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Is mental fitness the key to aging well?

April 22, 2022 - 11 min read

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What does it mean to age well?

Mental fitness and aging

10 tips to age well

Getting older is a process. And it can bring up a lot of emotions — for individuals, for caregivers, and for loved ones. But aging doesn’t have to represent decline. After all, your “golden years” are so named for a reason. Your fifties and beyond should represent the best years of your life.

That’s only true, however, if we make a couple of assumptions. For one, without sufficient income, retirement can be a financially stressful time. As we age, we experience changes in our mental and physical well-being. And we may begin to miss our friends and our normal routines.

What does it mean to age well?

Making the most of life isn’t just about living longer. It’s about aging well. That means that we continue to enjoy a high quality of life as we grow older. Aging well depends on prioritizing our mental, physical, and emotional well-being. 

Many of us find purpose in the day-to-day. We go to work, we care for our families, we learn new things, and we spend time with friends. But as we age, we often have less and less of these responsibilities. As a result, we often feel somewhat adrift. If our mental fitness practices were motivated by our outer work, we often let them slide.

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Mental fitness and aging

Although most conversations about mental well-being focus on mental health, it’s not the only dimension of wellness. Mental fitness is about more than just “not being sick.” It’s about the skills and practices to sustain your most productive, resilient, empowered self.

Mental fitness isn’t one-size-fits-all. Your mental fitness practices help you strengthen and improve your cognitive and emotional health. You can do whatever helps you feel attentive, focused, at peace, or that sweet spot of “challenged” where you feel fully present. That might mean watercolor painting, doing crossword puzzles, playing with your grandkids, or starting a new business.

Our mental fitness practices can become especially important as we age. The cognitive decline that we associate with advanced age isn’t inevitable. Studies show that older adults are capable of doing just as well — if not outperforming — younger adults on assessments well into their 80s.

While we can’t control everything, there are many things that we can do to protect our well-being, cognitive agility, and promote healthy aging. Here are 10 tips for aging well:

10 tips to age well

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1. Regular exercise

There are several important benefits of regular exercise. For one, it keeps both your mind and body active. It can help you sleep better. Research shows that exercise also plays an important role in managing stress.

Physical activity is an important part of your overall well-being. While you don’t have to overdo it at the gym, you can try building some healthy habits that don’t feel like a lot of extra work. Try taking the stairs, turning some of your meetings into “walking meetings,” or squeezing in a virtual workout before brunch with your friends.

2. Visit the doctor

It’s always a good idea to go for regular checkups, but these check-ins become even more important as you get older. Visiting the doctor regularly can help you stay on top of your health. It can also help you prevent illness before it starts — or catch more serious illnesses early.

While you’re at the doctor, be sure to tell them about any concerns you have — large or small. Keeping lines of communication open is an important part of being proactive about your health. Your doctor can recommend any screenings, supplements, or lifestyle changes that might benefit you.

3. Get plenty of sleep

Many of us overlook the importance of getting enough sleep each night. Just one missed night of sleep is associated with increased physical discomfort, more negative emotions, and less positive feelings. Despite myths that you need less sleep as you age, older adults still need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night.

Whether you’re retired or working, now is the time to start fixing your sleep schedule. If you’re naturally a night owl, years of waking up early might have you sleep deprived. You may find that feeling better rested might improve every area of your life.

4. Stay positive

Many of us look forward to retirement as a chance to finally do what we want to do. Others, however, need time to transition from (and to grieve) their working lives.

Try to stay positive. Our society often talks about aging as a scary process. However, it’s an amazing time of life too. Developing a growth mindset can help you look at the possibilities in this next chapter in your life.

5. Connect with friends and family

Having close relationships isn’t just about having someone to watch TV with. Our friends and family have a measurable impact on our overall health. Spending time with loved ones is shown to reduce the risk of high blood pressure, strengthen your immune system, and lower rates of depression and anxiety.

 

tips-to-age-gracefully-two-people-muscle-poses6. Learn something new

Keep your mind active (and maybe even uncover a new passion) by learning something new. It doesn’t really matter what new skills you pursue, as long as you find it challenging and interesting. Approximately 17% of adults over age 35 are enrolled in college, and many schools now offer tuition-free classes to seniors.

Although there are no restrictions on what you can choose to learn, it helps if the work is intrinsically rewarding. The more you enjoy the activity for its own sake, the more likely you are to experience flow. A flow state is associated with less anxiety, more positive feelings, and reduced stress levels.

7. Eat healthy foods 

It’s no surprise that a balanced diet is an important part of staying healthy. What we eat translates into several areas of health, like cholesterol, our risk of heart disease, and our quality of life.

A healthy diet varies from person to person, and you should bring any specific concerns to your nutritionist. However, most experts agree that you should eat a well-rounded diet, complete with whole grains and fresh vegetables. 

In particular, you should be sure to get enough calcium and vitamin D — whether from whole foods or from a supplement. Calcium can help to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures. Low vitamin D levels are a risk factor for several health problems. These include cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension, and cognitive decline. 

8. Do something you love

Hobbies are important for people of all ages. They cultivate a beginners’ mindset, a sense of playfulness, and creativity. Our hobbies, however, also have benefits for our well-being. 

Whether practicing yoga or learning a new language, staying mentally active keeps us connected to what we love. The National Institute on Aging says that participating in fun, engaging activities as we age helps us develop healthy coping mechanisms and become more resilient. It may even increase our life spans.

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9. Prioritize both mental and physical health

A lot of attention is given to our physical well-being as we age, but don’t forget that mental health is health, too. The CDC estimates that 20% of adults over age 55 are dealing with a mental health concern. Most commonly, seniors report anxiety, depression, memory loss, and cognitive impairment.

Taking care of your mental health, though, doesn’t mean just not experiencing mental illness. It means developing mental fitness. Give equal care to cultivating awareness, managing stress, and challenging yourself.

10. Enjoy the moment

Mark Twain famously said, “Do not complain about growing old. It is a privilege denied to many.” We don’t often think of it (and it’s not without its challenges), but growing older is a gift. And it’s something to be enjoyed.

Savor the moment. Practice gratitude and surround yourself with those close to you. Do things that you’ve always wanted to or that make you truly happy. Enjoy how you turned out — after all, you’re the person you couldn’t wait to grow up to be.

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Published April 22, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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