Ornish: How to Live Longer and Better

What really works to make sustainable changes in diet and lifestyle? It's probably not what you think. In over 30 years of conducting clinical research, I've learned that the real keys are pleasure, joy and freedom, not willpower, deprivation and austerity. Joy of living is sustainable; fear of dying is not.

Why? Because life is to be enjoyed. There's no point in giving up something you enjoy unless you get something back that's even better, and quickly. When people eat more healthfully, exercise, quit smoking, manage stress better, and love more, they find that they feel so much better, so quickly, it reframes the reason for making these changes from fear of dying (too scary) or risk-factor modification (too boring) to joy of living. Fortunately, the latest studies show how dynamic and powerful are the mechanisms that control our health and well-being. When you exercise and eat right:

Chronic emotional stress shortens your telomeres. My colleagues, Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, conducted a pioneering study of mothers who were caring for a child with a chronic illness. They found that the more stress the women reported experiencing, the shorter their telomeres. Women with the highest levels of perceived stress had telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of at least one decade of additional aging compared to low-stress women.

One of the most interesting findings in this study was that the mothers' perceptions of stress were more important than what was objectively occurring in their lives. The researchers gave the women a questionnaire and asked them to rate on a three-point scale how stressed they felt each day, and how out of control their lives felt to them. The women who perceived that they were under heavy stress had significantly shortened and damaged telomeres compared with those who felt more relaxed. Conversely, some of the women who felt relaxed despite raising a disabled child had more normal-appearing telomeres.

In other words, if you feel stressed, you are stressed.

I wondered: if chronic stress can decrease telomerase (an enzyme that repairs and lengthens telomeres) and cause telomeres to age more quickly, could healthy lifestyle changes prevent this from occurring? It did. A few months ago, my colleagues and I (including Blackburn) published a study in The Lancet Oncology showing that the telomerase enzyme increased by almost one-third after only three months of making comprehensive lifestyle changes. This was the first study showing that any intervention, even drugs, can increase telomerase and, thus, telomere length. If a new drugs were shown to do this, it would be worth a billion dollars, but you can accomplish this benefit virtually for free, and in only three months, simply by changing your lifestyle.

So, knowing that what was once thought impossible can now be accomplished in only a few months may capture our imaginations and be a powerful motivator to make sustainable lifestyle changes. For many people, these are choices worth making—not just to live longer, but also to feel better.