What is “Aging Well”?

Someone said it’s gracefully adapting to reality. That’s nice, but so much of what we call “aging” is about the unnecessary reduction of physical activity. And I don’t want adapting to be an excuse for self-limiting behavior.

So I’m positing: Being able to continue enjoying the activities that please us. While being able to adapt is essential, it is the opposite of the direction this column is taking. One of my intentions when writing these columns is to use up-to-date information and logic to inspire just one person to get up off the couch. Then he or she will experience how good it feels to take charge of his or her life and health.

We all have plenty of room for improvement, but research shows the greatest benefits are there for those who move from unfit/sedentary to even a little more active.

In early September 2012, the Archives of Internal Medicine published a study conducted by the Cooper Clinic. (Dr. Kenneth Cooper has been a pioneer in health/fitness research and was the originator of that now ubiquitous term aerobics.) The study followed almost 20,000 men and women for more than 40 years. One of the key components was to measure when the onset of chronic disease started affecting the quality of their lives.

Modern medicine is wonderful. It keeps us alive for a comparatively long time. Average life expectancy is now 78 years (in 1900 it was only 47 years) but along with that extension of life comes higher incidences of chronic diseases. Another way to phrase it is—if we live long enough, we’ll eventually see some combination of osteoporosis, arthritis, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, etc. The goal then is not to prolong our lives—modern medicine is already doing that. The goal is to do all we can to delay major illness and therefore allow us to enjoy many more of our years here.

Once we have a significant health problem, it becomes our primary focus; it becomes the lens through which we see life. And that affects not only us but also all those around us. The most generous giver becomes self-centered when faced with a major health problem. Those people in the study who attained even a moderate level of fitness (I’ll explain that and it‘ll surprise you) were able to avoid the onset of chronic disease by 10, 15 or 20 years. While some of our fitness level is about genetics (some of everything is about genetics), much more is within our control. We have substantial influence over whether our additional years are spent enjoying life or are spent with pain, discomfort, dependence on others and sometimes living many years while being just plain miserable.

There are plenty of aging’s changes we can’t avoid. We can dye our hair or have a facelift or a tummy tuck to appear younger without any impact on our actual health. While looking better is surely a valid goal, there are far more important ones. Like feeling better, moving better, having more energy and living more of our years here being pain free and enjoying our lives. There’s a sign in one of our studios that says: “The power of positive thinking is backwards. We change our state of mind by first changing our behaviors.” It’s obviously referring to a positive veneer vs. a solid foundation.

There’s also the day-to-day joy of not just feeling better physically but feeling better about ourselves. Self-esteem is admittedly a vague concept. Like good health or a good relationship we can’t really achieve it. We can value it and be attentive to it but there’s not an actual end point. Self improvement is something we can always work on and is a prerequisite to positive self esteem.

There is no better path than knowing we’ve taken charge of our lives and improved ourselves in a meaningful way. So what did the study recommend to move out of the least fit/sedentary category and therefore achieve the most benefit? Start a dedicated exercise program, which focuses on building new lean muscle tissue? Become a devoted yoga practitioner? Work daily on balance, posture and core strengthening? Hire a personal fitness trainer? Achieve an advanced level of aerobic cardiovascular health?

All of the above will add to your capacity to enjoy more activities but to postpone the onset of chronic diseases, you just need to add a brisk 30-minute daily walk. I repeat: if you commit yourself to a daily 30-minute walk, you have made a major change in the odds of how you’ll spend the rest of your years here. Sounds simple doesn’t it?

It is. And you can do it. Just start.