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The human body could be compared to a bridge over which millions of cars pass each year.

We all know that bridges cannot be sustained over time unless they are provided with new rivets and fresh coats of paint.

So it is with our bodies. Sustainable practices are as essential to our long-term well-being as they are to the durability of a heavily trafficked bridge. Much like weathered bridges, we can better protect ourselves from the chronic, sometimes life-threatening conditions that typically follow aging, by adopting more sustainable nutritional and fitness practices.

In a manner of speaking, by adopting these practices, we build our own bridge — a sturdy, durable bridge from youth to old age, one that is considerably less prone to chronic stress and risk of premature collapse, according to one expert.

Fortunately for us, research conducted over the last few decades has yielded a wealth of insight into the types of practices we must adopt to sustain us over the long haul, says Dr. Robert Keith, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System nutrition and health specialist and Auburn University professor of nutrition and food science.

Indeed, within the last few years, research has turned up one finding with especially far-reaching implications: Aging and chronic diseases do not have to go hand in hand.

These implications should impart a valuable lesson to all of us: Sustainable health and fitness practices adopted as early as possible can help us avoid the chronic conditions that often — but don't necessarily have to — accompany aging.

"By adopting these sustainable practices, you're not only in more harmony with nature but you're also aging gracefully and increasing your chances of remaining free of many of the problems that are commonly associated with old age," Keith says.

What are these sustainable practices?

For answers, Keith cites a book written more than a generation ago whose lessons are as relevant today as they were then.

"Biomarkers: The 10 Keys to Prolonging Vitality," written by William Evans, outlines a series of steps one should take to sustain long-term health.

Near the top of the list is maintaining a healthy weight and body fat level.

"In addition to consuming fewer calories to control your weight, you also should strive to maintain your lean body mass," Keith says. "You should maintain a lifestyle that not only minimizes levels of body fat but that also ensures that you preserve as much muscle mass as possible."

Indeed, lack of muscle mass is a significant contributor to one of the principal chronic and even life-threatening diseases: type II diabetes.

Other critical markers include maintenance of normal blood pressure, glucose, cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Add to that list the need to maintain adequate levels of bone mass — a critical safeguard against another chronic and often crippling disease: osteoporosis.

One critical factor not explored in the book that has nonetheless emerged as a major contributor to disease is chronic inflammation, which Keith stresses can be managed through the reduction of blood levels of C-reactive protein. C-reactive protein is considered the major marker for chronic inflammation.

As a general rule, Keith advices sticking closely to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid as well as the federal government's exercise guidelines. Among other recommendations, these guidelines include eating more fruits and vegetables and reducing sodium intake.

"If you think about it, these are recommendations for sustainable practices for humans," Keith says.

"They're geared to sustain you, to keep you healthy so that you don't develop chronic diseases such as cancer, hypertension or type-2 diabetes."

When you adopt these practices, you're not only helping yourself but also the rest of humanity and even the planet, Keith says.

"Your carbon footprint is going to be smaller because you're eating less food and the food you're eating typically is not processed and, therefore, requires less energy to produce," he says, adding that other factors are positively affected too.

Among the more tangible factors, medical expenses tend to run lower among people who follow these sustainable practices over the course of their lives. But even less tangible factors, such as levels of family-related stress, tend to be lower too.