Gregg Daniel is one of those people who just seems to know a thing or two about living well. The 64-year-old actor and director has a youthful presence and a big smile when he arrives to our Zoom interview the week before Thanksgiving. Daniel is upbeat, gracious, and thoughtful. If having a cheerful outlook was a guarantee of a long life, Daniel might just live forever.
As a husband and father who has learned to balance family and professional obligations, Daniel acknowledges the importance of being intentional: with his time, his health, and how he shows up in the world. It’s clear the Brooklyn native walks the talk.
“It’s the attitude of gratitude,” he says. “I start and end every day on my knees in prayer. There is so much to be grateful for, and I make sure to acknowledge that right away.”
One of the things Daniel is thankful for is a long and storied career that includes prominent roles on megahit television shows like True Blood and Insecure, and a “Best Director” NAACP Theater Award win for his production of Fences at the International City Theater.
He’s also proud to say that he built his resume without sacrificing his marriage to actress Veralyn Jones or time with the couple’s now 24-year-old daughter. Daniel attributes his personal and professional success to his healthy lifestyle—one that includes a range of practices that benefit his mental and physical health.
“You have to be intentional about how you spend your time,” he says. “It’s easy to get pulled in all directions, so you have to be deliberate about saving time for family. I also have faith that the path I’m on with acting is the path I’m supposed to be on. I get a lot of pleasure from what I do. Finding that balance between work and home is important for my mental health.”
Making mindful choices
Daniel brings that same intentionality to caring for his body. This begins with a dedication to aerobic exercise three times per week, as well as some yoga/Pilates, strength training, and walking his two dogs.
“A sedentary lifestyle will kill you,” he says. “Your body is meant to be in motion. Being active is a non-negotiable for me. It not only benefits you physically, but it also impacts your mental, emotional, and psychological health.”
Daniel, who was a certified aerobics instructor at one point and currently lectures at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, encourages his students to move their bodies, too. He wants them to experience the advantages that extend beyond physical fitness.
“I tell my students: tight body, tight thoughts,” Daniel says. “You have to remain fluid. A tight body constricts your mind. You don’t have to be a gymnast, but you have to find ways to be flexible and maintain body elasticity, especially at my age.”
In addition to a regular exercise routine, Daniel closely monitors his salt and sugar intake. He has a genetic predisposition to high blood sugar and diabetes, and counters this by being deliberate about what he chooses to eat . He’s also a big proponent of getting regular checkups.
“Staying healthy requires you be an active participant in your health,” Daniel says. “But I don’t have to preach these things. Once you do them, you’re going to understand it for yourself. You’re going to feel so much better.”
Maintaining a positive mindset
Daniel would know. He may have made a living playing other people, but his youthfulness is no act. It’s a state of mind. He has worked hard to cultivate awareness, foster gratitude, and focus on the good. The result is a positive outlook that forms the foundation of everything Daniel does, and he’s found joy in paying it forward.
“Helping others is a big thing in my life,” he says. “It’s about having courtesy and respect for everybody. I think you have to stay in a place where you find ways to reach out to people and make yourself available to them. When you can help other people achieve their dreams, what you get back is enormous. It puts you in a positive mentality.”
Daniel practices this in his work life by taking on young assistant directors for his theater projects and mentoring his students, just as others did for him long ago. When it comes to his personal life, Daniel also takes time to call or text the people who need to hear from him. These small gestures create large impacts.
“I always want to uplift others,” Daniel says. “That means that when I have a conversation with people, I try to be really present. Often times, we listen to people, but we’re so busy that we don’t really hear them. I ask myself: ‘Am I actually taking in what this person is saying?’”
For Daniel, mindfulness begins with his breath. He finds that this is an amazing tool for bolstering awareness and focusing on the bright side. Research backs Daniel’s anecdotal evidence.
Mindful breathing has been shown to activate the body’s vagus nerve, an important part of the parasympathetic nervous system that connects the brain and gastrointestinal tract, and helps to regulate mood and stress responses. Vagus nerve activation has also been linked to resilience—something everyone could use a little more of these days.
“We’re living in a tumultuous time,” Daniel says. “We lost a million Americans to a dreadful pandemic. As a nation, we’re still in shock. Now, is the time to take care of each other. We need to continue to be kind and gentle with one another because we’ve gone through a lot.”
The Connection Between Optimism and Longevity
Most people focus on physical health when they want to extend their lifespan. While eating right and prioritizing movement certainly play an important role in helping humans live into their golden years, it’s only part of the equation. Mindset matters, too.
According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, having a sunny outlook has significant impacts on longevity. The study findings showed that optimism—defined as the “psychological attribute characterized as the general expectation that good things will happen, or the belief that the future will be favorable because one can control important outcomes”—related to a greater likelihood of living to 85 years of age or older. The study results also suggested that higher optimism was linked to an average lifespan increase of 11-15 percent.
Activities that Prove Age is Just a Number
It’s never too late to try something new. From unexplored hobbies to activities you’ve always wanted to experience, here’s a list of options to take up at any age:
- Cook a new recipe or type of cuisine.
- Learn or relearn to play a musical instrument.
- Start a new creative hobby, such as wood carving, painting, or pottery.
- Move your body in a new way: swim, dance, practice tai chi or yoga, garden.
- Practice a new language.
- Volunteer at an animal shelter, local park, hospital, or library.
- Join a club that centers around something that interests you, like books, movies, card or board games, or birding.
- Travel with a group or fly solo.
- Pick up a new pastime, such as chess, calligraphy, or quilting.
Five Supplements for Mental Clarity
Protecting your brain health as you age can take many forms. The Mayo Clinic advocates for regular exercise, plenty of shut eye, and staying mentally active with the help of brain teasers, puzzles, crosswords, and more. Many studies stress the Mediterranean diet and other so-called brain foods. While there’s no one protocol to follow, many people choose to combine healthy meals with supplements.
Here are the top five bioactive compounds to look out for:
|L-theanine||This amino acid found in green tea has been shown to improve attention, memory, and executive function.|
|Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)||These long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are found in fish and fish oil products. They have been linked to studies that show they help with healthy aging and improved cognitive function in those with mild Alzheimer’s disease, as well as overall brain health and repair.|
|Electrolytes||Minerals that carry an electric charge within the body are called electrolytes, but the common ones include calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium and sodium. Because dehydration has been shown to disrupt attention, executive and psychological functioning, motor coordination, and more, a combination of plain water and electrolytes are helpful to prevent decline in these areas.|
|B Vitamins||These water-soluble vitamins help with cellular and neurological function. Evidence suggests that all B vitamins help to preserve brain health.|
|Vitamin E||This antioxidant has been shown to prevent or delay cognitive decline in the aging population and patients with Alzheimer’s disease.|