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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.