Small Steps to Healthier Living and Healthy Aging

Tips from experts and survivors for making simple habit changes for healthier living

By Katie Ressler & Kelsey Bryan

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Health goals often focus on the short term-what you can do now to see results quickly. For cancer patients, focusing on healthy aging may be more realistic and effective. By making small lifestyle changes patients feel more in control of their health and longevity, helping those changes to become healthy habits. The question is, what can you do now to make a lasting impact on health?

Getting started with diet changes

Making small improvements to your diet can make a big impact on health. JoAnna Hazard, MS, RD, CSO, LDN, CNSC, registered dietitian at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Philadelphia, explains:

“The food someone consumes is the single biggest variable an individual has control over as it relates to how the body ages. In addition to preventing diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease,  healthy diets have shown promise in the potential to slow cognitive decline and prevent skin aging, which might help with the appearance of wrinkles!”

For those who want to make a change, but don’t know where to start, Hazard first suggests taking a close look at how many fruits and vegetables you eat, as well how much added sugars are part of your diet. “Getting started, I suggest reducing or eliminating refined sugar from your diet and increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables you consume as much as possible. Listen to your body and try to be mindful of what you consume.”

Hazard elaborates:

The great thing about healthy eating habits is small changes can really go a long way to improving your overall health and quality of life. It does not have to be an all-or-nothing commitment to change, and the best part is it gives you something you can control during times when everything else may be chaotic. You have a powerful tool in your toolbox when you understand that what you eat directly effects your mood and mental health while simultaneously supporting your immune system and well-being. It can serve you well if used.

Finding the right fuel for the body

Before learning he had a form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma, Jeremy Isaacs of Cherokee Village, Arkansas, stayed active, taking part in church activities and fishing with his wife and four children. However, he equated his eating habits to a typical teenager’s: “For the past 20 years, I ate Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, pizza, drank soda… junk, junk, junk,” Isaacs describes.

Isaacs believes his lack of nutritious food choices may have had an impact on the development of his cancer. This realization, along with seeing how frightened his children were at his diagnosis, prompted him to make changes to his diet.

“Giving up junk food in exchange for the potential for a healthier, longer life seems to be a ‘no-brainer,’ Isaacs says. He admits, though, that making changes to old habits is much easier said than done.

In just over a year, he’s already seeing the benefits of sticking with a healthier diet. “In the past year, I have gone from 235 lbs. at diagnosis to 165 lbs. I have never felt better,” Isaacs says.

Reaping the benefits of exercise

Consistent exercise has many benefits that impact aging. According to Jennifer Young, MSPT, physical therapist at CTCA® Philadelphia, “Regular physical activity may help reduce mortality, reverse many of the changes of aging, improve muscle power, endurance and reaction time. It may also improve bone density and posture.”

While there are many different ways to stay physically active, she suggests three types of exercise for specific benefits:

  • Cardiovascular activities are the most beneficial exercises for heart health, weight loss and avoidance and management of many obesity-related illnesses, such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer.
  • Strength training exercises are most beneficial for maintaining your muscle mass and bone strength. Because we all lose muscle mass as we age, strength training may help reduce the impact of muscle loss.
  • Stretching, such as yoga, keeps muscles loose and limber and promotes a full range of motion that can allow you to continue enjoying everyday activities as you age.

Young reminds patients that regardless of the chosen activity, exercise should increase the heart rate to about 50% above their resting heart rate and should be done for at least twenty minutes, three times a week in order to be effective. As an example, if your resting heart rate is 70, your goal should be to get it up to 105.

She credits exercise as one of the best ways to recover from cancer and keep healthy during survivorship. The key, she explains, is finding an activity that you like doing: “Whether it’s working in your garden or running, what’s important is to find an activity that you’ll continue to enjoy as you age.”

Feeling good physically and emotionally

Pancreatic cancer patient Roxanne Waling of Greenville, South Carolina, has always been active, particularly playing a round of golf once or twice a week and going to a gym, even if she wasn’t always consistent.

After enduring a 10-hour surgery in September 2013, Waling decided that her exercise regimen needed to be more deliberate and routine. She joined the YMCA and committed to working out five to six days per week, including yoga, power walking, and weight lifting as part of her exercise plan.

After a three-year hiatus from golf due to lengthy recoveries after multiple surgeries, Waling finally returned to the game.  She found that golf added to the amount of exercise she achieved and did wonders for her emotional health as she gained new friendships:

I joined a ladies’ league and started golfing every Wednesday. We are called the Polar Bears and have 16 wonderful women who have faced many trials in life. Four of us are cancer survivors, five have lost spouses, and one lost a 20-year-old son in a car accident. We have all been there for each other during our challenges.

Waling finds motivation to remain active and healthy in her grandchildren. She advises anyone who wants to make a change to start small and stay consistent. “Take the first step – even if it’s a baby step – and stick with it for at least three weeks,” Waling suggests. “If you can do this you will have started the formation of a good habit. This is especially true with starting an exercise routine, even if it is just daily walking. You will reap the benefits in mind and body.”

Like her experience golfing with her ladies’ league, Waling reminds us that having companionship may elevate your exercise experience: “A simple walk may be better if you have a partner or friend to get you moving and stay moving.”