Laughing with me by Ucumari

Making a point of smiling more may extend the number of years you have to do it.

Just about everyone wants to live a long, happy life (if you don’t, it may be time to sit down with someone and talk about that).

Thankfully, on the side of things we can control, there are a lot of small, easy changes we can make immediately that will have a huge effect on not only improving our lives in the present, but also ensuring that we have lots of fulfilled years ahead of us. Whether you’re 7 years old or 70 here are six things that you can start doing today that will have a lasting effect on your life.

1. Eat Less Junk

The average diet in the U.S. is atrocious – so statistically speaking yours probably is too. It’s not your fault. Between the oftentimes conflicting, poorly researched and questionably funded dietary recommendations put out by the USDA and media and the aggressive marketing of products as ‘healthy’ it can be difficult to sort out the good from the bad. That’s unfortunate, because choosing the proper diet is probably the most substantial thing you can do to improve your health.

The easiest way to start is by ditching all the processed foods you normally eat. A good general rule is if it comes in a box or with a label, you probably shouldn’t eat it. There are exceptions of course, but food that’s really good for you almost never needs to come with nutritional info – think unprocessed meats, fresh veggies and fruit. For extra credit you can ditch the grains and eat a little more like humans used to.

2. Move More

Stillness is death.

Even beyond the philosophical justification that movement is one of the few unifying properties all life shares – everything that’s alive moves – a sedentary lifestyle really does correlate to higher mortality rates. The top severe medical conditions in the U.S., heart disease, cancer, hypertension and diabetes, are all substantially reduced in people who are more active. In simpler terms, if you spend most of your life on a couch or in an office chair it’s probably not going to be a very long one.

So what can you do to fix it? Move around more! A leisurely 30 minute walk everyday isn’t going to give you a six pack and make you an athlete, but it is enough to lower your blood pressure and extend your life. It’s even a good way to relive stress which will go a long way in and of itself to make your time here longer and happier. If 30 minutes a day is too much time to invest, try 8 minutes a week of high intensity interval training instead.

3. Sit Less

This ties in with moving more. Most people nowadays spend the majority of their time sitting. We spend at the first 18 years of our life sitting at school desk for 8 to 10 hours a day, then graduate to an office desk. After spending all day at work planted at a desk, we sit in the car for an hour on the commute home, walk in the front door and plop down at the couch, computer or dinner table. It’s a lot of sitting.

That might not sound so bad at first, but the fact is sitting down so much is killing you.

If you can, put together a standing desk. Even if it’s just a pile of books you prop your monitor on, getting yourself up out of that chair can be huge. If you’re concerned about getting weird looks, set a timer on your phone or watch to go off every 30 minutes and spend 5 minutes standing up and walking around when it does. Even this little bit can make a big difference – so long as you don’t spend that 5 minutes walking to the break room for a doughnut.

4. Smile More

Being unhappy can have a profound effect on your overall health, not just from a psychological standpoint but from the physical and chemical changes caused in your brain by negative emotions. Stress, depression and unhappiness can genuinely damage your brain.

Now before you get all stressed out or depressed about that, there is something you can do to help. Smile!

It turns out even if you don’t actually have anything to smile about, there’s a feedback loop between the muscles responsible for forming a smile and the release of positive chemicals like serotonin that make you feel happy. When you force yourself to smile your brain releases the hormones that cheer you up, giving you something to genuinely smile about. Doing this even makes other people smile back, which gives you one more reason to be happy.

5. Relax

Of all the things that can really destroy us internally, cortisol is a big one. Cortisol is a stress hormone that’s vital for us to function properly, it wakes us up in the morning and it’s a key player in the fight or flight response, the problem is the more stressed we are the more cortisol gets produced. Given that modern life is excessively stressful most people wind up with severely elevated cortisol levels all the time.

This causes a whole host of problems. The two most common are trouble sleeping and excessive weight gain specifically around the belly and midsection. Sound familiar? Cortisol also directly contributes to the aging process. A quick look at any photographs of past U.S. presidents is a good visual example – in four years they tend to pack in 10 to 15 years of aging.

What’s the best way to fight it? Fixing your diet helps, as does getting the exercise we talked about. Another good option is to start meditating. Even five minutes a day devoted to meditation can begin to cause positive chemical changes in your brain to relieve some stress and improve your focus.

6. Go Play

I firmly support the maxim that we don’t stop playing when we get old, we get old when we stop playing.

Devoting time to play is something everyone of every age should be doing. I’m not talking three hours in front of the XBox or Wii either, I mean getting up and going out to play. Play a sport, play tag, do parkour, race someone, whatever. When we get up and play it hits almost all of the areas we talked about simultaneously. Playing relieves stress, makes you smile, it’s fun and social, it gets you up out of your chair and moving around and it relieves stress. Throw a healthy snack in there and you’ve got the whole package.

These are just a handful of things you can easily do today that’ll have a lasting effect on the length and quality of your life. There are tons more, but the important thing to remember is that every single choice you make in some way or another effects the rest of your life – are you making the choices that are going to improve it or destroy it?

What do you think about these changes? Can you think of any other easy things people can do right now to start living longer, happier and healthier lives? Share them! The more the better.

Photo Credit: Ucumari

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