Do you believe mental and physical decline is an inevitable consequence of aging? At last, this outdated idea is giving way to recognition that aging holds tremendous potential for growth and reward. Many voices promise perpetual youth or permanent physical health. Listening to those voices quickly reveals their emptiness.
Reliable knowledge about aging well has been accumulating for thousands of years. This ancient but vast storehouse of wisdom dovetails with neuroscience findings. The essence of these teachings is that aging involves attention to the physical needs of the body, the mental needs of the mind, and the social connection needs of the heart. When those needs are combined, flourishing with advancing age becomes possible. The implication is that each of us facing the second half of life has the potential to live life more fully and authentically.
Philosopher Martin Buber said, “To be old is a glorious thing when one has not unlearned what it means to begin.” So, how and where do you begin? Here are 5 essential exercises you can begin to practice, regardless of your current age or stage of life.
Cultivate Focused Attention: We live in a world flooded with noise masquerading as information. This distracts us from focusing on what matters most, which is a prerequisite for healthy aging. A simple practice combines stillness with intentional focus. Find a comfortable place where you sit still while simultaneously focusing your attention on a pleasing scene or object for two minutes. If closing your eyes is more comfortable, simply imagine the scene or object. Expand this by 1 minute each day until you can sustain this focus for 20 minutes.
Moving Your Embodied Mind: Your body is designed to move. Evidence shows movement supports a healthy mind as we age. Movement is a major anti-depressant, worry-reducer, and potent sleep-enhancer. Identify local parks or outdoor settings where you can safely walk at a comfortable pace 3-5 times per week for 20-30 minutes.
Cultivate Your Curiosity: A curious mind gravitates toward novelty. Curiosity reboots the brain as it seeks alternatives to what has been in favor of what could be. In the process, the brain rewires itself resulting in a more flexible and adaptable mind. In the next month, explore “one new thing” each week: a new restaurant, a new route to work, a different class at the gym, or an alternative social activity. Be creative.
Practice Altruism: As newborns, our very survival depended upon our social connections. While our basic social nature doesn’t change, our routines and habits can shrink our social support network with the passage of time. Our brain suffers from this reduction in social connection. Altruism involves behaviors that help or support others. Altruistic behavior involves simple but powerful and pivotal practices that promote brain health while creating more positively connected relationships with others. Going forward, make it a habit to sincerely inquire about people’s days. Give the altruistic gift of other-directed, open-hearted attention.
Resting Peacefully: The most under-recognized brain medicine is a good night’s sleep. Sleep is one of the brain’s master regulators. Healthy aging depends upon healthy, restorative sleep. Beginning this week, finish eating 2 hours before bed and turn off electronics and other bright lights at least an hour before retiring. Instead, using the stillness practice introduced above, take a few minutes to slowly review what healthy changes you have introduced into your life as you embark on the journey to discover the glorious potential of your aging.