Your subjective age — meaning the age you feel in your spirit and in your bones — is the magic number. In fact, a growing body of research suggests your subjective age may be a better predictor of your physical health, well-being, vitality, and even life expectancy.
Feeling younger than you are might:
- keep you open to new experiences
- maintain or improve your physical health
- boost your mental health and well-being
- prolong your life and keep you thriving in your later years
That might sound all fine and dandy if you’re “feeling 22,” like in that Taylor Swift song. But what if life’s stressors have taken their toll, and your subjective age is actually higher than the number of candles on your cake?
Don’t fret. Unlike your true age, you can change your subjective age and keep livin’ it up.
Youth is wasted on the young, the saying goes. And wisdom is wasted on the old. But with a younger subjective age, you can have it all: spontaneity, energy, and the prudence from past experience.
Aim for a youthful personality:
- Engage in social activities.
- Rack up new experiences.
- Travel to new places, local and not.
- Be more spontaneous.
We might remember our 20s as more teeter-tottery than the rest. Perhaps we moved around for school or work, changed jobs, traveled, stayed till closing time, or had some fiery relationships. Maybe all of the above!
Research does show, however, that we’re actually wired for and crave all that change in our 20s. We’re more open to new experiences, more vivacious, and even more sociable.
Then as we reach our 30s, 40s, and 50s, our personalities shift. We start to settle into life and our roles in it. We tend to plan ahead, become more conscientious, sharpen our self-discipline, and grow our compassion for others and our agreeability.
We might also start to have more responsibilities that prevent us from, say, driving around the continent in a van. But being less impulsive doesn’t mean we can’t live an exuberant life. When we feel younger than we are, research suggests we remain tapped into that wildness of our youth while honing it with the wisdom of our actual years.
So even if you have a mortgage to pay, a steady job to maintain, kiddos to care for, or just general adulting to do, you should still make efforts to amp up the fun.
“Try new things,” says Kelly Bos, MSW, a psychotherapist. “This is good for the brain and keeps you from getting stuck in a routine.”
You don’t have to go skydiving or rappel into an active volcano — unless you want to. Opt for a bourbon-tasting trip or a beginner aerial yoga class.
And whatever you do, take a friend (or few) with you. Getting together with the positive and supportive people in your world can also help you feel younger. “We can feel more energized simply by the company we keep,” Bos adds.
Maybe your 5K time isn’t as low as it used to be, or your toes are no longer keen to be crammed into the bottom of 4-inch heels all day.
Our bodies have a way of telling us we’re not getting any younger through hormonal changes, weight fluctuations, and general fatigue. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it as is.
Studies show we can exercise our way to a younger self and reap body and brain benefits as we get up in years. Exercise also has the added payoff of giving us control or power over our lives. Researchers theorize engaging in more physical activity helps us feel like we’re still spring chickens. Yep, that means better memory, cognition, overall health, and even longevity.
Keep your body young:
- Maintain a regular exercise routine.
- Try new sports or activities.
- Do your own manual labor.
We can stay active by engaging in a regular exercise routine we enjoy and trying activities that interest us. Stand-up paddleboarding, anyone? How about that dark-roomed cycling class?
But consider what changes you can make in lifestyle, too.
As we get into middle age, we might have more affordability to outsource chores we once took on ourselves. That’s great if the freed-up time allows for more hiking, a weekend canoeing adventure, and the like.
But if you’re hiring someone to paint your pad so you can just kick back, maybe grab the brush yourself instead. Who knows — you might enjoy the project.
As we accumulate years, we also rack up experiences, both good and bad. Unfortunately, sometimes we go through trauma, struggles, or the loss of a loved one.
Life can get heavy. That’s why fostering our mental health and well-being as we age is so important.
Research shows we naturally nurture our mental health when we feel younger than we are. Plus, a lower subjective age is associated with a lower risk of major depressive episodes. So how do we actually feel younger if our mental health isn’t such a light and fluffy load to bear?
Nurture your well-being:
- Use mindfulness techniques.
- Reduce stress.
- Cultivate a support system of friends and family.
- Make time for yourself.
- Seek professional help when you need it.
Make mental health a daily priority in your life, says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, a clinical psychologist.
Manly’s 5 tips for regular mindfulness and stress reduction
- Detach from negative situations. “Imagine that the wisest version of yourself is watching from above,” she explains. If it’s a big, life-changing situation, your wiser self can advise on the best solution. But if it’s not a big deal, your wiser self can encourage you to let it go.
- Pause to notice. “Take your focus to the joy of the present moment,” Manly says. If you’re going for a walk, for example, notice the sounds, what you’re seeing, and how the ground feels beneath your feet.
- Meditate. “Practice taking brief timeouts,” Manly says. This can be done wherever you are. Focus on an image that makes you feel joyful, and tune everything else out.
- Let go of minor annoyances. “When you learn to differentiate between that which you have control over and that which you do not, many of the smaller annoyances become easier to accept,” Manly explains.
- Breathe. “One of the simplest relaxation tools is breathing,” Manly adds. You can take deep breaths anywhere at any time to help stave off panic.
DIY techniques may not always be enough to manage mental health, especially if you’re going through a particularly trying time or you’re battling depression or anxiety. Never hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional to find the best coping strategies.
Just talking through tough issues can make them feel less burdensome and help dial back your subjective age.
Even if that 40 feels like 29 now, your 45 might actually feel like 50. That’s why we’ve got to keep tabs on our subjective age.
Check in with it often. Have you been trying new things, staying active, and paying attention to your overall well-being?
Keep in mind not all strategies will be possible all the time. And some may not be feasible at all due to chronic conditions, injury, responsibility overload, or other issues. That doesn’t mean you’re destined to feel older than you are. Find ways that work for you, even if they’re simple, to hold onto or reclaim your youth.
Thankfully, whatever subjective age you find yourself at, you’ll be wise beyond your years and able to navigate it with all the sense of hindsight — and probably in shoes that are far more comfortable.
Jennifer Chesak is a Nashville-based freelance book editor and writing instructor. She’s also an adventure travel, fitness, and health writer for several national publications. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill and is working on her first fiction novel, set in her native state of North Dakota.