You’re really only as old as you feel — or rather, as you think

Being more physically active and having a firm mental control over your life could, in fact, make you younger, a new study suggests.

How you choose to live your life directly affects how you age. Simple things, like opting for a healthy diet and staying physically active

, have been repeatedly shown to not only improve your health but also to delay aging. In a more subtle way, the same thing goes for your mind — staying mentally active is a great way to combat many of the downsides that come with old age.

Essentially, doing these things helps you feel younger, which in turn can rejuvenate you.

Researchers enlisted 116 older adults (ages 60 to 90) and 106 younger adults (ages 18 to 36) and asked them to fill out surveys each day for nine days. They were asked to agree or disagree with statements about how in control they felt during each particular day, such as “In the past 24 hours, I had quite a bit of influence on the degree to which I could be involved in activities.” They were also asked to state how old they felt each day.

Intriguingly, the results varied significantly from day to day.

“Research suggests that a younger subjective age, or when people feel younger than their chronological age, is associated with a variety of positive outcomes in older individuals, including better memory performance, health and longevity,” said presenter Jennifer Bellingtier, PhD, of Friedrich Schiller University. “Our research suggests that subjective age changes on a daily basis and older adults feel significantly younger on days when they have a greater sense of control.”

Both the younger and the older adults exhibited these day-to-day differences, but there was an important difference: while the perceived level of self-control and subjective age was unrelated in the younger group, the two were strongly correlated in the older group.

“Shaping the daily environment in ways that allow older adults to exercise more control could be a helpful strategy for maintaining a youthful spirit and overall well-being,” said Bellingtier.

This, in turn, suggests that the subjective, self-perceived age could be improved through simple interventions, as Bellingtier himself suggests.

“For example, some interventions could be formal, such as a regular meeting with a therapist to discuss ways to take control in situations where individuals can directly influence events, and how to respond to situations that they cannot control. Smartphone apps could be developed to deliver daily messages with suggestions for ways to enhance control that day and improve a person’s overall feeling of control,” said Bellingtier. “An intervention could also be something as simple as giving nursing home residents the opportunity to make more choices in their daily lives so that they can exercise more control.”

Things get even better. When people feel younger, they do things that actually help them stay younger, like physical activity or things that make them happy. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, feeling younger can actually make you younger.

However, while the researchers’ interpretation seems valid, it’s not a guarantee just yet. The sample size was quite small, and they need to replicate their findings on a much broader sample size, says Matthew Hughes, PhD, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, who was also involved in the study. It’s really good news, but it still needs to be validated.

“As this was part of a pilot study, our sample size was small,” he said. “While the results suggest that walking may contribute to feeling younger, further research with a larger sample in a more controlled setting is needed to confirm.”

Results were presented in the American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., and have not yet been peer-reviewed.

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