Living a long and healthy life may seem like winning the genetic lottery, but you have a lot more control than you think.
Only 25% of our chance of living longer is due to inherited genes, while 75% is due to environmental factors, says Dr. Luigi Fontana, professor of medicine and nutrition and director of the Healthy Longevity Research Program at the University of Sydney in Australia.
“So the idea that genes are the most important factor in shaping your longevity is wrong,” Fontana tells TODAY.com.
“In 2023, we will have the knowledge to plan a fantastic world where people are healthy. The chance of getting sick is still there because biology is not an exact science, but the risk is very small if you live a healthy lifestyle.
Fontana outlines some ways to activate the body’s longevity pathways in his new book, “Manual of Healthy Longevity & Wellbeing.”
The goal is to prevent chronic diseases related to aging, such as heart disease. As people age, damage accumulates because the systems that control the body’s ability to repair itself decline — but certain lifestyle choices can slow that process, Fontana notes.
He believes that up to 95 percent of cardiovascular disease and 70 percent of cancer are preventable based on his research on exercise, calorie restriction, and quality diets.
But Fontana worries prevention isn’t even taught in medical schools, with doctors focusing on diagnosing diseases and treating them mostly with drugs and surgery.
Here are some habits that longevity experts recommend for living longer:
Watch your waist size and keep it under control
This is even more important than watching your weight, because every extra inch around your waist means belly fat, which is the worst type of fat, says Fontana.
Known as visceral fat, it promotes inflammation, which is a major factor in aging, cancer, cardiovascular disease and many other chronic diseases, he warns.
Excess belly fat also triggers insulin resistance and metabolic abnormalities, he adds.
“Every cent you lose reduces all of these factors,” notes Fontana. “It is possible with exercise and a healthy diet.”
She advises women to keep their waist measurements under 31.5 inches and men under 37 inches.
It is still important to monitor weight gain and deal with it quickly. But weight isn’t the best measure, because ideally you want to reduce your waist circumference while increasing muscle mass, especially in your legs and glutes—the body’s most powerful muscles, Fontana says.
Don’t eat “everything in moderation”
“People say, ‘Nothing is bad.’ You can eat some of everything. I disagree. It’s like saying, “I can have a couple of cigarettes in moderation,” Fontana warns.
“Everything in moderation” is not a dietary rule you should follow for maximum longevity, he writes in his book. Eliminate as much junk food, ultra-processed food, refined grains and sugary drinks from your diet as possible. There is no moderation in these foods.
Eat beans every day
Fontana follows the Mediterranean diet as the foundation of her healthy longevity eating plan.
In addition to beans, Fontana’s food pyramid calls for eating a variety of colorful vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruit, low-fat yogurt, olive oil, and avocado every day.
He recommends eating fish two to three times a week and having small portions of cheese and a few eggs once or twice a week.
Meat or sweets should only be eaten occasionally.
Fontana always buys organic produce when she can to minimize her exposure to pesticides. “But if you tell me, ‘I can’t afford organic food. What should I do?’ (I say) eat as many vegetables, whole grains and beans as you can, even if they’re not organic.”
He does not use supplements because he gets his nutrients from high-quality food. The only exception was a daily vitamin D supplement during the winter when he lived in the US to compensate for the lack of sunlight.
Consider exercise a panacea for healthy longevity
Humans and their molecular pathways have evolved over thousands of years with a lot of exercise—walking everywhere, carrying wood, getting water from a well—so the modern sedentary lifestyle is not natural, Fontana warns.
He alternates between mountain biking, swimming and weight lifting every day. An hour of aerobic exercise each day is ideal, but shorter periods spread throughout the day can provide benefits, he writes in his book.
Exercise reduces triglycerides and LDL “bad” cholesterol and increases HDL “good” cholesterol, Fontana notes. It lowers blood pressure and has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity.
When you exercise, you increase mitochondria – the “energy powerhouse of the cell” – in your muscles. Mitochondria are essential for burning fat, so you not only build muscle mass, but burn more calories.
Exercise also increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is important for memory and is a powerful antidepressant molecule, Fontana says.
Take it easy on the alcohol
Fontana does not drink alcohol. Research suggests it’s not good for longevity, and even small doses increase the risk of cancer, he notes.
“There is no evidence that resveratrol in wine prolongs life,” he says.
“If you enjoy your beer and your glass of wine, that’s great. But you should drink these once in a while… use them as a treat, not as a regular daily use.”
Give your body a break from eating
When you eat, calories turn into glucose, which activates insulin production.
Between snacks and larger meals, people end up with constant high insulin levels for many hours a day. It’s not normal physiologically and triggers pro-aging pathways, says Fontana.
Try to eat your calories within a limited window, maybe 10 hours, so your insulin and glucose are low for the remaining hours of the day, he advises.
It’s okay to be a little hungry. It means that the body secretes the hunger hormone ghrelin, which prevents inflammation.
“If you feel hungry, don’t immediately run to eat something. If you can, just wait because you know you’re activating this inflammatory pathway,” says Fontana.
Think of your body as a Ferrari
Even a nice new sports car will cause problems if you don’t maintain it. But if you know how to take care of it, the car will last a long time.
The same goes for your body, although maintenance in this case means a healthy diet and regular exercise.
“People say, ‘Who cares?’ I want to enjoy my life. I want to drink my wine. I want to stay on the couch and eat potato chips,” says Fontana.
“Yes, you can drive your Ferrari without changing the oil. It’s up to you. But you need to know that your Ferrari is starting to have problems.