Most of us may have wanted 2020 to end ages ago, but now that there are vaccines on the horizon and a light at the end of a COVID-19-infected tunnel, what can we do to increase our own longevity and improve our chances of living healthier in 2021 and beyond? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a six-year study and found that consuming a healthier diet, not smoking, and moderately exercising for at least 21 minutes a day exerted an enormous impact on health and overall mortality. Adopting just those three simple behaviors reduced people’s chances of dying by 82 percent during the course of the study.

To turn back the clock 14 years, live longer and healthier, add more plant-based foods.

Seems too good to be true, doesn’t it? Well, researchers conducted a similar study that measured how much vitamin C subjects had in their bloodstreams. (Because vitamin C level is considered a good biomarker of how much plant-based foods someone eats, it was used as a proxy for having a healthy diet.) The drop in mortality risk among those who ate a healthier diet (defined as one that is high in plant-based foods) was equivalent to being 14 years younger. Imagine turning back the clock by 14 years with simple dietary choices.

Aging and disease can be thought of in part as the oxidation of the body, so it makes sense that eating antioxidant-rich foods may slow down this oxidant process. On average, plant-based foods may contain 64 times more antioxidants than animal foods (meat and dairy). Including a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices in each meal continuously floods your body with antioxidants to help ward off stroke and other age-related diseases.

Kick the sticks, once and for all. Do we still need to say this? Evidently, yes.

Research has found that to be your healthiest, consumption of fruits and veggies, along with not smoking, has been associated with longer protective telomeres, the caps on the tips of your chromosomes that keep your DNA from unraveling (aging, dying, or acting erratically and leading to diseases like cancer). Every time your cells divide, a bit of that cap gets lost. Telomeres can start shortening as soon as we’re born, and when they’re gone, we’re gone. The foods we eat may impact how fast we lose our telomeres: Consumption of refined grains, soda, meat, and dairy has been linked to shortened telomeres, while fruit, vegetable, and other antioxidant-rich plant food intake has been associated with longer ones.

A word about smoking: According to the CDC:

  • Cigarette smoking kills more than 480,000 Americans a year;
  • 16 million Americans are living with at least one smoking-related disease;
  • For every person who dies from a smoking-related disease, 30 people live with a serious smoking-related illness; and
  • 34 million Americans—roughly 1 in every 10 adults—still smoke cigarettes.

If you are one of them, quit. Today. Check out the CDC's website for how to quit to help you on your path to better health in 2021.

Get going and keep going.

My Daily Dozen recommends one daily “serving” of exercise, which can be split up over the day. Aim for at least 40 minutes of vigorous movement, such as jogging or participating in active sports, or 90 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, like brisk (four miles per hour) walking. Again, you don’t have to exercise in one lump of time—just try to meet at least that minimum recommendation each day throughout the day.

Perhaps all those dogs we adopted from shelters during COVID-19 are saving us, since they’re getting us out and about on several walks a day! The more you get up from your desk or couch, the more you avoid sitting for long stretches, the better. My daily “dose” of exercise may seem daunting, but you’ll quickly see how it is imminently doable.

For more on how to live a more healthful and longer life, and for all the latest research on evidence-based nutrition, visit NutritionFacts.org, the public service site I run, and read How Not to Die, How Not to Diet, and the How Not to Diet Cookbook: 100+ Recipes for Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss.