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5 Secrets to a Longer Life

When Julie Castillo gave birth to her first child at age 36, she turned over a new leaf: She got serious about doing all the right things for her health, including eating better, getting more exercise, and losing weight.

"My motivation wasn't just to lose my pregnancy 'baby fat' to look good in a swimsuit, though that was a nice bonus," says the Cranford, New Jersey, mom. "It was to keep a promise I had made to myself when Geddy was born: to set a healthy example for my family. I want to live to a ripe old age -- for me, for my husband, and for my son."

No one can predict exactly how long any individual will live, of course. Genes and luck (watch out for that truck!) play too large a role. But you can shift the odds in your favor. Living longer -- or not dying young from preventable chronic illness, which amounts to the same thing -- comes down to little choices you make every day. You don't have to become a vegetarian, run marathons, or meditate on mountains.

"If you can correct your diet, exercise, stress levels, and bad habits, such as smoking, you can prevent more than eighty percent of coronary disease, the biggest killer of women," says Columbia University professor of clinical medicine Marianne Legato, M.D., author of Eve's Rib: The Groundbreaking Guide to Women's Health. "Those positive habits can also help you sidestep other diseases -- diabetes, high blood pressure, some cancers -- that can shorten your life span."

We asked experts on women's health what really matters for longer life, and they agreed on five essentials. These may not seem like cutting-edge medicine, but the science backing them up has never been stronger. And the younger you start, the better.

Scale Down A woman who's at a healthy weight at age 20 and maintains it -- not gaining more than 10 percent through her 30s and 40s -- is more than a third less likely to develop heart disease, diabetes, or breast cancer. Compared with an obese woman, she'll live eight more years.

For busy moms, though, all those complicated diet plans aren't practical. Here's what is:

Downsize portions -- a bit. In one study, women who worked out -- 40 minutes, three times a week -- and ate a tad less from all parts of the USDA's Food Guide Pyramid lost nine pounds.

Skip the bacon cheeseburgers. High-protein, low-carb diets can help you shed weight quickly, but there's no evidence that they help in the long run. And while fish and lean chicken are fine, the saturated fat in high-fat beef, pork, and dairy is bad for the heart. Leaner people eat more fiber, complex carbs, and vegetable protein, studies show; fatter ones, more animal protein. So cut down on refined starches and sugar, sure, but do eat your veggies -- and beans.

Join the breakfast club. Nine out of ten people who've lost weight and kept it off start most days of the week with breakfast.

Strengthen your muscles. Extra muscle burns calories, boosting metabolism. Starting in your mid-20s, you'll lose muscle, so it's key to build it back with strength training.

"It took a lot of willpower not to eat the way I did when I was pregnant," says Sommer Martorano of Boca Raton, Florida. She didn't lose the weight after her first baby, so she was determined to do so after her second son, Joseph, was born in August 2003. She eats lean chicken and fish, drinks water instead of soda, doesn't graze at night, leaves food on her plate when she eats out, and starts each day by preparing healthy snacks like carrots. "I put them in the front of the refrigerator for easy reach. Now I can fit in a dress I hadn't been able to wear for years -- I've never felt better."

Wayne Kalyn's writing on nutrition has been nominated for a James Beard Award. This is his first feature for Parenting.

Join the Friends-and-Family Plan

A strong network of family and friends is essential for good health. Women who have six or more positive social experiences a week -- lunch with their spouse, a heart-to-heart with a trusted coworker, a phone chat with a good friend -- live a year longer than women with fewer, according to Terry Grossman, M.D., a family practitioner in Lakewood, Colorado, and author of The Baby Boomers' Guide to Living Forever. But bad family relationships can boost a woman's heart-disease risk.

Good relationships with your family and friends not only boost immunity but also may help you respond to stress in healthier ways. "If you've got a problem and you call your sister instead of eating a pound of chocolate, that's better for your health and your waistline, and ultimately for your heart-disease risk as well," says David Fein, M.D., medical director of the Princeton Longevity Center, in New Jersey.

But for moms, staying in touch can be a challenge. Life is cyclic, and relationships can get out of whack. Your best friend gets really busy in a new job. Your husband suddenly has to travel more for work. Or you move to a new town miles away from your network of friends.

Instead of letting things slide, make adjustments and find new ways to stay connected:

Make quick phone calls. Touch base with your friends during the week -- just long enough to keep up.

Use e-mail, and send along some digital photos!

Schedule dates with friends on the calendar. If it's an appointment, there's a better chance you'll actually keep it.

Call the babysitter to see if she's available on Saturday night, when your husband's back in town.

"When I had my first child, I created tremendous stress for myself by thinking I could do it all," says Andrea Antonucci of Malden, Massachusetts, a mom of four kids, ages 2 to 7. She was the first of her friends and siblings to have a child, but once her sister and some of her friends had babies, she became part of a network of mothers who helped one another smooth out those trying moments. "They're the first ones I call in an emergency or when I have a question or want to talk about anything, however frivolous."

She's also learned to lean on her parents and in-laws to keep her life balanced. "I no longer take offense when they give advice about mothering -- and I say yes when they volunteer to watch the kids so I can, say, go out and just get a haircut. That's a huge help in keeping me calm and in control."

Walk Faster

Women who walk briskly 30 minutes or more, five days out of seven -- a total of two and a half hours a week -- substantially reduce their risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, stroke, diabetes, and colon and breast cancers, according to Dr. Fein. Just by keeping your blood pressure and resting heart rate lower, you can add four years to your life through exercise.

What's brisk? You should feel just slightly out of breath. If you think you're too busy, break it up into 10- to 15-minute chunks -- you'll get the same health benefits. More tips:

Work up to it. The key is to make exercise a lifelong habit, not to look for quick body-changing results.

Focus on "now" benefits. You'll reduce stress, feel a mild mood boost, and sleep better.

Write down your goals. Keeping a log with specific aims -- "Walk 20 minutes with the baby in the stroller every morning this week at 8 a.m." -- helps turn activity into a habit.

Count steps. Pedometers, especially simple step counters ($12 to $30), make it fun. Aim -- eventually -- for 10,000 steps in a 24-hour period. (You can do it!)

"I feel great after our walks," says Kathryn Kalabokes, who walks from a half hour to an hour with her 11-year-old son each afternoon when she picks him up from school. She started when he was a baby, pushing the stroller every day when the weather was good. And it has become an important part of their lives -- especially now, since she works in a real estate office by day and is studying for a master's in education at night. "With everything that's going on in our lives, our walks are a great time to talk and catch up on our days," she says.

Eat a Rainbow

Boosting your daily fruit and vegetable servings from two or three to eight can reduce high blood pressure and heart disease by 20 percent and stroke by 30 percent. It can also lower your risk of several cancers, including colorectal, lung, and breast.

It's easier to do than it sounds: A "serving" is only a half cup of a vegetable, a cup of salad greens, a medium fruit, or six ounces of juice (3/4 cup). So a heaping portion of broccoli at dinner might count as three servings. Every little bit helps: Adding just one extra serving of a fruit or vegetable a day cuts your long-term risk of heart disease by 4 percent. To do it:

Be varied. Each fruit and vegetable has its own package of nutrients and protective compounds. The wider your range of plant-based foods, the more benefits you'll get.

Go for color. The deeper and richer, the more nutritious. Enjoy red, orange, yellow, green, and purple produce.

Freeze it. Fresh is lovely, but you'll get the same level of nutrients from frozen vegetables (or fruits), which are often more convenient.

"I started roasting vegetables like peppers and zucchini and adding dill and rosemary to other veggies for more flavor," says Julie Castillo, Geddy's mom. Now she tops pancakes with strawberries or blueberries and often bakes apples with a little brown sugar. She's planted a small vegetable garden too.

Clear the Air

A nonsmoking woman lives 14 1/2 years longer than one who smokes, on average. So the advice isn't surprising: If you smoke, quit. And the earlier you do, the longer you'll live.

Women who don't smoke have half the risk of developing heart disease, half the risk of having a stroke, and 12 times less risk of getting lung cancer. Women are more sensitive than men to tobacco's carcinogens, research shows; they have twice the risk of developing lung cancer than men and are more susceptible to the adverse effects of secondhand smoke. Rates of lung cancer in women are skyrocketing -- it now causes as many deaths as breast and all gynecological cancers combined.

The good news: Women's lung function improves faster than men's when they quit. To quit (or help your spouse do so):

Be patient but persistent. It takes an average of seven attempts to kick the habit.

Pick up the phone. Using a quitline doubles your chance of success. Trained counselors help you plan a personalized quitting strategy by giving advice on appropriate medicine, suggesting changes in daily habits, and providing emotional support. (To find one in your state, go to [XREF {http://www.smokefree.gov/} {www.smokefree.gov} {_blank}].)

Replace the nicotine. Using nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) -- gums, patches, or nasal sprays -- increases your chance of success by an additional 50 to 100 percent. For smokers who are heavily dependent on tobacco, sprays may be more helpful than patches. The prescription drug bupropion has similar benefits: Between a quarter and a third of smokers who use NRT or bupropion are still smoke-free six months later, studies find. And combining NRT with bupropion may be more effective than either alone.

Unite! Joining a support group -- whether it's through work, your insurer, or a local hospital -- is very helpful.

"It could have been stress, the long winter, who knows?" says ten-year smoker Elizabeth Kowalski, a bookkeeper in Plymouth, Vermont, who quit when she was pregnant, only to start up again when her baby, Julia, was just 3 months old. Such a relapse, especially after pregnancy, is common. "I knew that smoking was very unhealthy for me, but it alarmed me even more to think about how it might be harming my daughter and husband," she says. (Secondhand smoke may increase an infant's risk of SIDS and ups the chance she'll have respiratory problems.)

Determined to stop, Kowalski called a quitline and talked with a trained counselor, who tailored a program that fit her lifestyle and personality. And it worked. "Quitting was the toughest thing I ever did in my life," she says. "But I know that every day I go smokeless is one more day that I'm getting healthier and not endangering my family."

Becoming a mom adds a whole new motivation -- being there for your children -- to the universal desire to live a long, healthy life. Of course, being a busy mom also makes it harder to take control of your health. But taking these five steps toward a longer life may be the best gift you can give to yourself -- and your family.

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