4 Best Steps to Keep Your Youth
Humans have chased eternal youth throughout recorded history -- and people today are no exception. And while scientists are just beginning to understand why we age and how to stop it, one leading theory based on free radicals holds promise.
Our bodies are made of trillions of cells. Free radicals damage these cells. "The body has systems to repair this damage, but when the problems outstrip the body's ability to repair it, that's when we see aging," says Stephen B. Kritchevsky, director of the J. Paul Sticht Center on Aging at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
Where do free radicals come from?
Ironically, they are a natural byproduct when our cells burn food to make energy. They also result from obvious insults like sun exposure and cigarette smoking.
But all is not lost.
While scientists don't have all the answers yet, they have pinpointed four promising steps that you can take now to keep your youth.
1. Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
A recent study conducted at Harvard Medical School found that mice who exercised at a brisk pace for one hour five times a week aged at a drastically slower rate -- exhibiting less gray hair, larger brain size and better organ function -- than sedentary mice.
"Exercise helps maintain good blood flow to organs and burns up extra energy instead of leaking free radicals," says Kritchevsky. Granted, exercise can also temporarily increase the amount of free radicals in your body, but this short-term stress on your system may actually help "by keeping the machinery that protects you from free radicals revved up," adds Kritchevsky.
To maximize youthfulness, Kritchevsky suggests 2.5 hours per week of aerobic activity at a moderate intensity, along with strength training a couple of times a week to maintain muscle strength.
2. Eat Enough Veggies
Animal studies have shown that antioxidants (like vitamins E and C) can keep free radicals under wraps. Indeed, "we evolved eating berries and nuts," and since fruit and nuts contain tons of antioxidants, "we really evolved to require a good intake of antioxidants," says Michal Jazwinski, director of the Tulane Center for Aging.
However, getting too many antioxidants through supplements does more harm than good. That's why experts focus on eating plenty of vegetables and fruit instead of taking supplements. The USDA recommends filling half of your plate with vegetables and fruit. Jazwinski goes even further. His optimal diet: one third of your plate filled with green vegetables, one third with a red or yellow vegetable -- plus a salad on the side and fruit for dessert.
3. Be Smart About Protein
"As we age, we have a tendency to not get enough protein in our diets, which can lead to muscle and strength loss," says Kritchevsky. However, it's important to maintain balance. While protein can help slow aging, meat also boosts cell growth -- including tumor cells -- and has been "proven to be one of the most potent factors causing cancer," explains Valter Longo, a professor at the University of Southern California's Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. This is particularly concerning since Americans eat nearly twice as much protein on average as they need.
How much protein is healthy? The USDA recommends 5 ounces of meat, poultry or fish per day for women, 6 ounces per day for men. If possible, adds Longo, eat mostly legumes and fish, which are high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
4. Watch Your Weight
Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis found that cutting calories by 25 percent or more decreases free radical damage and may increase lifespan. Obviously, cutting 500 calories a day isn't easy -- and it just might drive you crazy. "Part of quality of life is enjoying a good meal," says Jazwinski, noting that rodents subjected to calorie restriction were more physically active, likely because they were ravenous and constantly searching for food.
Fortunately, such extreme measures aren't the only way to slow aging. Simply maintaining a steady, normal weight has also been shown to help. When Kritchevsky and his colleagues asked more than 3,000 people between the ages of 70 and 79 what they weighed at age 50, they found that "those who did the best were the people who remained the same weight (between age 50 and 79). They were in much better shape than those who lost or gained a lot of weight," he says.
One day we may see a pill that offers eternal youth. In fact, "a number of us scientists are looking for a ‘Lipitor' of aging, so when you're 45 you can take a pill that won't just protect you against high cholesterol, but will also protect against cellular aging in several of your body's systems," says Longo. Until then, eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise and maintaining a healthy weight offer the best chance to keep your youth.
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