Exercise, eat well, avoid excess: how healthy habits in your 30s help in later life | Making health click into place

For anyone who has recently blown out the 3-0 candles on a birthday cake, it can feel as if your whole life is still ahead of you. An exciting whirlwind of weddings, travel, job promotions and new house keys awaits. So, the last thing you are likely to be thinking about in terms of health – beyond finding the energy to fulfil a packed diary – is your long-term physical wellbeing.

Yet, there’s plenty of scientific health” data-link-name=”in body link”>research to show that developing healthy habits during your 30s, rather than waiting for your body to stop functioning as it should, will not only leave you feeling better right now but also set you up well for the future. “Our lifestyle habits impact on our risks of various diseases – the longer we smoke, for example, the greater our risk of suffering from heart disease and multiple cancers,” says Dr Helen Hartley, associate medical director at Aviva Health.

However, it’s not just eliminating bad habits that can make all the difference in our 30s – it’s also whether or not we prioritise adding in the good ones. “They can set us up to ‘keep the life in our years’ as we age,” insists Hartley. “For instance, a good diet – rich in vitamins and minerals – plus strength-building exercise like lifting weights, can keep our bones strong and reduce the risk of osteoporosis and fractures in later life.” She adds that staying fit can likewise keep our heart and blood vessels in good shape, reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes in the decades to come.

But why do our 30s, in particular, matter so much? “Our physiology starts to decline beyond our mid-20s, when our organs function at their peak capacity,” says Hartley. “There’s a natural reduction in lean body mass, or muscle, which contributes to a slowing of metabolism, since muscle burns more calories, therefore predisposing us to weight gain. Hence the value of strength training during these years, as it helps maintain muscle mass.”

Illustration of woman looking strong

This all matters because being overweight or obese, regardless of your age, is closely linked to an increased risk of potentially deadly health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.

For thirtysomething women, who may also be thinking about fertility, pregnancy and childbirth during this decade, natural, hormonally driven physiological changes are more pertinent again. “Our fertility is at its peak in our 20s and some women find it harder to get pregnant after age 35,” says Hartley. “Additionally, while perimenopause usually starts in our 40s, some women may go through an early menopause. Anyone experiencing symptoms – which include hot flushes, sleep disturbance, anxiety, memory issues and low libido – should seek advice from their doctor.” She adds that, once again, strength training is important because the drop in oestrogen associated with menopause causes bones to get thinner and can raise the risk of osteoporosis.

However, it’s not just natural changes in our body that can mean our health slowly starts to work against us, but also the busy, frequently stressful, thirtysomething lifestyle too. Perhaps you’re balancing job pressures and childcare with increasingly elderly parents and mortgage worries. “This tends to be a very busy decade, with the frequent combination of career, caring responsibilities and busy social engagements often leaving little time to address our own needs,” says Hartley. “While anxiety is less common among people in their 30s than their 20s, it’s important to take some time to prioritise not just our physical but also mental health during this time.” Indeed, one recent survey in the US found that people experience the most stress at the age of 36.

So, what can someone in their 30s do to both feel good today and look after their body so that they can maintain quality of life and independence for as long as possible? Hartley notes that there are certain activities that those in this decade should certainly swerve. “Specific to our 30s, is the importance of avoiding obesity, excess alcohol, a sedentary lifestyle and carrying a high-stress burden,” she says. “These jeopardise our chances of staying healthy.” What’s more, cutting out bad habits sooner rather than later really can make all the difference – research from 2022 found that those who ditch cigarettes by the age of 35 experience no difference in mortality. The earlier you stop smoking, the better chance you have of having a better quality of later life by reducing your risk of arterial disease affecting heart and blood vessels that can restrict ability to maintain an active lifestyle.

Illustration of man running up steps

When it comes to future-proofing by forming good habits, Hartley adds: “It’s important to follow general lifestyle advice on nutrition, exercise, mental wellbeing, social connectedness and sleep. For example, adults between the ages of 19 and 64 should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity, every week.” Indeed, a recent study found that being active as a young adult could slash the risk of developing nine different cancers in later life by up to 40%.

As well as eating nourishing meals, she says that people may also wish to boost their nutrient intake with supplements, noting: “Fish oils and vitamins, especially B, C, D and minerals such as iron, calcium and magnesium, can be helpful – but it’s always worth taking medical advice on whether they are suitable for you.”

Additionally, don’t forget to get enough rest – even when the demands of family and work might make that challenging. “Sleep is important for not only energy, but also good mood and concentration as well as weight management and immune function,” says Hartley. “It is likewise imperative to stay safe in the sun to protect against skin cancer – and sunlamps or sunbeds should be avoided.”

Since the 1990s, data shows that rates of melanoma skin cancer have increased in the 25 to 49 age group by 67%. When it comes to cancer prevention, she says that it is also important to take up invitations for screenings as you get older, so that diseases can be detected as early as possible for effective treatment. For example, women in their 30s have access to routine cervical cancer screenings. Because, while looking after your health might easily take a backseat on your to-do list, your body will thank you by being able to do more later.

Time for a health upgrade? From easy-to-book digital GP appointments to fast treatment and diagnosis, find out how Aviva health insurance and wellbeing services can help.

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