9 "Harmless" Habits That Age You
By the Editors of Prevention
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It pretty much goes without saying that smoking cigarettes and frying your skin in the sun make you older, so kudos for quitting and slathering on the sunscreen religiously. But if you're trying to turn back the clock—or at least slow it down a little—don't overlook these other habits that may be sabotaging your efforts.
1. You keep your college bedtime
It's not uncommon for superbusy women to cram a day's worth of around-the-house to-dos into the late evening hours, a practice that pushes back bedtime into—eep!—Late Night with Jimmy Fallon territory. The problem with this is that too-little sleep is proving to be really, really bad for your health: Research links it to high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain, and even just looking tired and older.
Act your age: We're not saying you need a perfect 8 hours every single night, but make sleep a priority more often and your body will thank you. Everyone's sleep needs are different; to find out what yours are, sleep experts recommend you turn off the alarm clock when you're well rested, and see how long you naturally sleep. (Most people need 7 to 8 hours.)
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2. You have a soft spot for sweets
A sugar-packed diet can take its toll on your waistline, but now experts also believe it can make your skin dull and wrinkled too. To blame is a natural process known as glycation, in which the sugar in your bloodstream attaches to proteins to form harmful new molecules called advanced glycation end products (AGEs, for short). The more sugar you eat, the more AGEs you develop; these damage surrounding proteins like collagen and elastin, which keep skin firm and elastic. Once damaged, springy and resilient collagen and elastin become dry and brittle, leading to wrinkles and sagging. These aging effects start at about age 35 and increase rapidly after that, according to a study published in the British Journal of Dermatology.
Act your age: It's not easy to eliminate sugar completely, but limiting added sugar to no more than 10% of total calories can help. If you're a 45-year-old woman of average height (5-foot-4), that's 160 calories (or 10 teaspoons) from added sugar—about the number in one 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola or six Hershey's Kisses. By comparison, the average American consumes 31 teaspoons per day of added sugar, or the equivalent of 465 calories. Watch for stealthy sugar in unexpected foods, like salad dressing. Many prepared foods contain hefty amounts of sugar, but it's hidden under aliases—including barley malt, corn syrup, dextrose, fruit juice concentrate, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, and turbinado—on ingredient panels.
3. You're stressed more often than not
You don't feel good when you're stressed-out—be it from work projects piling up, a miserable commute, issues with the kids, etc.—and there's good biological proof why you shouldn't. Stress increases the concentration of the hormones cortisol and norepinephrine in the bloodstream, kicking up blood pressure and suppressing immunity. Over time, stress that doesn't go away can delay healing, harden your arteries, and possibly shrink areas of your brain involved in learning, memory, and mood—talk about feeling older!
Act your age: Stress will never go away completely, but how you manage everyday blips can keep hormones on a more even—and healthy—keel. Deep breathing is the top antistress pick of Prevention advisor Andrew Weil, MD: He makes time for it at least twice a day. "It only takes 2 minutes," he says. "I do it in the morning, when I'm falling asleep in the evening, and anytime I feel upset." Try it: Exhale strongly through the mouth, making a whoosh sound. Breathe in quietly through the nose for a count of 4. Hold your breath for a count of 7, then exhale with the whoosh for a count of 8. Repeat the cycle 3 more times.
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4. You only exercise to lose weight
Exercise is one of the best turn-back-the-clock agents around, but too many of us don't reap its full benefits because we only associate physical activity with weight loss. If you tend to hit the gym in 2-week stints to shed a few pounds, but then take a few months off from physical activity, you're missing out on some major health perks. Research shows that vigorous exercisers have longer telomeres—cellular biomarkers that shorten as we age—compared with healthy adults who rarely work out. Being active consistently can help fight brain fog, reduce inflammation, and prevent type 2 diabetes and other chronic conditions that crop up over time.
Act your age: Don't let your sneakers get dusty. Choose any activity you enjoy—be it walking, cycling, or dancing—and aim for a minimum of 20 to 25 minutes a day. Break it down, if you have to, into two 10-minute sessions. Slowly increase the frequency, duration, and intensity in small increments. If you miss a day, don't let it become a habit; just pick up again the next day.
5. You blast your iPod
Nothing makes you feel 80 years old like having to cup your ear and say "Excuse me?" to get your friend to repeat herself... again. Hearing loss typically develops slowly, the result of prolonged exposure to thousands of high-decibel insults to the ear, many of which come from exposure to everyday gadgets, like iPods or hair dryers. MP3 players set at 50% volume can pump out sounds up to 101 decibels, well over the recommended safety threshold.
Act your age: To ageproof your iPod, keep the volume as low as possible. Use noise-canceling earbuds to block out ambient sounds, reducing your need to jack up the volume. Wear earplugs when you're around other loud noises too, like the garbage disposal, coffee grinder, lawn mower, etc.
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6. You never see your girlfriends
Your friends were probably the meat and potatoes of your social calendar back in your 20s; now you spend most of your spare time shuttling your tweens around to their various get-togethers. But here's why making time to cultivate your friendships is so key: One study found that satisfying friendships predict longevity better than even close family ties, and they can protect against obesity, depression, and heart disease, among other health problems. No wonder you always feel reenergized after a marathon catch-up call with your best college friend or a girls' night out with your high school crew.
Act your age: Your friends keep you young—simple as that. So if hectic schedules keep you apart, consider carving a more permanent place in your schedule for friend time. Take advantage of Facebook or e-mail groups to stay in touch on a more frequent basis—even clicking through and commenting on a pal's recently uploaded vacation photos can help you feel closer.
7. You eat veggies—but not daily
You've likely heard that antioxidant-packed fruits and veggies can help you stay young. These powerful compounds fight free radicals that would otherwise wreak havoc on your body and skin, damaging cells that can lead to cancer and make you look older. But here's the rub: Antioxidants remain active for only a few hours and need to be continually replenished, so don't think you're set for the week after eating a big salad for lunch on Monday.
Act your age: ODing on veggies a couple of days a week or month—and skipping them the rest of the time—doesn't do your body any favors. To truly maximize their age-defying benefits, aim to eat antioxidants every 4 hours or so or with every meal.
8. You've shunned all fat from your diet
Cutting out artery-clogging saturated and trans fats is a heart-healthy move, but when it comes to your health and vitality, equally slashing unsaturated fats, like those found in fish, nuts, and olive oil, is like throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. One kind, omega-3 fatty acids, is the ultimate anti-aging fat, essential for protecting your brain, heart, bones, joints, skin, and more. Another kind, monounsaturated, can lower bad LDL cholesterol, raise cardio-protective HDL cholesterol, and decrease your risk of atherosclerosis. Plus, studies suggest that a higher intake of these fats may contribute to longer life expectancy.
Act your age: Remember that fat isn't inherently evil, and it won't make you fat per se. About 20 to 35% of your daily calories should come from fat (mainly healthy, unsaturated fat) like those from the above sources.
9. You can't recall when you last had sex
Yep, sex feels good and does wonders for your mood, but it's also fantastically great for your health. Research shows that people with active sex lives have stronger immune systems, less pain, a lower cancer risk, healthier hearts, and less stress. The best news: It can even make you look younger—up to 12 years, a study shows.
Act your age: Rekindle the romance between you and your partner. To shake things up, try making the first move next time. "Some women are not active participants in their sex lives," says Pat Covalt, PhD, author of What Smart Couples Know. "A lot of men would like to be touched more, seduced more. Everyone wants to feel wanted."