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5 Ways to Get Healthier & Happier

5 Ways to Get Healthier & Happier With Age

 
In our culture, everything happens at the speed of youth. Whether it’s cell phones, computers, songs, movies, books or opinions, it seems that only the newest models and latest releases matter. Whatever it is, if it’s been around for a while, it’s probably lost some value along with its straight-out-of-the-package luster.

And that might be inevitable when it comes to the latest iPad. But it makes no sense when it comes to people. Because while our culture is inclined to associate aging with a downgrade in beauty, vitality and appeal, aging done well has the potential to be something else entirely: an enjoyable and inspiring upgrade of self.

Unlike the boundless energy of youth, the treasures of aging don’t just arrive at our doorsteps, though. While it is entirely possible to become more interesting, attractive and dynamic as you age, it rarely happens without some conscious striving.

That said, it’s well worth the effort. Done right, living brings wisdom, emotional maturity and insight. With age comes experience, skill, discernment and perspective. We become more empathetic. We develop the compassion to fully know and love others, and the confidence to relax into our best attributes. We gain the ability to know — and even strut — our own stuff.

Seen in this light, getting older can be downright sexy. But how does one go about engaging in artful aging? One of the best ways is to start early.

Knowing at 20, 30 or 40 that you can, and fully intend to, become cooler, smarter and potentially hotter as you age gives you an important advantage, because it can help you keep your goals and priorities in line over the long haul. It also helps you focus on the end game, so you don’t get stuck thinking that midlife achievements are the highest markers of a life well lived.

But at whatever age you suddenly realize that you are, in fact, getting older, it is still possible to age gracefully from there on out. All it takes is smart choices, well-directed energy and a desire for self-renewal. As best-selling author and journalist Gail Sheehy puts it, we need to “remain open to new vistas of learning and imagination and anticipate experiences yet to be conquered and savored.”

 

1. Connect With Others

One of the most important things you can do to enrich your life at any age is to connect with other people. Meeting, talking, collaborating, sharing — none of these personal-growth essentials happens when an individual is isolated. The people around us (friends, lovers, family, mentors and even enemies) can all provide important insights and become catalysts that aid us in our quest to evolve.

Developing relationships with older folks whom you admire and perceive as good role models, whether for their enduring physical fitness, their perspective and experience, or simply their joie de vivre, can be especially inspiring. So can connecting with younger people. Older men and women gain a deeper appreciation of their accumulated knowledge by sharing it. And feeling gratitude for one’s wisdom and previous life experiences is itself a powerful factor in remaining happy and inspired as we age.

Linking with others has huge health benefits as well. Edward M. Hallowell, MD, an adult and child psychiatrist based in Boston, cites landmark research from Harvard University School of Public Health, that showed people with no close ties to friends, relations or other community were three times more likely to die over a nine-year period than those with at least one source of social support. “Social isolation is as much a risk factor [for early death] as smoking,” he says.

The value of connection increases with years and experience. As lives and relationships deepen, there’s more to share.

A Minneapolis resident, Scotty Gillette was in her early 40s when she and a group of four other childhood friends decided to meet for dinner once a month. Nearly 40 years later, they’re still doing it. “We’ve supported each other through divorces, widowhood, and issues with our children and grandchildren,” she says. “We’ve nursed each other through operations, helped out when husbands have gotten sick, and celebrated at the weddings of our children and the births of our grandchildren.” Each woman is a crucial beam in her friends’ emotional architecture.

Community can be as simple as three or four people getting together for focused conversation once a week, says Parker Palmer, an educator, community activist and author of Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (Jossey-Bass, 1999). “It requires, more than anything else, intentionality.” The form matters less than the function; joining a bowling league, volunteering to tutor at the local high school, starting a band, taking an acting class — all will connect you with something you love, as well as a vital group of friends.

 

2. Look and Learn

To recognize life’s continuing possibilities, you must constantly survey the world with an open, inquisitive mind. “Lifelong learning expands our horizons and helps us see a life beyond our current roles,” says Pamela McLean, PhD, a clinical psychologist and coauthor of Life Launch: A Passionate Guide to the Rest of Your Life (Hudson Press, 2000).

The Harvard Study of Adult Development found that pursuing education throughout your adult years is a key factor to a rich life and healthy aging. Research has also found that learning can make your brain function better.

For many years, neuroscientists thought that the body stopped building new neural connections after childhood. But landmark studies in the early 21st century showed that the adult brain continues to grow new cells and create new neural connections. And learning helps trigger the growth of those new cells.

“Long-held assumptions that our brains are in a state of gradual decline from a youthful peak have been proven untrue,” notes Barbara Strauch in The Secret Life of the Grown-Up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-Aged Mind (Penguin, 2011).

If you maintain only one interest in your life — whether it’s work, children, athletics or a hobby — you risk losing your source of identity and satisfaction when change comes. Conversely, if you polish many facets of yourself, you will shine no matter what.

“The demands of the 30s and 40s are so pressing that it’s almost impossible to imagine how you can diversify your interests,” says McLean. “But it’s important not to become a one-string guitar. Don’t give all your life to work. Allow yourself to try adventures you normally wouldn’t.”

The opportunities to learn are endless. You can choose a structured activity, like taking a class or starting a book club. Or you can take a more free-form approach: Learn about local history or sports teams; listen to public radio while going to work and books on tape during the commute home; commit to visiting a new place every year, even if it’s on the way to your annual vacation spot.

As your life path proceeds, keep an eye out for life’s teachers. McLean suggests seeking out role models who are living in a way that inspires you. Then learn about their lives by asking questions about how they got there.

One person who has made a career out of interviewing his mentors is Bill Moyers, the host of the public-television news program Moyers & Company. “All the septuagenarians I’ve interviewed through the years have taught me something,” he says. “They lived long enough to turn their experience into wisdom, and to share it.”

 

3. Explore Within

Perhaps the best way to integrate valuable life experiences into your aging process is to regularly evaluate where you are and what’s calling next. “It’s a challenge for anyone, regardless of their age, to know where they want to go,” says McLean. “It’s easy to wander or, in our media-oriented society, to be led. But satisfaction only comes with a direction that is truly your own.”

Palmer agrees, and points out that instead of becoming more set in their ways, aging adults need to remain nimble. “One of the keys to aging gracefully is to acknowledge that you have as much need for discernment now about the best next steps in life as you did at 32 or 45 or 56. There’s a mythology that by 72 you’re pretty well settled, but we have wiggle room as long as we’re drawing breath.”

Developing and following your own evolving sense of purpose takes mindfulness, says McLean, which requires regular doses of reflective thinking. “Look for opportunities to think outside the moment and ask what you want to be,” she advises.

There are opportunities everywhere. Take a vacation, journal, meditate, try yoga, get a coach. Resist the invented busyness that keeps most of us distracted from our feelings: Stop compulsively checking your email or your phone; go on a weeklong media fast; sit still on your couch for five full minutes and don’t write a “to-do” list or schedule a dentist’s appointment or rearrange your sock drawer. If you feel uncomfortable, that’s the point. You’re starting to listen to your inner self.

Allowing our internal compass to guide us toward meaningful pursuits brings its own set of benefits. The Longevity Project, a long-term study launched by a Stanford psychologist at the turn of the last century, followed 1,500 people born around 1910 and found that passionate people who believed they were living up to their potential and engaged in meaningful work lived longer, healthier lives than their less reflective and less engaged peers.

The inner journey itself can be a wellspring of energy and inspiration for daily life. “I’ve found that if a person has a way of being introspective while aging, it creates an acceptance of life,” says Stephan Rechtschaffen, MD, a cofounder of the Omega Institute, a holistic learning center based in Rhinebeck, N.Y. “Maintaining vitality can be aided by spiritual processes. They allow us to access our inner landscapes and to see life with wonder.”

 

4. Play Creatively

Embracing the pleasures of uninhibited expression — whether we find that in art, music, dance, woodworking, Scrabble or poker — enriches and regenerates our souls no matter how old we are. “Any healthy activity where your brain lights up helps plant the seeds of happiness,” says Hallowell.

Those bits of happiness enrich our brains now and can continue to pay off in the decades to come, bringing satisfaction and continual self-renewal. In fact, time often enhances the end results of creative endeavors. In her book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life (Simon & Schuster, 2005), choreographer Twyla Tharp explains that she didn’t feel like a “master” of her craft until she had completed 128 works and was 58 years old.

“Why did it take 128 pieces until I felt this way?” Tharp asks rhetorically. “A better question would be, why not? What’s wrong with getting better as you get more work under your belt?” She cites Verdi, Beethoven, Dostoyevsky, Kurosawa and Balanchine as a few of her personal role models. All had stunning early triumphs, to be sure. Yet what interests Tharp is that all of these artists kept raising the bar for their achievements throughout their middle and later years.

How, in the face of deteriorating memories and aching backs, did they do it? In Tharp’s view, they were able to integrate what they had learned and put it into perspective.

“As we age, it’s hard to recapture the recklessness of youth, when new ideas sparked off us like light from a pinwheel sparkler,” she writes. “But we more than compensate for this with the ideas we do generate, and with our hard-earned wisdom about how to capture, and, more importantly, connect those ideas.” The results of this mature brand of ideation and creative expression, Tharp asserts, can be richer, deeper and just as satisfying as the spontaneity of youth.

 

5. Mind Your Body

Whether you’re 18 or 88, you feel better when you maintain a healthy weight, a high level of physical vitality, and a commitment to daily movement. As the years pass, though, it becomes increasingly important to examine specific aspects of your daily routine and environment.

For instance, according to Mark Hyman, MD, recent research shows that balancing blood sugar is one of the best ways to inoculate against certain age-related diseases, such as dementia, cancer and adult-onset diabetes.

Besides reducing our sugar intake, Hyman, author of The Blood Sugar Solution (Little, Brown and Company, 2012), advises people to take a few key steps: (1) Avoid flours and starches (“They act just like sugar in the bloodstream,” he explains); (2) include healthy proteins (such as fish, beans, nuts, lean animal protein) with every meal to fuel metabolism and maintain muscle; (3) liberally consume high-fiber foods (nuts, berries, beans, non-starchy vegetables and seeds); (4) enjoy healthy fats, including omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to activate a critical cell-signaling system related to blood-sugar control.

Hyman also wants us to mind our mitochondria, which are the microscopic components of each of our cells that turn food and 90 percent of the oxygen we breathe into energy. We have more than 100,000 trillion of these little energy factories in our bodies, and according to recent lab tests, rats with the healthiest and most plentiful mitochondria had greater endurance and aerobic capacity, experienced increased fat burning, didn’t develop prediabetes, and lived to be the equivalent of 120 human years old.

The trouble is that, over time, mitochondria are sensitive to poor diet, sedentary habits, toxins, allergens, and high levels of stress. This is why Hyman urges us to emphasize whole foods, limit our overall exposure to pollutants, find time to relax and rejuvenate, and enjoy plenty of physical activity. Interval training is especially helpful, he notes, since high-intensity activity interspersed with periods of rest increases the efficiency and function of mitochondria. Strength training also increases the amount of mitochondria in muscle cells.

Beyond all these practical recommendations for healthy, graceful aging, though, success is ultimately rooted in self-honesty — the ability to see yourself clearly and then take action on the parts of your life that are asking for investment and attention.

For example, the Harvard Study on Aging tells us that having a healthy marriage before age 50 is an indicator of successful aging. Do you have a strong partnership? If you do, what sorts of steps can you take to fortify that bond? If not, what can you do to change your situation?

If you are severely overweight, chain smoking, or abusing alcohol or drugs, what resources are available to help you face down the demons? What role do you play in the dysfunction?

Ignoring problems not only leads to physical and mental deterioration, but also leads to avoiding solutions that have the potential to connect you to the larger community and your better self.

In other words, you’re never too old to leave behind old habits, to embrace new rituals, or to discover new vistas in the search of happier, healthier and higher terrain.

By Elizabeth Foy Larsen, Experience Life

Experience Life magazine is an award-winning health and fitness publication that aims to empower people to live their best, most authentic lives, and challenges the conventions of hype, gimmicks and superficiality in favor of a discerning, whole-person perspective. Visit experiencelife.com to learn more and to sign up for the Experience Life newsletter, or to subscribe to the print or digital version.

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 Leesa Wheeler

Leesa A. Wheeler

Healthy Lifestyle Coach, Artisan, Author

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How To Live Like You’re On Vacation – Everyday

How To Live Like You’re On Vacation – Everyday

How To Live Like You’re On Vacation – Everyday

Ah, this month is a doozy isn’t it? Don’t get me wrong – I love my job, but there’s something about these first weeks in January that kills. It’s like yesterday was all a-flutter with holiday lights and celebratory cheer and today is just… well shit, we’re just smack dab in the heart of winter. Getting “back to the grind” post holi-daze can feel particularly daunting when you’ve had some time away – which, I am grateful to say, I did. On an island. In Belize. Yep, I’m That Girl. The one who returns to the office in January abnormally (annoyingly) tan and chipper? Hi there. I think there’s still sand in my shoes.

But I’ve come to realize – as my boyfriend “helpfully” takes down the Christmas tree and I weep into my latté – that we don’t have to relinquish those delicious feelings of vacation just yet. In fact (drumroll), I’m quite dedicated to the idea of manifesting the get-away vibes as a integral part of my daily lifestyle (cymbal crash! Ooh! Aah!)! Not convinced? Read on.

Island Livin’

I spent a delicious week in December on a tiny island off of Belize City. My cousin was there studying abroad, my uncle had some frequent flier miles, and the gods were smiling upon me: presto change-o, Lauren’s on a tropical island for seven days. (Deep, deep bows of gratitude.) Each morning we woke up and slapped on bathing suits and SPF before breakfast. Each afternoon we played dominoes at the bar or caught naps in the hammock. Each evening we ate fresh sea fare and coconut rice by the light of the moon. Heaaaaaaven. The week was magical and relaxing in ways I hadn’t anticipated, but perhaps most surprising about the experience was the distinct voice shouting loud in my soul upon leaving: MUST. LIVE. HERE.

Ok, nothing special, right? Who doesn’t leave an island vacation tempted to skip that return flight and start a tugboat fishing business? But this voice was louder than any I’d heard in a long time, and it wasn’t telling me to move to Belize. (Ok, maybe a little.) It was saying – deep, resonant: Must live here, in this space – breathing more, doing less.

See, I believe that an integral part of being all me all the time is recognizing both what brings me joy and what brings out the joy in me. I like vacation, but I also like myself on vacation. I’m friendlier, I’m more peaceful, I’m more present. I dig the small stuff. I laugh louder and longer. I pay more attention to what I eat and whom I’m with and how I feel. And while sitting ocean-side with an umbrella in my ahem, juice, may make these feelings seem more accessible, they are absolutely possible to manifest at home as well. And frankly – “possible”? Necessary.

So, in the spirit of the New Year (and in clinging desperately to my quickly-fading tan), let’s get our get-away on.

9 Tips On how To Live Like You’re On An Everyday Vacation

  1. Unplug. I know, I know, you’ve heard this one before. But DO IT. I didn’t wear a watch for seven straight days and it was heavenly. I know that we have kids to pick up from school and meetings to make, but take at least one afternoon a week to throw your cell in a drawer and close that computer. Tell your spouse or a friend to wrangle you at a certain time, if you must – but really, lose track of time. (It’s kind of overrated anyway.)
  2. Rock that Stop-Doing list. Lissa Rankin recently wrote a great post about changing your to-do lists into not-do lists – as in, what would you like to free yourself from this week/month/year? Those choices were made for me on the island – what with limited Wi-Fi and housekeeping service – but there was something to be said about having very little I felt that I “needed” to accomplish each day. So, do some recon into your daily to-dos and see what you can delegate, diminish, or drop altogether. Create space.
  3. Reduce the stuff. You know one reason why hotels can feel so heavenly? Clutter-free, babes. This is another one you’ve heard before, but going to sleep with the laundry, laptop, and paper piles creeping over your nightstand makes for restless slumber. At the very least, give your boudoir the hotel once-over and ditch everything that doesn’t say relaxation. Moreover, think about all the stuff you use and “need” in a week’s time – if it wouldn’t make your suitcase, get rid of it. Pack (live) light.
  4. Talk to strangers. Whether it was asking for dining recommendations, a cheerful where-are-you-from over breakfast, or bonding with fellow snorkelers in our deathtrap tugboat, I met the loveliest of people by striking up dialogues with complete strangers. I know we’re all on-the-go in our daily lives and tend to walk the streets like we’re on missions from god (though yes, obtaining take-out Chinese can often feel like a divine calling), but try talking to someone new every day. You don’t have to be ocean-side to say hello there and ask for a good lunch spot.
  5. Eat locally. So maybe you won’t get to watch a sun-kissed fellow called Captain Jerry Jerome catch your dinner and throw it on the grill (true story), but chances are there are some regional delicacies in your ‘hood that you have not yet tried. Hit up your local farmer’s market, restaurant, and street fair to embrace the natural food of your area. Allow the idea of being present to carry into your recipes, cooking seasonally and trying new things. Be a locavore.
  6. Eat longer-ly. At home, I eat dinner in 15 minutes while also checking email, catching a sitcom, or going through my to-do list. On vacation, my favorite “restaurant” was a shack on the beach called Fran’s Fast Food – my quickest meal there took 2.5 hours. This is all to say, SLOW DOWN. Savoring each bite keeps you conscious of what (and how much) you’re eating and provides powerful opportunities for connecting with friends and family. Even if you’re dining solo, select one meal a week and take your sweet time with it. (Last night, a tofu stir-fry and I spent 60 sweet minutes together. Worth it.)
  7. Celebrate the small stuff. Toast to an easy commute, a beautiful sunset, waking up on time, and not getting a parking ticket. Celebrate a great hair day, an inspiring conversation with a friend, finishing a book (or a chapter, or a page!), and a surviving houseplant. Every moment of vacation seems to yell, Yes! Hello! Congratulations! – now it’s time to take a bit of that celebratory spirit into the “real world.”
  8. Connect with nature. Not all vacations will take us to remote locales – one of my favorite vacation spots, after all, is New York Cit-ay – but I will say that my most relaxing get-aways have been deeply connected to nature. Do what you can to bring a lil’ of nature’s positive perspective into your world – as my mom used to say about Hawaii, it’s hard to sweat the small stuff when you’re sitting between a volcano and the ocean. Even in winter, make time for the great outdoors.
  9. Take the scenic route. It’s easy to get stuck in ruts of taking the same streets home and the same shortcuts to the grocery store. In our efforts to streamline our tasks, we often forget how fun it is to get lost. (See Jennifer Shelton’s great post on getting lost here!) Vacation isn’t always about the destination – it’s about jumbled water taxi directions, wrong trains, and accidental hikes. Treat your city as if you’re seeing it for the first time and you know, take a left instead of a right. Explore.

Access the joy within

There are all sorts of other ways to bring the vacation-spirit into your daily living – listening to a white-noise machine with ocean sounds, putting a picture of your dream destination next to your computer, treating yourself like a tourist at home with a “staycation” – but none of those practices feel sustainable to me. I’m not trying to trick myself into an everyday vacation – I’m trying to live there, authentically. Breathe more, do less. Access the joy within to be my most celebrated, relaxed, curious self – with or without a tan.

By Lauren Nagel

Lauren Nagel is the editor in chief of OwningPink.com and a contributing writer for San Francisco music magazine The Owl Mag. Email her at lauren@owningpink.com

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