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What if the secret to a longer life could be boiled down to five simple steps?
Harvard Medical School professor Sanjiv Chopra, MD, believes it can. In his new book, The Big Five ($25; amazon.com), Dr. Chopra outlines a handful of habits with benefits backed by decades of research. For the majority of people, he writes, making these behaviors part of your daily routine can boost your health, and perhaps lengthen your life span. Below, the five-step plan he's dubbed the lazy man's guide to longevity.
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“It really is a miracle drug,” Dr. Chopra said in an interview with Health, pointing to the thousands of studies on coffee's health benefits. Research has suggested that coffee drinkers have a lower risk of everything from type 2 diabetes to Parkinson's disease to liver cancer. Those studies don't prove that coffee is the reason for the risk reduction; it could be some other factor linked to coffee drinkers' lifestyles. But a 2012 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine that analyzed data from 400,000 people over a 14-year period did find that the overall mortality rate was 15% lower for women who drank two to six cups of coffee a day, and 10% lower for men who drank that amount. Just don't drink it too hot; a recent World Health Organization analysis suggests hot coffee (or any super-hot beverage) is linked to a higher risk of esophageal cancer.
We all know the perks of physical activity, and "we all have the choice to do it or not," Dr. Chopra points out. In his book, he cites a large review of research published in the journal PLOS Medicine that revealed 150 minutes of brisk walking per week was associated with a gain in life expectancy of 3.5 to 4.5 years. But it doesn't matter what you do as long as you're doing something, Dr. Chopra says. To get his more reluctant patients moving, he asks which type of exercise they "dislike the least," then writes a prescription for that particular workout.
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Get Your Vitamin D
Dr. Chopra recommends that all healthy adults ask their doctor for a vitamin D test. He points out in his book that an estimated 25% of Americans have an insufficient amount of D, and another 39% are deficient. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with a host of medical issues, including multiple sclerosis, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. "Vitamin D3 is the only supplement I take regularly," he writes. "It's simple: If this growing mountain of evidence is wrong and vitamin D3 supplements don't fortify my immune system or decrease the chances that I'll eventually be diagnosed with one of many different conditions, then I'll be out $30 a year." Keep in mind that a 2010 report from the Institute of Medicine concluded (after a massive analysis of the data) that most Americans are getting sufficient vitamin D, so check with your doctor.
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You may lower your risk of pancreatic cancer, heart disease, stroke, and early death with just a handful of nuts a day, Dr. Chopra says. He refers to them as "miniature health food stores," since they offer everything from protein and omega-3 fatty acids to antioxidants like vitamins B and E and essential minerals like selenium and magnesium. Just go easy on the types high in unhealthy saturated fats, like macadamia nuts, he says. And keep in mind that portion and sodium control are key; nuts are a relatively high-calorie snack that can also deliver too much salt if you're not careful (choose unsalted!).
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People around the world have been practicing meditation for thousands of years, and now science is finally starting to document its benefits, including stress reduction. "This reduction of stress might well be reason that continued meditation appears to have a positive effect on long-term health," Dr. Chopra writes, noting that stress and mood play a role in nearly all types of illness. "There is no longer any doubt that meditation affects both mental and physical processes, but how it does so and exactly what it does—and how to control it and benefit from it—just isn't known." For now, he recommends at least 15 minutes of meditation twice a day, and learning from an experienced teacher. In the meantime, check out our beginner's guide for some tips on how to get started.