Pat Rodriguez, 60, has always been health-conscious. She's read the books and knows the right things to do. “I just never made myself do it,” says the grandmother of two in Gardena, Calif.
Then Rodriguez was diagnosed with stomach cancer and, in an effort to boost her immune system, she says, "I finally made those changes," such as switching to an organic diet. "I should not have waited until I had cancer to take these things seriously," she now says.
Rodriguez has a point. Why wait a day longer to make changes you know can help you have a healthier — and happier — life? Here are five steps our experts recommend that you can take right now:
1. Get a Checkup
If you're like most people, you're more reactive than proactive when it comes to your health. So, as a first step, it's smart to start getting complete annual checkups, says Maureen Schuster, an elder-care specialist in Atlanta, who adds that your annual exam should include checks of your heart, cholesterol, blood sugar, and eyes.
2. Change Your Habits
After your checkup, figure out what steps you need to take to prevent health problems from developing or worsening. If you smoke, or if your diet is unhealthy, you can be sure that these habits will eventually threaten your ability to chase your grandchildren around the playground. Now is the time to make a change.
The best thing you can do for your heart, and your overall health, is to develop a consistent exercise routine, says Dr. Cheryl Woodson, director of the Woodson Center for Adult Health Care in Chicago Heights, Ill. "Don’t start until you’re sure your heart is healthy so you know how far to push it. But as we age it’s important to work on two areas — strengthening our muscles and maintaining balance." Work your way up to being able to do 30 continuous minutes each day of an exercise you love, preferably one that provides a heart-pumping, cardio workout while boosting muscle strength, flexibility, and balance.
Woodson recommends exercise programs that build up the lower body muscles, including your ankles. Martial arts like tai chi are great for improving balance, she says, and tae kwon do is a good cardio workout that also strengthens muscles, improves balance, and reduces stress.
3. Lighten Up
Dorothea Hover-Kramer, 72, of Port Angeles, Wash., was 58 when the first of her seven grandchildren was born. "That’s when I really started to think about what kind of legacy I wanted to leave, what I really wanted to do with my life," she says.
So Hover-Kramer, a psychologist and the author of Second Chance at Your Dream (Energy Psychology Press), shifted her focus away from her career and toward her health and her family. "I took up hobbies, like painting and playing music, and made the decision to scale down my practice so I would have time to paint with my grandchildren," she says, adding that she's in no way retired. "It's not a time to slow down, but to be more focused and more alive than ever. Ask yourself: Have I done all I want to do in life? What is it I still want to do? Am I doing what I really want or just responding to external pressures? It's a time to be more intentional."
4. Focus on Finances
Of course it's hard to cut back on your work schedule if you're worried about — or worse, ignoring — your financial health. Psychologist Bill Roiter, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, says that getting a clear picture of your financial state is not only a smart move, it’s also a stress reducer. "The biggest mistake people can make is to put off having a clear sense of their finances," says Roiter, the author of Beyond Work: How Accomplished People Retire Successfully (Wiley). "Speak with a financial advisor, even if it's just one session, so you learn the basics of where you stand, and you don’t have to worry that you don't have any idea, especially in this economic environment."
5. Reach Out
The last piece of the longevity puzzle is socializing, Woodson says. Having a network of family and friends whom you regularly talk to or make plans with keeps your mind sharp and reduces your risk of depression. One way to build a social network is through volunteering, says psychiatrist William Uffner, medical director for the older-adult program at Friends Hospital in Philadelphia: "Involvement that gives us a sense of obligation can lead to a great degree of satisfaction — and that can include caring for your grandchildren."
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.