Living a long, healthy life may seem like it requires winning a genetic lottery, but there’s so much more under your control than you realize.
Only 25% of our probability of living a longer life is due to inherited genes, while 75% is due to environmental factors, says Dr. Luigi Fontana, professor of medicine and nutrition, and director of the healthy longevity research program at The University of Sydney in Australia.
“So the idea that your genes are the most important factor in shaping your longevity is wrong,” Fontana tells TODAY.com.
“In 2023, we have the knowledge to design a fantastic world where people are healthy. The probability of getting sick is still there because biology is not an exact science, but the risk is very low if you are living a healthy lifestyle.”
Fontana outlines some of the ways to activate the body’s longevity pathways in his new book, “Manual of Healthy Longevity & Wellbeing.”
The goal is to prevent age-related chronic diseases like heart disease. As people get older, they accumulate damage because the systems controlling the body’s ability to repair itself are getting weaker — but certain lifestyle choices can slow down this process, Fontana notes.
He believes up to 95% of cardiovascular disease and 70% of cancer cases are preventable based on his studies on exercise, calorie restriction and high-quality diets.
But Fontana worries prevention isn’t even taught in medical schools, with doctors focusing on diagnosing diseases and treating them mostly with drugs and surgery.
Here are some of the habits the longevity expert recommends for a longer life:
This is even more important than keeping track of your weight because every extra inch in your waistline means an accumulation of belly fat, the worst type of body fat, Fontana says.
Known as visceral fat, it promotes inflammation, which is a major factor for aging, cancer, cardiovascular disease and many other chronic diseases, he warns.
Excess abdominal fat also triggers insulin resistance and metabolic abnormalities, he adds.
“Every centimeter you lose, you are reducing all these factors,” Fontana notes. “It’s doable with exercise and a healthy diet.”
He advises women to have a waist measurement of less than 31.5 inches and men less than 37 inches.
It’s still important to monitor for weight gain and deal with it quickly. But weight is not the best measure because ideally you want to reduce waist circumference while increasing muscle mass, especially in the legs and glutes — the most powerful muscles in the body, Fontana says.
“People say, ‘Nothing is bad. You can eat some of everything.’ I disagree. It’s like saying, ‘I can have a couple of cigarettes in moderation,’” Fontana cautions.
“Everything in moderation” is not a dietary rule you should follow for maximum longevity, he writes in his book. Remove as much junk food, ultra-processed food, refined grains and sugary drinks from your diet as possible. There is no moderation with these foods.
Fontana follows the Mediterranean diet as the basis for his healthy longevity eating plan.
Along with beans, Fontana’s food pyramid calls for eating a wide variety of colorful vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, low-fat yogurt, olive oil and avocado every day.
He recommends eating fish two to three times a week, and enjoying small portions of cheese and a few eggs once or twice a week.
Meats or sweets should only be eaten occasionally.
Fontana always buys organic produce when he can to minimize his exposure to pesticides. “But if you tell me, ‘I cannot afford organic. What should I do?’ (I say) eat as many vegetables, whole grains and beans as you can, even if they’re not organic.”
He doesn’t take any supplements since he gets his nutrients from high quality food. The only exception was a daily vitamin D supplement in the winter when he lived in the U.S. to make up for the lack of sunshine.
Humans and their molecular pathways have evolved over thousands of years with a lot of exercise — walking everywhere, carrying wood, getting water from the well — so the modern sedentary lifestyle is not natural, Fontana warns.
He exercises every day, alternating mountain biking with swimming and weight lifting. An hour of aerobic exercise every day is ideal, but shorter bouts spread throughout the day can provide benefits, he writes in his book.
Exercise reduces triglycerides and LDL “bad” cholesterol, and increases HDL “good” cholesterol, Fontana notes. It reduces blood pressure and has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity.
When you exercise, you increase mitochondria — the “energy powerhouse of the cell” — in your muscle. Mitochondria are essential to burn fat, so you not only you build muscle mass, but burn more calories.
Exercise also increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is important for memory and is a powerful antidepressant molecule, Fontana says.
Fontana doesn’t drink any alcohol. Studies suggest it’s not good for longevity and even small doses increase the risk of cancer, he notes.
“There is no evidence that resveratrol in wine is going to make you live longer,” he says.
“If you enjoy your beer and your glass of wine, that’s fine. But you should drink these occasionally… use it as a treat, not as a regular daily use.”
When you eat, the calories get transformed into glucose, which activates the production of insulin.
Between snacks and bigger meals, people end up being in a constant high-insulin environment for many hours of the day. That’s not normal physiologically and triggers pro-aging pathways, Fontana says.
Try to eat your calories within a restricted window, perhaps 10 hours, so that for the remaining hours of the day, your insulin and your glucose are low, he advises.
It’s OK to be a little hungry. It means the body is secreting the hunger hormone ghrelin, which inhibits inflammation.
“If you feel some hunger, don’t run immediately to eat something. If you can, just wait because you know you are activating this anti-inflammatory pathway,” Fontana says.
Even a beautiful new sports car will develop problems if you don’t maintain it. But if you know how to take care of it, the car will last a long time.
It’s the same with your body, though maintenance in this case means a healthy diet and regular exercise.
“People say, ‘Who cares? I want to enjoy my life. I want to drink my wine. I want to stay on the couch eating chips,’” Fontana notes.
“Yes, you can drive your Ferrari without changing the oil. It’s up to you. But you need to know that your Ferrari will start to have problems.”
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