Although life expectancy in the United States recently dropped for the third year in a row to 78.6 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Neapolitans have a reason to rejoice: The lifespan in the Naples metropolitan area is 83.5 years, among the longest in the country, research shows. But living longer isn’t the only goal. Making those extra years healthier, happier, and more fulfilling is the mission. Here, Naples-based experts in fitness, food, and medicine share their guidance on how to live long and prosper—physically, emotionally, and joyfully.
Angela Gagauf, a personal trainer and owner of 50 Plus Personal Training in Naples, says that when it comes to longevity, “there are two types: the healthy type and the living-dead type.”
She’s only half joking, she says, adding that the difference is exercise.
Gagauf, who works with clients age 50 and older, believes strength training is the most important piece of the movement puzzle as we age. Building muscle helps stave off osteoporosis, a weakening of bones that can lead to breaks, as well as sarcopenia, which is the loss of muscle tissue. “People think we get weaker as we get older,” Gagauf says. “But we get weaker because we stop moving. And that’s why we lose muscle mass.”
A study in the journal Family Practice showed that about 13 percent of people in their 60s and nearly half of people in their 80s had lost muscle tissue through lack of use. The good news, however, is that it’s never too late to work on your strength. A University of Sydney study found that eight weeks of high-intensity strength training significantly enhanced the abilities of nine frail nursing home residents aged 90 and older. They improved their strength an average of 174 percent, increased muscle mass in the mid-thigh by 9 percent, and increased their walking speed 48 percent.
Staying fit can also help decrease the chance of developing high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. And exercise can lessen the impact if these conditions already exist. “Several of my clients who began eating properly and exercising were able to go off their blood pressure medication,” Gagauf says.
Another important factor as we age is flexibility. “I call it stretching for mobility,” she adds. “I don’t need my clients to be able to do a split. But if you’re not flexible, you lose some of your mobility. And your balance is affected. The No. 1 reason adults fall is that they don’t have good balance and strength.”
Dr. Joel Ying, a Naples internal medicine specialist with an integrative practice, agrees about the importance of fitness. “There are no negatives,” he says. And along with all the physical benefits, exercise offers just as many mental and emotional ones. “Physical fitness in middle age is tied to a lower risk of depression in later life,” he says. “In addition, cardiovascular fitness is generally associated with more cognitive function.”
In other words, what’s good for the heart is also good for the mind and spirit.
Peace of Mind
Mindfulness is receiving a lot of buzz lately, but what is it? Simply put, it’s being present in the moment and more attentive to what you’re doing. When practiced in earnest, it’s linked to longevity as it has been shown to boost the immune system as well as overall health and well-being. When pursuing a path to a more mindful you, exercise can be a very advantageous route.
“Any kind of movement that can help you get into a meditative space is very helpful,” Ying says. One well-studied example is tai chi, a graceful exercise derived from a martial art that can augment strength and body awareness. It consists of slow, purposeful motions that usually encompass the whole body, and research shows that it reduces falls in senior adults by about half.
Meditation is another way to practice mindfulness. While it often evokes images of sitting cross-legged on the floor of a quiet room, meditation can look vastly different from one practitioner to another. For many, the most beneficial meditative task is training the mind to observe thoughts without chasing them. “You don’t need to follow your thought from here to the grocery store, pick up all your things, and come back,” Ying says. “You can do that later. The mind is going to keep thinking thoughts. You can choose not to follow them.
“Mindfulness is important for giving us space and a little peace of mind to create the life we want—to let our minds, emotions, and bodies become quieter so we’re not in fight or flight mode all the time.”
Those interested in exploring mindfulness can take advantage of a bevy of free online tools. YouTube, for example, is filled with guided meditations. Beginners who prefer a group setting can visit local community centers or yoga studios. Open Mind Zen in Naples welcomes beginners and has several meditation sessions each week for a suggested donation of $10.
Have you belly laughed lately? Or gotten caught up in the pleasure of art or a hobby that feeds your soul? If not, you may be missing an important element of a longer, happier life: joy.
What brings joy is unique to everyone. It may be strolling on the beach or dining with good friends. Finding a purpose in life is another avenue to bliss. Perhaps you want to give back to your community or spend more time with your grandchildren. “What’s going to give us passion and purpose is what’s going to keep us present in our lives and in the moment,” Ying says.
Spend some quiet time thinking about what this means for you and how you can regularly work it into your life. Does it involve signing up for a painting class? Getting on the volunteer roster of an organization you believe in? Whatever it is, be sure to make it a priority. Treat it like an appointment and put it on your
calendar each week, because it’s all too easy to let other things get in the way of joy.
Food for Thought
While mindfulness and the pursuit of happiness might seem highfalutin or difficult to grasp, food is a key factor to longevity that’s a bit easier to understand and master. NI spoke with Jennifer Khosla of Lean and Green Body in Naples, who shared some simple guidelines for healthy eating.
● Eat real, whole foods. With some exceptions, a good tip is to avoid things that come in a bag or a box.
● Get plenty of fiber. Some great sources are fresh fruits and vegetables.
● Buy local, organic foods when possible, and know where your food comes from. Farmer Mike’s U Pick in Bonita Springs is a working farm that follows non-GMO and sustainable practices. During this time of year, Naples is also home to an array of farmers markets that can help you nosh nutritiously.
Sugar. White sugar is a highly processed food that, like other processed foods, should be avoided. And substitutes such as agave or stevia really aren’t any better, explains Khosla. They, too, can cause blood sugar to spike and crash, which is hard on the adrenal system. Those who can’t beat sweet cravings should try raw honey, she advises.
Spice. Whether you cook with them or throw them in a smoothie, certain spices may contribute to longevity. Turmeric has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, while cinnamon may help moderate blood sugar levels. Ginger is also an anti-inflammatory that can relieve digestive upset. “I love ginger lemon shots in the morning,” Khosla says.
And everything nice. You don’t have to forsake dining out in your quest to eat better. Some of Khosla’s favorite restaurants specialize in healthy meals and snacks, such as True Food Kitchen, which she recommends for lunch and happy hour, and Delicious Raw, a haven for juice devotees and avocado-toast fans. She also enjoys the sushi at Maguro Sushi and the small meals at High Tide Bar & Grill in the Naples Whole Foods location.
In addition to eating right, make sure you are drinking plenty of water. Given Southwest Florida’s tropical climate, Khosla suggests bumping the recommended 8 glasses a day to 12. “Not only does it help to keep us hydrated, but it helps to flush out toxins from our bodies,” she says.
Made in the Shade
Speaking of Florida’s tropical climate, another essential factor to leading a longer, healthier life is to protect skin from the sun. According to Naples dermatologist Rebecca Lambert, the best way to do that is by wearing sun-protective clothing and sunscreen.
“I can always tell on which hand my golfing patients wear their golf glove by the number of brown spots and precancerous lesions on the exposed hand,” she says. “Some patients have started wearing gloves on both hands and have seen significant improvement in both the appearance and health of the skin. Similarly, patients who have started wearing long sleeves have seen dramatic improvement in the quality of their forearm skin in just a few months.”
Meanwhile, most people use less than half of the recommended amount of sunscreen. When lathering up, picture a full shot glass, because about an ounce of sunscreen is needed to cover the body.
“Have you seen people using spray sunscreen at the beach on a windy day?” Lambert asks. “Little is making it onto the skin. I’m sure you have also seen stripes of burn where people missed applying the sunscreen.” The best technique, she says, is to apply it before getting dressed so you are not at the mercy of a shifting bathing suit strap or waistband.
“I recommend [using] a sunscreen with SPF 30 or above that contains zinc or titanium to get adequate protection from ultraviolet rays,” Lambert says. “Just as important is to find a sunscreen you like and that agrees with your skin so that you are more likely to use it regularly. If you have dry skin, use a cream. If you have oily skin, use a gel. I love EltaMD Clear, which contains zinc but is still light enough to wear under makeup. Many of my patients love the tinted version and use it instead of makeup.”
For aging adults, getting a good night’s rest can be a struggle, as research shows that circadian rhythms are less able to reset themselves as we get older. But this doesn’t mean you can go without sleep. In fact, lack of sleep contributes mightily to such conditions as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, stroke, and Alzheimer’s. On top of all that, poor sleep can lead to the brain aging faster than normal.
Those still chasing Zs should try these tips from the National Sleep Foundation:
● Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Drinking caffeine as early as lunchtime can interfere with sleep. And alcohol is not a “sleep aid.” Metabolizing it actually interferes with the body’s ability to sleep.
● Replace your mattress. The lifespan of a mattress is around 9 or 10 years, so older ones could be causing you to toss and turn.
● Keep screens—cellphones, laptops, TVs, and more—out of the bedroom. One study showed that people who looked at tablets just before bed had significantly lower levels of the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate sleep.
● Give yourself a bedtime ritual that is soothing and quiet, and consider trying one of the guided meditations mentioned earlier.
Ying, the Naples internal medicine specialist, sums it up when he says we tend to neglect self-care. “Our own health often gets put on the back burner,” he says. “We are faced every day with choices—diet choices and exercise choices. If you’re ignoring them, you’re also making a choice. And eventually, that will catch up with you.”
The bottom line? “If you’re getting the movement, sleep, and food you need, the rest of your life is going to go much better,” he says. And with good genes and a little luck, it’s going to last much longer, too. «
By Cary Barbor