It’s the beginning of a new year, offering all of us the opportunity to refresh our goals and intentions about our health and lifestyle. In his latest book, “Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives,” best-selling author Daniel Levitin shares insight into why we need to always look forward; think about health span, not life span; and, based on a rigorous analysis of neuroscientific evidence, how we can make the most of getting older, no matter how old you are now.
WAM: What is the best way for people to take stock of where they are today and set intentions that can result in happier and healthier futures? Is there value to this exercise?
LEVITIN: It’s always a good idea to take a step back once in awhile and ask yourself whether you are heading in the direction you want to be going. New Year’s is a natural, calendrical reminder to do that. Many of us focus at this time of year on things like diet and exercise, and we berate ourselves for not doing what we think we should. All that self-criticism just makes us feel bad, and unworthy, and doesn’t usually motivate us to make lasting change. The good news is that change is far easier than some would have you believe. There is no magic diet, no requirement that you go on a treadmill forty minutes a day. The best food advice is to follow “intuitive eating” practices. A multi-million dollar diet industry exists to bamboozle you into thinking you can’t do this yourself. But you can. Don’t eat if you’re not hungry. Stop eating when you feel full. Eat what you feel like in moderation from a variety of food sources.
We also know that the most important thing for mental health is not really exercise—it’s movement. Get yourself moving, preferably in natural environments. And if you feel the need to shed some pounds, high intensity interval workouts, a few times a week, where you exercise as hard as you can for 30 seconds, then take a one minute break, then go again, over a 7 – 15 minute period, have nearly the same cardio benefits as longer work outs.
WAM: You say we should not talk so much about “lifespan,” but rather “healthspan.” Why?
LEVITIN: Lifespan is how long you live. Health span is that portion of your life in which you’re healthy, active, and alert. If medical science can let you live to be 200, but you spend the last 100 years in a catatonic stupor, what’s the point? There are things that we can do to increase the chances that we will be able to enjoy the things we love doing, contribute to our families and to society, and these aren’t related to longevity—they’re related to healthy practices, and mindset. None of them are complicated or time-consuming.
WAM: Is there a difference between a book about Aging Successfully versus one about Living Successfully?
LEVITIN: Hah! That’s a good question. Not really. To live is to age (hopefully) and to age successfully is to be fully engaged with life.
I think that “living successfully” means different things to different people. I don’t presume to tell anyone what they should spend their time and energy on. For some it’s family, for others work, the outdoors, sports, fashion, or art, or community, or politics. Some prefer intrapersonal knowledge (know thyself) some interpersonal knowledge (spend time with friends).
I think the reason I called my book what I did (Successful Aging) is that, as a neuroscientist, I think I know some things about how to keep the mind and body healthy and young. Calling the book Living Successfully (or Successful Living) to my ear implies a more philosophical or metaphysical book, more focused on spirituality. For me, aging is a lifelong, organic process that begins at birth. I wanted to emphasize that aspect of it.
WAM: You say mindset is key to aging well. Why is that?
LEVITIN: We can’t control everything that happens to us—the world is chaotic and many events are beyond our control. What we can control is how we react to events, especially those that don’t please us. We can develop an attitude of openness and curiosity that allows us to be more tolerant of others.
We don’t have to behave the way we always have—we can change our personalities, our ways of relating to ourselves and the world. We can learn to reduce stress and to cope with adversity without letting it defeat us.
WAM: What are your top tips for living (and aging) successfully?
- Don’t retire. Don’t stop being engaged with meaningful work.
- Look forward. Don’t look back. (Reminiscing doesn’t promote health.)
- Move. Explore. Get your heart rate going. Preferably in nature.
- Embrace a moderated lifestyle with healthy practices.
- Keep your social circle exciting and new.
- Spend time with people younger than you.
- Don’t think of yourself as old (other than taking prudent precautions).