality protein. Lutein is especially important in the prevention of macular degeneration. Egg yolks are one of the few foods that have vitamin D, which can help prevent osteoporosis and lower diabetes risk.
More recently, in proposed new rules, the Food and Drug Administration has said that eggs can be labeled as a healthy food. These recommendations are based in part on new research. One 2018 study of half a million people in China found that eating up to an egg a day was linked with lower risk of heart disease. The AHA now recommends one egg (or two egg whites) per day for those who eat them, as part of a healthy diet, although the group says those who have high cholesterol should watch dietary cholesterol.
3 Snacks to Prevent Premature Aging
Nosh your way younger with this trio of workhorse snacks
Almonds: They contain loads of vitamin E, an antioxidant that protects cells throughout the body from damage. That helps explain why people who eat nuts every day live longer than those who don’t. As a bonus, in one small study, eating a hefty dose of almonds a day led to significant reductions in the appearance of wrinkles and uneven skin pigmentation in postmenopausal women. Katta carries them in her purse.
Berries: Whether they’re blue, red or black, berries are loaded with natural jewel-toned pigments called anthocyanins, which are packed with memory-enriching compounds. Research has suggested that just a half-cup of blueberries or 2 half-cups of strawberries a week may help slow the rate of cognitive decline.
Greek yogurt: This creamy staple of the Mediterranean diet delivers calcium for strong bones, protein for maintaining muscle (often more than double the protein of conventional yogurt), and friendly bacteria called probiotics that nourish the gut microbiome to help promote healthy aging. Enjoy it sweetened with berries, or go savory with cucumbers and herbs mixed in.