Sometimes you really, truly can be too late—like when you miss the last train home, or when that avocado you thought would be at peak ripeness today was actually ready yesterday. But there are no expiration dates on your ability to make healthy changes. Age, it seems, is not an obstacle to starting new habits, getting healthier, or even making big life and career shifts to improve your emotional well-being. Read on to see what we mean.
1. Start exercising.
If your sneakers are buried under a pile of shoes, take note: Inactive folks ages 40 to 61 who upped their physical activity to about seven hours a week had a 35% lower mortality risk than those who stayed inactive, a 2019 study found. Part of that longevity boost has to do with exercise’s impact on the heart. One report found that formerly inactive 45- to 64-year-olds who increased their exercise to at least 30 minutes four to five days a week had improved oxygen uptake and reduced cardiac stiffness.
“Begin with an activity that’s convenient and easy to do and that you enjoy. For most, that’s walking,” says Sabrena Jo, director of science and research at the American Council on Exercise. “To make it a habit, pair your walk with something you’re already doing, like eating.” That might mean taking a walk every day after breakfast or dinner.
2. Up your fiber intake.
You probably know that fiber is great for sidestepping constipation. But perhaps it will be news to you that a 2020 report found that changing to a healthier lifestyle in middle age—including eating more fiber-rich nuts, whole grains, and produce—reduced women’s long-term total risk of stroke by up to 25% and their risk of ischemic stroke by up to 36%.
“And consuming 25 g to 38 g of fiber daily in midlife can help control blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and abdominal weight,” says Michelle Routhenstein, R.D., a preventive cardiology dietitian and author of The Truly Easy Heart Healthy Cookbook. “If you aren’t used to consuming a lot, start slowly and work your way up with water to avoid GI distress.”
3. Improve your sexual enjoyment.
“About 60% of women who are perimenopausal or postmenopausal experience vaginal thinning, dryness, and irritation, which can bring about painful intercourse,” says Lauren Streicher, M.D., medical director of the Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “But since dryness may start years after menopause, many women and physicians don’t think of this as a menopausal symptom that can be helped.” A 2019 report noted that only 4% of women tied their vaginal symptoms to menopause or hormonal changes and only about a third asked a health care provider for help.
That’s a shame, since silicone-based lubricants and long-lasting vaginal moisturizers can temporarily alleviate symptoms and prescription hormonal and nonhormonal options can restore vaginal tissue and reverse damage.
“Even if it’s been 20 years since you went through menopause, you can still reverse these changes,” says Dr. Streicher. For many, “treatment also helps urinary tract symptoms related to estrogen loss, like recurrent urinary tract infections, urgency, and sometimes pain with urination,” she adds.
4. Reimagine your relationships.
“Until midlife, many of us buddy up with those who feed our instrumental needs, meaning the needs that help us get things done,” says Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D., chair of and professor in the Department of Counseling, Adult, and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
“Since muscles are attached to bones, any time you build muscle, you’re building bone as well,” says Jo. Moreover, the National Osteoporosis Foundation (NOF) says daily weight-bearing and muscle-strengthening exercise is essential for bones, right up there with getting adequate calcium and vitamin D.
As for what to eat, if you’re a woman over 50 or a man over 70, you need 1,200 mg of calcium daily. “If you don’t hit that mark, your body takes the calcium from your bones, which makes you more susceptible to osteoporosis and bone fracture,” says Andrea J. Singer, M.D., chief medical officer of the NOF. To get enough, reach for calcium-rich almonds, tofu, sardines, broccoli, kale, dairy, and fortified milk alternatives. Sources of vitamin D include mushrooms, fatty fish, and fortified dairy, OJ, and breakfast cereals.
Consider how new parents join up and share child-care hacks. But as we age, “we often begin focusing on friends who meet more of our emotional needs,” she says. This means we naturally cut back on friendships (and, frankly, all relationships) that drain us and foster ones that feed us. “We finally have the room to reflect on who we are and what we need in our lives in terms of people and relationships,” says Degges-White.
Translation: You can finally establish boundaries with parents, exit toxic romances, and plan that girls’ trip. Remember, your time is valuable, and it’s fine—even empowering!—to turn down activities that and people who don’t enhance your well-being. Online, consider removing whiners from your social media or leaving groups filled with negative chatter.
5. Make a career pivot.
Big career changes may seem like a luxury for the young, but older folks are primed for successful switching. “We often have more flexibility, we know where our expertise is and isn’t, and we’ve built up a lot of connections to call upon for support,” says Deborah Heiser, Ph.D., an applied developmental psychologist and founder of The Mentor Project. Also, as we age, the conventional ladder climb may lose its luster. “We’re more open to something like a lateral shift or maybe even a dip to get what we want,” says Heiser.
To further buoy a career shift, consider a younger mentor—and not just for help in understanding social media. “Younger professionals can be great at getting older people to engage with the world differently,” says Heiser. You’ll likely teach them a thing or two as well!
6. Improve your skin.
“Our skin’s ability to stay moisturized wanes with age, which translates to dry, crepey, and sallow-appearing skin,” explains Ivy Lee, M.D., a dermatologist at Pasadena Premier Dermatology in Pasadena, CA. “But daily moisturizer with ceramides and/or hyaluronic acid can improve suppleness, glow, and texture and prevent eczema rashes, which are more common as we age.” (Find this combo is in products like CeraVe PM Facial Moisturizing Lotion and Paula’s Choice Boost Hyaluronic Acid Booster with Ceramides.)
Beyond that, keep it simple: “Drink plenty of water, use a gentle soap-free cleanser daily, and apply a vitamin C serum for brightening and preventing oxidative damage followed by a moisturizing mineral sunscreen with SPF 40+,” says Dr. Lee. “In the evening, cleanse again, apply a retinoid to increase collagen production, and moisturize.”
7. Bolster your bones.
Yes, it’s important to build strong bones in your youth, but in one study, healthy middle-aged men with low bone mass successfully improved their bone density after just six months of jumping and muscle-strengthening exercises.
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8. Prioritize your mental health.
“In midlife, there’s often a natural pause in the nonstop race of career, financial security, raising a family, and managing relationships,” says Carla Marie Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and the author of Aging Joyfully. “That pause can trigger the realization that life is fleeting and profoundly precious, priming the psyche to want—even to need—space for reassessment.”
Manly suggests capitalizing on this by dipping your toes into psychotherapy or other counseling. “From my experience, older adults often have a fierce desire to embrace a positive future by letting go of a stale or negative past,” she says. “They also deeply cherish and value the sense of understanding, healing, and transformative change they gain from psychotherapy.” A little change in perspective may be just what you need to kickstart everything—because there will never be a better time to take control of your mental and physical health.
9. Boost your brainpower.
Though you no longer spend your days in a classroom, you can still acquire new knowledge. For three months, researchers had people ages 58 to 86 take three to five classes concurrently on subjects like Spanish, photography, and how to use an iPad. Midway through, students had already bolstered their cognitive abilities to levels similar to those of adults 30 years younger, a 2020 study found. “When you improve your cognitive abilities through learning new skills, it helps you learn more new skills, which creates a positive cycle of increased motivation for learning and social connection,” says study coauthor Rachel Wu, Ph.D.
Not up for a return to school? Engage your brain in crosswords or number puzzles like sudoku. Research shows that people ages 50 to 93 who involve themselves in these kinds of games regularly have superior problem-solving skills and short-term memory compared with folks who don’t and their brain function is equivalent to that of those up to 10 years younger.
10. Quit smoking.
Five-year habit? Forty-year habit? No matter how long you’ve been smoking, the benefits of stopping begin almost immediately. “Within hours, your senses of smell and taste start to improve; within days, coughing begins to progressively decline,” says J. Taylor Hays, M.D., medical director of the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center in Rochester, MN. “Within a few weeks, energy and breathing get better and improve steadily.”
Then there are the big-ticket gains: Coronary heart disease risk is halved after your first year sans tobacco, then continues to drop. Plus, “quitting allows lungs to heal, which reduces risk of severe infection and complications from bacterial and viral infections,” says Dr. Hays. “If you successfully quit by 60 or so, you’ll add five to six years to your life span—and experience better quality of life for those years.”