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A man prioritizing his healthspan by stretching before exercising outside.

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Why Longevity Experts Recommend Focusing on Your ‘Healthspan’

When it comes to the number of years you live, many pros say quality is just as important as quantity.

By Michelle KonstantinovskyFebruary 29, 2024


Think of an activity that brings you so much joy, you hope it remains in your routine for as long as possible. Is it cycling on your Peloton Bike or lifting heavy dumbbells? Is it hiking with your dog or building pillow forts with your kids? Is it cooking your favorite meals, painting landscapes, or walking around the neighborhood with friends? 

Whatever it is that makes you feel like your happiest, healthiest self is likely something you’ll want to continue as you age. That’s why, in recent years, many people have shifted their longevity goals; rather than focusing on living longer, many are concentrating on living better. And while “better” is a subjective measure, several health experts are looking for ways to improve their patients’ quality of life, not just the quantity of years they live. In other words, healthy aging isn’t solely about extending your lifespan, but also enhancing your healthspan

So what is healthspan, why is it such an important indicator of well-being, and what can you do to optimize it? We spoke with health and longevity experts to learn more.

What Is Healthspan?

“Healthspan is about how long you feel healthy and are able to do things you love,” says Monica L. Wang, ScD, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and adjunct associate professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It’s about living well, not just living long.” 

According to a Census Bureau projection, there will be more people in the United States aged 65 or older than people under 18 by 2034—the first time in history that’s ever happened. But while the population is getting older, individuals aren’t necessarily getting any healthier. In fact, six in 10 Americans have at least one chronic disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“In public health, ‘healthspan’ refers to the period of time in an individual’s life during which they are healthy and free from chronic diseases or disabilities,” Wang says. “This concept is used in the medical and public health community to shift the focus from merely extending lifespan to ensuring a high quality of life as people age.”

According to Shoshana Ungerleider, MD, an internal medicine physician and founder of End Well, the term “lifespan” quantifies the years one lives, while “healthspan” evaluates the quality of those years and emphasizes the importance of living better, not just longer. “The distinction is critical in medical and aging research, where the goal is not only to increase the number of years one lives but to ensure those years are spent in optimal health, with minimal suffering and maximal function,” she says.

Why Is Your Healthspan So Important?

Another way to think about healthspan—and part of the reason why it’s so important to prioritize—is that it’s the ability to continue doing the things you love, even as you age. 

“For some people, that means interacting with family and friends, but for others, it’s engaging in recreational sports or high-level cognitive activities,” says Bradford Rabin, MD, an internal medicine specialist with a focus on longevity medicine. “It’s what’s important for you when you are 70, 80, or 90,” he says. “That might mean being able to use your remote control to watch your favorite football games. For someone else, it might be the ability to continue playing a musical instrument or being an active member of a book club.”  

In other words, healthspan looks different from person to person. But ultimately, it reflects your capacity to engage in all the things you enjoy as you get older—and what’s more important than that?

How Is Healthspan Determined?

While we often think of health as the absence of disease or injury, the healthspan concept offers a more comprehensive picture of a person’s overall health and well-being. “Healthspan assessments may include medical examinations, screenings for chronic conditions, cognitive tests, assessments of functional ability, and mental and emotional well-being assessments,” Wang says. “Factors like quality of life and how connected we feel to those we care about matter, too.”

So while determining healthspan does mean evaluating factors like the presence or absence of chronic disease, there’s much more to it. According to Dr. Ungerleider, other major contributors to a person’s healthspan include their functional status, mental health, and social well-being. “It’s a multifaceted approach that considers the whole person rather than focusing solely on disease prevention or treatment,” she says. “This assessment helps healthcare providers tailor interventions that not only prolong life but also enhance the quality of life, addressing the full spectrum of needs that contribute to a person's well-being.”

How to Improve Your Healthspan

Because healthspan is such a subjective measure, there’s no one-size-fits-all plan for optimizing it. For example, for people who love and value running, the ability to hit the pavement, trail, or treadmill for as long as possible might be the top priority. But for those who’ve never cared about running, their healthspan might be influenced by other goals, such as the ability to play with their grandkids or read the newspaper every day. That said, there are some essential healthspan-enhancing habits that experts encourage everyone to incorporate, regardless of their ultimate goals.

“Improving healthspan involves adopting a holistic approach to health, including regular physical activity, balanced nutrition, stress management, adequate sleep, and quality social connections,” Wang says. “Small activities like going for walks, eating fresh produce, staying hydrated with water, getting enough sleep, and spending time with loved ones all add up to make a big impact on how you feel and your quality of life.”

Want to dig in deeper? Here are some steps you can start taking today to improve your healthspan, according to the pros: 

1. Figure Out What Matters to You Most 

“The first step to improving your healthspan is defining what health is for you,” says Michael Richardson, MD, a family medicine physician and Carbon Health area medical director. “It’s all about striving for your own best health, not some idealized version that others might push on you. For some folks, that could mean tackling an Ironman, while for others, it might just be about keeping up with the kids without getting winded. Whatever your goal is, whether big or small, it’s worth celebrating as you work towards your personal best.”

2. Nourish Your Body with Foods That Fuel You

There’s no such thing as a “perfect” diet, and each person has specific and unique needs when it comes to nutrition. But to improve your healthspan, you’ll want to figure out a way of eating that consistently leaves you feeling energized and strong

“A balanced diet rich in whole foods provides the necessary nutrients to support bodily functions and prevent nutritional deficiencies,” Dr. Ungerleider says. If you’re not sure what that means or how to make adjustments to your current plan, consider consulting with a registered dietitian who can help you find the right foods for you.  

3. Prioritize Sleep

You’re probably already well aware of the massive impact sleep can have on your overall health (and happiness!), so it makes sense that sleep would be another major part of the puzzle when it comes to enhancing your healthspan. Not only is good, quality sleep essential for mental health, cognitive function, mood, and cardiovascular health, but it’s also critical for your brain and metabolism.

If you’re chronically getting less than the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night, it’s worth examining your sleep habits and possibly consulting with a specialist. 

4. Get Moving 

“Exercise, in particular, is a cornerstone of improving healthspan due to its extensive benefits across various aspects of physical and mental health,” Dr. Ungerleider says. “Research suggests that regular exercise helps maintain cardiovascular health, muscle strength, flexibility, and balance, all of which are crucial for prolonging healthspan.”

But does it matter how often you move or what fitness modalities you prioritize? Overall, “the type, intensity, and frequency of exercise should be tailored to the individual’s health status, age, and preferences, but generally, a combination of cardiovascular exercises, strength training, and flexibility exercises is recommended,” Dr. Ungerleider says. (We’ll dive into the specifics below!)

An older woman prioritizing her healthspan by joyfully swimming in an outdoor lake.

Halfpoint Images / Moment via Getty Images

Why Is Exercise So Important for Our Healthspans?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, regular exercise remains one of the most important health tools available to improve your healthspan.

“The number of benefits that regular exercise offers is unparalleled and far exceeds what any pill or procedure could do,” Wang says. “Physical activity helps strengthen muscles and bones, improves flexibility and mobility, and has been shown across numerous studies to reduce risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Additionally, exercise boosts mental well-being by reducing stress and anxiety, strengthens the immune system, and is linked with living longer and healthier lives.”

Are Certain Exercises Better for Healthspan Than Others?

There is, of course, a huge variety of exercise options out there, but Dr. Rabin says a few particular fitness pillars are central to healthspan: cardio, resistance training, balance and mobility, and recovery. (Psst: You can find classes that’ll help you with each pillar on the Peloton App!) Within those four categories, you can modify and adapt to find something that fits your goals. “If I want to be playing soccer with my grandkids in 30 years, there are certain requirements to do that, whereas if that’s not something I've ever done or enjoy doing, I would ratchet down the requirements to get there,” Dr. Rabin says. “But for everybody, there’s some benefit to maintaining muscle mass and strength because it declines over time. You want to have a program that builds that—and the same thing is true of cardio.”

Prioritizing strength training and cardio (in addition to paying attention to flexibility and recovery) will go a long way in optimizing your healthspan particularly as you get older. “As we age, shifting our exercise routines to focus on our core and leg strength will allow us to stay mobile and reduce the risk of falls,” Dr. Richardson says. “This is incredibly important, as 1 in 4 older Americans will suffer from a fall [each year], making it the leading cause of injury and injury-related deaths in older adults.”

While you can pick and prioritize the activities and specific fitness skills that are important to you, experts do recommend some basic guidelines to make the most of your workouts. “Based on research, individuals should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week, along with muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days per week,” Wang says. That said, “any amount of physical activity is beneficial, and even small changes can have significant health benefits over time,” she notes. 

To reap maximal benefits, Wang recommends daily movement—but that doesn’t have to mean stacking HIIT classes or lifting heavy weights every day. “A walk around the block, stretching in between meetings, and playing with kids or pets counts, too,” she says. 

The Takeaway

For many of us, longevity has always been measured in terms of quantity, leading us to believe that the goal of aging is to live as long as possible. And while there is, of course, value in striving for a lengthy lifespan, many experts now believe that the real focus should be on optimizing healthspan. By adopting and practicing healthy habits (including exercise), we can boost our chances of actively participating in our favorite activities throughout the decades—whether that’s running, cycling, baking, gardening, or keeping up with the little ones in our lives. 

“Though it may not always be at the forefront of our thoughts, as we contemplate our future well-being, it’s crucial to acknowledge how our bodies will change and take proactive measures to remain physically active throughout all stages of life,” Dr. Richardson says. “The choices we make today will profoundly impact our mobility and vitality in the years ahead.”

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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