And other surprising ways to live longer

Many of the proven strategies for living longer — such as restricting calories and exercising on a regular basis — can feel like punishment for some people.

Fortunately, there are many enjoyable ways to stay healthy — but doctors don’t recommend these strategies as often as they should. Research has shown that activities nearly everyone enjoys can literally add years to a person’s life.

Fun-filled ways to live longer…

1. Get the right kind of sleep. Studies have found that people who get deep, restorative sleep typically live three years longer than those who don’t. During deep sleep, the body normally produces higher levels of melatonin, a hormone that improves immunity and reduces the risk for infections as well as cancer. Deep sleep also increases levels of growth hormone, which improves energy and helps promote a healthy weight.

Good news: You don’t have to sleep uninterrupted through the night to get the benefits of deep sleep, as long as you complete a series of at least 90-minute sleep cycles — each one beginning with light sleep (stages 1 and 2)… progressing through deeper sleep (stages 3 and 4)… and then into the deepest stage, known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. As long as you complete this 90-minute cycle several times a night, it doesn’t matter if you wake up a time or two.

2. Enjoy your coffee. Many people assume that coffee — unlike green tea, for example — isn’t a healthful beverage. But that’s not true. Studies have found that caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee are a main source of antioxidants in the average American’s diet.

Research has shown that caffeinated coffee decreases the risk for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases by 30% to 40% — health benefits that are largely attributed to the beverage’s caffeine. (Decaffeinated coffee does not offer these same benefits.) The caffeine in coffee also is good for cognitive health.

Important: Caffeinated coffee may cause several side effects, such as blood pressure spikes, abnormal heartbeat, anxiety and gastric upset.

My recommendation: If you do not experience any of these side effects, and you enjoy drinking coffee, have as many cups of caffeinated coffee as you like. If you do experience side effects, you may prefer to drink decaffeinated coffee. Even though it does not have the health benefits previously described, studies show that decaffeinated coffee may help fight type 2 diabetes.

3. Go dancing. Men and women who get optimal amounts of physical activity — about 30 minutes a day, seven days a week — can make their “Real-Ages” (the “biological ages” of their bodies, based on lifestyle and behaviors) 6.4 years younger.

Many types of dancing give a superb physical workout. Ballroom and square dancing are particularly good for cognitive health. They involve both physical and mental stimulation (in order to execute the appropriate dance steps) and may help reduce the risk for dementia. Aim to dance at least 30 minutes a day.

4. Do some singing. Whether you lend your voice to a choir or merely sing for pleasure in the shower, singing improves immunity and elevates levels of hormones known as endorphins and dopamine — both of which reduce stress and activate the brain’s pleasure centers. Studies have shown that singing helps people with asthma… reduces stress hormones… and may temporarily help improve memory in patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

5. Continue learning. People who take pleasure in expanding their minds — for example, by learning to paint, attending lectures or doing puzzles — can make their Real-Ages about 2.5 years younger.

Studies have shown that people with higher levels of education, and those who continue learning throughout life, form more connections between brain cells, making them less likely to experience later-life memory loss.

6. Eat some chocolate. The powerful antioxidants known as flavonoids in dark chocolate increase levels of the body’s nitric oxide (NO), a gas that dilates arteries (to help prevent blockages) and can help reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension.

This is particularly helpful for people over age 50, because age-related buildup of fatty deposits in the arteries (atherosclerosis) reduces natural levels of NO.

My recommendation: Eat one-half ounce of dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa) twice daily. Don’t over-indulge in chocolate — it is high in calories.

Other good flavonoid sources include brewed black or green tea… red wine… dark grape juice… strawberries, cranberries and apples… and brussels sprouts and onions.

7. Find opportunities to laugh. People who laugh — and who make others laugh — tend to have better immunity than people who are humor-impaired. Telling a joke is also a good way to improve your memory. It requires the teller — as well as the listener — to pay attention, and we laugh when we expect one outcome but are surprised by a different one. Psychologists call this “conceptual blending.”

Benefit: Jokes and riddles challenge the brain, improve memory and can help delay the onset of cognitive decline. In addition, laughter is a well-known stress reducer. People who are calmer and more relaxed have lower levels of heart disease and cancer.

8. Have more sex. Men and women who have sex (that results in orgasm) an average of twice a week have arteries with greater elasticity (which helps prevent hardening of the arteries). Overall, those who have sex twice a week have lower rates of mortality and a RealAge that’s about two years younger than their calendar age. Men and women who have sex daily, on average, are biologically eight years younger than those who have it once a week.

9. Rest more often. Everyone enjoys taking a break from life’s stresses. Research shows that people who give themselves time to relax (thus minimizing the effects of stress) can live up to eight years longer.

Stress reducers — such as meditating, taking long walks, watching the sunset — can add years to your life. Yoga is particularly good. It lowers blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones, and increases levels of dopamine and the “feel good” hormone serotonin. Aim for about 10 minutes daily of a stress-reduction activity.

10. Get a pet. People who own pets can make themselves an average of one year younger. Studies show that taking care of and bonding with a pet reduces depression and blood pressure.

After a heart attack, people with pets have a one-year survival rate of 94%, compared with 72% for people who don’t have pets. Studies show that dog owners, who live about three years longer, tend to be a little healthier than those with other pets — in part because they get regular exercise when they walk their dogs.