Stack These Habits to Live Longer

If you want to optimize for lifespan, you must consider yourself a pro in the longevity game. That means finding ways to decrease risk of chronic disease and other health complications. The way to do this is not through short-term fixes like crash diets or bootcamps. Instead, you should integrate complementary health habits for maximum benefit over time.These key habits form the 4 pillars of longevity.

The 4 Pillars of Longevity

Virtually all habits that lend themselves to longer, healthier lives can be categorized into one (or more) of four areas: nutrition, exercise, sleep, and relaxation. We call these areas “4 pillars of longevity” because, just as architectural pillars provide essential support for a roof, these health pillars form the foundation for supporting weight loss, health gain, and longevity.

Here’s a quick primer on what we mean when we refer to each pillar, plus how that pillar relates to the other three:

Nutrition

Your nutrition comprises not just what you eat, but also when and how much. Key nutrients and proper timing provide the necessary fuel for daily activities, including exercise. They are also critical for promoting whole-body relaxation and sleep.

Exercise

When we refer to exercise, we’re referring to all kinds of movement. In addition to burning calories, physical activity provides powerful molecular signals throughout the entire body that support musculoskeletal development, disease reduction, and metabolic health. Exercise also helps to set your body’s circadian clock, putting you on the path to getting better sleep. But remember: It’s a two-way street! Getting quality rest and eating nutritious food are paramount for a good exercise session.

Sleep

Sleep is nonnegotiable; if you don’t sleep, you die. However, by optimizing both the quantity (hours asleep) and quality (depth and continuity of those hours) of your sleep, you can improve your health and lengthen your life. A good night’s sleep will certainly boost the quality of your next workout, and it influences nutrition too: Good sleep is shown to promote better eating choices, while poor sleep leads to overeating and disruptions in glucose tolerance. On the flip side, finishing your last meal several hours before bedtime and exercising regularly will lead to better sleep.

Relaxation

The adage “work hard, play hard” might sound impressive, but it’s not one you’ll want to follow to live a long, healthy life. Relaxation is crucial for recovery and adaptation to the many stressors we encounter, including elective stressors like exercise. As any seasoned athlete knows: If you push your body to its limit every day, it will break down. Only by giving yourself time to relax and recover can you grow stronger and more resilient — qualities that are essential to pursue the other three pillars.

Why Integrate Habits?

When we envision architectural pillars, they’re typically standing alone. However, the 4 pillars of longevity are intricately connected — particularly when it comes to impact on weight, health, and lifespan. For example, a recent study of nearly 350,000 people demonstrated a close link between nutrition and exercise. Both influence health and lifespan, but if you invest in only one, you are not necessarily protected from disease or mortality risk.

These connections are why it’s so important to develop longevity lifestyle habits that work in tandem. We call this “integrating” the 4 pillars. Creating clever linkages and stacking habits, as we’ll describe next, enable customization and harmony within your habits so that you can adhere to and build upon them for years to come.

How to Integrate the 4 Pillars

#1. Start Now, but Start Small

Smaller, simpler habits are easier to form and even the tiniest habit can act as a stepping-stone toward your goals. For example, walking for just 10 minutes a day might not seem like much, but if it’s more sustainable than, say, a 30-minute HIIT routine, it’s the best choice for starting your exercise habit.

#2. Focus on Value and Reward

When selecting a new longevity habit, you’ll get the most “bang for your buck” from 

habits related to pillars you have not extensively explored. Let’s say you have successfully built several healthy nutrition habits. Instead of continuing to refine these strong habits, you’ll likely see greater returns on your time and energy investment by pursuing a less-developed pillar, like relaxation or sleep.

#3. Reduce Habit Formation Friction

Build new habits around existing habits you enjoy so they are positively associated with as much reward as possible. One example is breaking your fast with your favorite healthy meal after you exercise. In this scenario, the meal becomes an enjoyable reward for building and sticking to both your fasting and exercise habits.

#4. Opportunistic Habit Stacking

Link successful existing habits with exploratory habits that stem from a different pillar. For instance, if you shower every morning, try turning your shower into a cold shower (or if that sounds too intimidating, a hot-to-cold shower) a few times a week to gain health and longevity benefits.

#5. Rethink, Refine, Rebuild

Do your best to remain honest and self-aware so you can rethink, refine, or rebuild habits that drift or stagnate over time. This is important because if you’re not stressing your system adequately, you won’t see improvement; the best you can hope for is maintenance. To continue to progress on your metabolic health journey, you need to prove to your body that it’s not currently equipped to meet greater demands. That means continuing to improve upon, build, and integrate habits from all 4 pillars of longevity.

Remember: Every pillar affects the other three. By pairing the pillars, you’ll develop a foundational habit stack that yields not only several immediate benefits, but also a long-term payoff in improved health and lifespan potential. That’s the power of integrating the 4 pillars.

References

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Wolff, G., & Esser, K. A. (2012). Scheduled exercise phase shifts the circadian clock in skeletal muscle. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 44(9), 1663–1670. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0b013e318255cf4c

McHill, A. W., & Wright, K. P., Jr (2017). Role of sleep and circadian disruption on energy expenditure and in metabolic predisposition to human obesity and metabolic disease. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 18 Suppl 1, 15–24. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12503

Sands, W. A., Apostolopoulos, N., Kavanaugh, A. A., & Stone, M. H. (2016). Recovery-adaptation. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 38(6), 10-26. 

Eccles, D. W., Balk, Y., Gretton, T. W., & Harris, N. (2022). “The forgotten session”: Advancing research and practice concerning the psychology of rest in athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 34(1), 3-24. https://doi.org/10.1080/10413200.2020.1756526

Ding, D., Van Buskirk, J., Nguyen, B., Stamatakis, E., Elbarbary, M., Veronese, N., Clare, P. J., Lee, I. M., Ekelund, U., & Fontana, L. (2022). Physical activity, diet quality and all-cause cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality: a prospective study of 346 627 UK Biobank participants. British journal of sports medicine, bjsports-2021-105195. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2021-105195

Shnayder-Adams, M. M., & Sekhar, A. (2021). Micro-habits for life-long learning. Abdominal radiology (New York), 46(12), 5509–5512. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00261-021-03185-7

Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2016). Healthy through habit: Interventions for initiating & maintaining health behavior change. Behavioral Science & Policy, 2(1), 71-83.

Shevchuk N. A. (2008). Adapted cold shower as a potential treatment for depression. Medical hypotheses, 70(5), 995–1001. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2007.04.052

Buijze, G. A., Sierevelt, I. N., van der Heijden, B. C., Dijkgraaf, M. G., & Frings-Dresen, M. H. (2016). The Effect of Cold Showering on Health and Work: A Randomized Controlled Trial. PloS one, 11(9), e0161749. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0161749

Eckstrom, E., Neukam, S., Kalin, L., & Wright, J. (2020). Physical Activity and Healthy Aging. Clinics in geriatric medicine, 36(4), 671–683. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cger.2020.06.009

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