Think of the things you love doing now, all the things that make like worth living…do you expect that you’ll still be able to do them when you’re older? The chances are that you can, it you start preparing now.
We all want to go on living, but we fear the baggage that comes with old age…frailty, illness, loss off looks, declining strength and failing mental capacity. But are these things inevitable? Increasingly, the evidence suggests no, far from it. The answer to an energetic and exciting life in later years lies in our hands today.
Across the world there are people pushing back the boundaries of what is possible in old age. Joe Biden became President of the United States at the age of 78. Sir Paul McCartney was still wowing audiences on his worldwide tour at the age of 77. Nancy Pelosi still shaking things up in politics while well into her 80s.
The UK national treasure Sir David Attenborough is still making ground breaking nature documentaries campaigning tirelessly for action against climate change in his mid 90s. Sir Mick Jagger remains as sprightly on stage as ever as he heads towards his 80s. Jane Fonda still active and looking a million dollars in her mid-80s.
There are millions of less well-known people just like these prominent pioneers. So much so that we should no longer regard these people as outliers, they are becoming the norm. At least, the norm for people who take the trouble to ensure they remain fit and healthy into their 80s. So how do they do it?
Professor Norman Lazarus is as qualified as anyone to provide the answer. He’s in his mid-80s and the picture of health and fitness, and he doesn’t take any medication. He’s too busy living life to the full.
He’s well named, for like his biblical counterpart, he had a dramatic turnaround in his life. Ok, he didn’t come back from the dead, but he did come back from a lifestyle that made him unfit, overweight and heading for an unhealthy old age.
He tells his story in his book, The Lazarus Strategy: How to Age Well and Wisely.
It didn’t start well for him. He didn’t pay much attention to his lifestyle in his youth. By the time he was 50, like millions of others, he was unfit and overweight. He felt it was inevitable that he would continue to deteriorate and that it wouldn’t be long before his health started to fail, and he would find himself on medication for various ailments for the rest of his life.
That was until he took a good look at himself one day, especially his bulging waistline, and decided to make some changes. More than 30 years later, the changes have paid off. He’s still working as a professor at King’s College in London and he has no illnesses, takes no medication and is living life to the full.
So what’s the secret? There is no secret. According to Prof Lazarus, the answer is there in plain sight. All we have to do is look and, more importantly, act.
He speaks with authority because he’s not only turned his own life around, he’s researched the issues of growing older and come to the reassuring if somewhat startling conclusion that how we age is largely down to us.
Our fate is not written in the stars or in our genes, nor is down to luck or where we live, or what job we do. No, unless you are unfortunate enough to be involved in a serious accident or develop a rare debilitating disease, how you age is largely down to the lifestyle choices you make.
We have a choice to take control of our health, or let it slip as we slouch on the couch, overeating and watching TV.
Speaking to the Times from his London home, he said: “The way we approach ageing is totally inadequate. Ageing is not a disease and the diseases of ageing have little to do with genetics. The real problems are social and lifestyle. If you eat properly and you exercise and you do that for a lifetime, your probability of getting one of these so-called diseases of ageing — I call them lifestyle diseases — is very small. And if you do get one, your probability of recovery is higher.”
The potential benefit to your health and happiness in your later years is enormous, but it’s not only a question of fitness. Many insurance companies offer reduced premiums for people leading healthier lifestyles. They’re not being generous, it’s just plain business sense. The cost of a policy is based on how much they are likely to have to pay out if you make a claim.
The more you look after yourself, the less likely it is that the company will have to pay out so it’s only fair to offer cheaper health insurance to people who keep themselves fit and strong.
The health message is deceptively simple but it brings us to the paradox of developing a good lifestyle: what we have to do is very straightforward, but actually doing can be very difficult, at least for some people.
Lazarus thinks the reason for this is that people have been bombarded with misleading messages, particularly from magazines and health gurus who promise easy solutions with fad diets, or exercise plans to lose weight. The problem is that these easy ‘solutions’ protect us from the reality that the only way to lose weight is to take in fewer calories. And the promise of ‘easy exercise routines’ reinforce the idea that exercise is something unpleasant that is forced upon us by cruel PE teachers at school or over-enthusiastic fitness instructors at gyms who treat everyone as if they’re Olympic athletes. This can make exercise seem like an unpleasant imposition on life instead of a way of life.
He says: “The idea has somehow been fostered that ‘I do not need exercise but you are foisting it on me.’ You mustn’t think of exercise being imposed on you. You must internally generate the idea that it’s for enjoyment. A dog running down the road isn’t thinking, ‘I’m raising my heart rate.’ It’s enjoying itself.”
It’s a telling point. Toddlers running round a garden or children racing through a school playground aren’t thinking about exercise; they’re just having a good time. That enjoyment is something we tend to lose as we get older but it’s something we need to regain if we’re to make a healthy lifestyle a pleasure rather than a chore.
This doesn’t just apply to children. People dancing, or doing some gardening, or meeting friends for catch-up while walking in a park…none of them are thinking about exercise, yet exercise is what they’re doing and in many ways it’s the best kind because they don’t even realise they’re doing it; it’s a by-product of something they enjoy.
Lazarus is a doctor and is married to June, an immunologist in her late 80s who also follows a healthy lifestyle. She watches her weight and enjoys walking.
Lazarus has done research into diabetes for the Department of Health in the UK, and researched into ageing for King’s College. That research has shown the value of exercise when it comes to ageing well. It is vital for our physical and mental wellbeing; it builds muscle and lung capacity, boosts our immune and hormonal systems and reduces cholesterol levels.
Some of his research was published in the journal, Ageing Cell. It arose out of his interest in cycling. He found a mismatch between what he had been told as a medical student, that age inevitably brought disease, with the fact that he and his fellow cyclists, also in their 80s, did not have those diseases.
The inevitable decay that he had been taught about was not happening. Quite the opposite, he and his fellow cyclists had the immune systems of 20-year-olds and were in perfect health, without taking medication.
This led to more formal research on his friends from his cycling club. He studied men and women between the ages of 55 and 79. On every health measurement from immune systems, to heart function, muscle structure and mental capacity, they scored higher than people of the same age who didn’t exercise.
In the book, he writes: “An extra surprise finding was that these elderly cyclists’ immune systems had been protected from ageing effects. It is becoming clear that our behaviour, our physical activity, affects not only our whole body but also all systems, including the cardiovascular, immune and nervous systems. The effects of being active trickle down to cells and even to hormones. The message is clear. Just go out and move.”
You don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to achieve better health. Like fitness experts across the world he says that anything that gets you a little out of breath will lead to lead to big improvements, whether it be gardening, dancing, walking or whatever…but you must do it regularly.
One myth that really frustrates Lazarus is the false link between exercise and weight loss.
“Thirty-five years of research has shown that is incorrect. The amount of energy you use as a normal person exercising is minuscule compared to the mountain of calories you need to move to lose weight.”
He has a point. If you eat just one chocolate bar, you would need to run at a good pace for at least 20 minutes to burn off the calories consumed. No one is going to do that on a regular basis. Much better to cut down on the chocolate bars. As Lazarus insists, exercise is not the way to lose weight. Instead, it’s a case of: “Eat less to lose weight. Exercise to improve your physiology.”
He insists that the diseases associated with old age are not inevitable. They are the product of your lifestyle and can be avoided by adopting the correct lifestyle. “If you change your lifestyle, lose weight, eat properly and love an exercise enough to do it regularly, the probability is that you’re not going to get a disease. People say ‘Oh, you get old, you’re going to get these diseases.’ It makes me want to cry. It’s rubbish!”
He hopes his book will help people to make the right choices to take control of their lives and their future. “What I’ve tried to do is give the alternatives. I’ve said, ‘Listen, if you don’t want to do these things, that’s fine. You have to help yourself. But if you don’t, then I assure you, the last 25 years of your life are going to be miserable.’”
Dr Lazarus’ ideas are backed up by research from medical experts across the world. A study in Ireland of care home residents aged 90 and above found that an exercise programme restored their muscle strength to the level of people 10 to 20 years younger.
By contrast, if an older person has to spend a week in bed it can lead 10 years worth of muscle wasting.
The answer, as always, is to exercise and it has to be regular. Vanda Cummins, a physiotherapist working with older people for the health service in Ireland says: “Exercise is a journey, not a destination. We do not stop exercising because we grow old, we grow old because we stop exercising.”
Cummins believes that the way exercise helps restore the body needs to be emphasised more and more in positive messages in which the right language is key. She believes phrases like ‘wear and tear’ as we get older should be countered with more positive angles to show what is possible, such as ‘wear and repair’.
As in all aspects of life, it’s all down to the choices we make and despite the fake gurus making false promises, there are no easy solutions. We have to take action and perhaps to the best way forward is to find activities that are a pleasure rather than a penance. Is that really so hard to do?
Is there no activity involving movement that we would not enjoy? Surely not. Walking, gardening, dancing, cycling…the whole world is open to us. And the view from outside is a lot more exciting and rewarding than the view from the couch to the TV, no matter how good the shows may be.
Could you see yourself doing this? It would count as great exercise, make you fitter and healthier…maybe save you money on your health insurance and give you a good warm feeling at the same time.