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The Sailor’s Secret to Living a Longer, Healthier Life

These five habits may help your longevity. Incorporating them is easier than you think.

I’ve been sailing for more than 50 years. It’s a hobby that keeps me on the move, and close to the amazing community of people at my sailing club in downtown Toronto. Lately, I’ve noticed how fit, sharp and active my fellow sailors are, many of whom are well into their sixties and seventies. It got me thinking about the secrets of longevity—how the way you live your life contributes to how long you live and the quality of your life as you age. Often, articles that share ways to improve your health and well-being can feel overwhelming, because they require a time commitment or substantive changes to your routine that you don’t have the time to make.

Without realizing it, sailors tap into many of the “secrets” that promote longevity just by doing what they love. That’s a good reason to take up the sport, but if you don’t have sea legs, here are some other ways to benefit from these strategies that may help prolong your life and improve your physical and mental well-being as you age.

  1. If you like your work, do it as long as you can. A study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health has shown that early retirement is associated with an increased mortality risk, and that people who retired just one year later (at age 66 rather than age 65) had an 11 percent lower risk of mortality. One reason is that most work requires an engaged mind, which helps promote longevity. There’s that old adage, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” That’s great if you already enjoy your work—or are able to find work you love, and continue it longer than you anticipated. But if you don’t love your career, choose a hobby that challenges you. I love my work, but I also love sailing—and spend many of my non-working hours on my sailboat, which is hard work in itself. My sailor friends who don’t work still get up at dawn to get out on the water, to work hard for a rewarding day on the lake. Bottom line: Commit to “work” that challenges your mind and body, keeps you motivated and brings you joy.
  2. Exercise without feeling like it’s exercise. It can be hard to find time to get to the gym. Maybe you don’t even like going to the gym. Don’t let that be a deterrent. Research shows that regular physical activity may play a protective role against Alzheimer’s disease. On the boat, I’m not relaxing with a cocktail—at least, not most of the time. I’m raising sails, handling ropes and washing the decks. Even keeping my balance is a workout. Try to structure your life so that you’re moving around as much as possible. Pair some of your favourite hobbies with exercise. For example, if you love podcasts, tell yourself you can only listen while walking or doing housework. If you typically pay for a service like dog-walking, house-cleaning or lawn-care, choose one of these chores to do yourself instead.
  3. Look for ways to build muscle. Usually we associate strength training and muscle building with younger people, who want to look strong and fit. As we get older, strength training actually becomes more important because it improves our mobility and prevents falls. If we strengthen our muscles, any fall that does occur will be less likely to break bones, and less likely to land us in a hospital, where we are more susceptible to other illnesses, like pneumonia. Our muscle power naturally begins to decrease after we turn 40, so that’s when it becomes especially important to strength train regularly. The constant lifting, moving, tightening and throwing that is required on a sailboat means that I get plenty of strength training every week. If you don’t have a way to incorporate strength training into your favourite hobby, consider swapping one or two of your go-to workouts or pastimes for a session with a personal trainer.
  4. Limit your intake of sugar and processed foods. Sailing leaves little time for snacking—I need my hands free to manoeuvre the boat. When I am eating on the boat, it’s not takeout or a four-course meal. To be able to eat while on the water, I have to pack homemade meals and snacks. I usually follow a form of the Mediterranean diet: lots of fruits, vegetables, fish, fibre, very little red meat and lots of water. No matter your hobby, you can contribute to your longevity by steering clear of sugar and processed foods as you age, which have both been linked to higher rates of disease and mortality. Meal prepping for the week, or packing last night’s leftovers for lunch is an easy way to avoid greasy takeout ordered last-minute when you’re too hungry to cook.
  5. Spend time in nature. When I’m sailing, I’m focused on my surroundings. The wind is blowing on my back, the sun is shining on my face, and I’m in touch with the movement and the flow of the water. I’m not thinking about my emails or checking my phone. Studies have actually shown that when we get outside, our blood pressure, heart rate and risk of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases decreases. We can actually contribute to our longevity simply by spending more time outdoors. A simple walk in your neighbourhood, a bike ride or time spent tending to your garden—all without your phone within reach—can be just as advantageous to your mental health as sailing.

The extra, healthy years you could add to your life are well worth the small routine changes you would need to make them happen. For me, sailing makes this easy, but it’s not essential you take to the waters. Look at your own life and challenge yourself to incorporate at least one of these secrets to longevity this week.

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