Everything I Thought I Knew About Aging Was Wrong
In Amanda Ripley’s fascinating book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes — And Why, she introduces us to the “Dread Equation.” According to Ripley, the psychology of dread follows an equation that looks something like this: Dread = Uncontrollability + Unfamiliarity + Imaginability + Suffering + Scale of Destruction + Unfairness. If you follow her logic, we tend to have the highest levels of dread for things like airplane disasters and terrorist attacks.
The reality is that the overwhelming majority of us will not die from any of the things we dread. Instead, we’ll die from lifestyle diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.
I buckle up every time I get into my car because I dread getting killed in a car wreck. Yet, for some strange reason, I don’t dread the venti Starbucks sugar-loaded latte I am drinking even though my blood sugar has been pre-diabetic for years. I don’t dread it because I have unconsciously accepted that I’ll age like everyone else – and die like they do. You probably have too.
How We Get Old
Here is what we can expect as we age. We reach our peak in our 20s. We still feel pretty good in our 30s but we get fatter. By our 40s, we gain more weight and become increasingly sedentary. By our 50s, we are showing signs of systemic illness and disease. By our 60s, many of our friends are dying of lifestyle diseases. We become increasingly frail and lose our independence in our 70s if we happen to live that long.
What is even worse is that we’ll die younger than our parents. Life expectancy in the United States has dropped for the second year in a row, the first downturn in more than two decades. On average, Americans can now expect to live 78.6 years according to a report on 2016 data published by the National Center for Health Statistics.
Pretty grim. Fortunately, everything you just read about aging is wrong. Let me explain…
If You Want to See What Aging Well Looks Like, Look at the Margins
Yes, we are all going to die. But you can dramatically change how you live as you age. What I have described above happens to people who are generally representative of our society—most of whom are eating like eight-year-olds. If you look at the mean, Americans are sedentary, overweight, and unmotivated. If you want to see what aging well looks like, you will need to look to the margins.
At the margins of the bell curve, we are seeing aging athletes who are strong and active into their 80s and 90s. Moreover, these people are free of the common lifestyle diseases that plague the general population. Yes, they are aging, but they are experiencing a smaller subset of aging symptoms.
In his landmark book, Fast After 50, Joel Friel says, “There is reason to believe that the major contributor to the performance decline in athletes as they get older is nurture, with nature playing a smaller role.”
Many of us have come to believe in the myth that “genetics” plays a far greater role than it actually does in our health and the way we age. What we are now learning from the emerging science of epigenetics is that our health is not hard-coded in our genes. While we may possess good and bad genes, our diet and exercise can drastically impact whether or not those genes are “turned on or off.”
According to Friel, “As we age, exercise behavior (nurture) appears to play a significant role in how our given genetic biology (nature) plays out.” He believes that the role nurture plays is in the range of 60 to 70 percent. This is earth-shattering news if you are over 50.
When Conventional Wisdom Tells You to Back Off
At 40 I felt like I was getting old. I gained weight and slowed down. My knees started hurting. By 44 I found myself in a doctor’s office getting x-rays. “Yes, you have some arthritis in your knees,” the doctor told me. “There is not much we can do. It will gradually get worse. You are too young for knee replacements. Take Advil as long as you can.” That’s it? I’m 44 and my days of being active are over? My best days are behind me?
In an act of desperation, I bought a book on Amazon called Treat Your Own Knee Arthritis, by Jim Johnson. Johnson refers to a research study where 319 subjects between the ages of 25 and 74 with knee arthritis on x-ray found that only 47% had knee pain. In other words, 53% of these people had knee arthritis and no pain.
Another study found 49 subjects over the age of 45 with no knee pain and yet 76% of them had meniscus tears. Johnson believes that strengthening the muscles around the knees eliminates pain and arrests the process of arthritis. I became a believer. I started exercising my knees and hiking aggressively and within 3 months my knee pain disappeared and hasn’t returned since. I even climbed Mount Rainier without knee pain.
In a similar instance, I had a disc injury from when I was 16 years old that caused lower back pain throughout my life. I have spent countless hours at chiropractors. About a year ago I started CrossFit. I started deadlifting, something that made me very nervous. The thought of throwing my back out makes my blood run cold. Last week, I deadlifted 205 lbs. for 3 sets of 5 reps and I am nowhere near my potential. It’s as if I was never injured.
In both cases, conventional wisdom told me to act my age, slow down, and baby myself. In reality, my body already possessed the capacity to heal itself, but I had to push and work for it. We all feel that “need” to slow down and back off exercise as we age, but this is the very thing that will kill us. It is the siren’s song. Like Odysseus, if we listen to those voices, they will only lead us to our doom.
I love the story of Nancy Hoshaw, who was living a sedentary lifestyle when she had a heart attack at age 48. At 60, it was breast cancer. She went to Israel with a group of friends and saw how many women in the group had to lean on canes or other people to get around. Some couldn’t physically get to some of the tourist sites. Hoshaw saw these other older women and decided she wanted more out of life. She joined CrossFit and it changed her life. Check out the video of her story.
The Mechanics of Staying Fit into your 80s and 90s
If you want to age well into your 90s, you will need to win in four key areas: diet, cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and mobility. You can’t just do one or two, you need them all. You may read this and say to yourself, “There is no way I have the bandwidth to do all that.” You can and I’ll tell you the secret to how. Just keep reading.
The amount of conflicting advice on what healthy eating looks like is staggering. There are so many BS diets and philosophies out there, it is really hard for an average guy like to me to figure out how to eat healthy. Here are some common sense suggestions:
- Eat real food that comes from the ground or from an animal.
- Get rid of the processed foods (including fast food) and sugars.
- And eat smaller portions. You can’t exercise your way out of a diet that is too high in calories.
I’m not a Whole30 zealot, but I think they come pretty close to a common sense healthy diet. If you are trying to make a change to how you eat, Whole30 is a good place to start.
VO2 max is the measurement of the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can utilize during intense, or maximal, exercise. It’s a leading indicator of a person’s aerobic capacity. Over time, a person’s VO2 max gradually declines, but how fast it declines is largely determined by behavior and not by genetics. Dr. Michael Pollock and co-investigators at the Mt Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee did a study of 24 athletes over a decade. During the study, the VO2 max of the participants dropped a whopping 9% over a decade. However, Pollock learned that 24 athletes continued to train vigorously while the rest became sedentary. He dug deeper and found that the active athletes maintained their VO2 max while the less active ones saw VO2 max decreases of 12%.
Once again, if we want to know how cardiovascular exercise helps us age gracefully, we need to look at the margins. At the margins, we find that people who exercise vigorously show far less decline in cardiovascular capacity over time than “normal” people.
As “normal people”, need at least 4-5 vigorous cardio sessions a week to stay functionally fit and maintain our aerobic capacity as move into middle age and beyond.
If you want to live longer, get strong. A recent study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that subjects with low muscle strength compared to their stronger counterparts were more than twice as likely to have died 10 years later at the conclusion of the study.
Similarly, researchers in Australia did a meta-analysis of data from 80,000 adults in England and Scotland who completed surveys about their physical activity patterns starting in the 1990s. Those who reported doing any kind of strength training were 23 percent less likely to die during the period of the studies.
As we age, we lose muscle mass and bone density, and balance. This causes us to prematurely become frail. When this happens, something like a simple fall can lead to fatality. Strength training improves each of these aspects of our health and staves off the effects of aging.
Once again, as “normal people”, we all need at least 3 sessions of strength training a week if we want to age well and be functionally fit into our 60s and beyond.
Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: deadlift, clean, squat, presses, Clean & Jerk, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.Fitness in 100 Words According to CrossFit
As we age, our muscles and tendons gradually shorten and we lose mobility. Stretching and agility exercises are essential for aging well. In a 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers Cynthia J. Brown, M.D. and Kellie Flood, M.D. concluded, “Mobility limitations are the edge of that slippery slope that leads to loss of function. A decline in mobility seems to quickly lead to an across-the-board decline, including the routine activities of daily living. Mobility is a sort of barometer for how well an older person ages.”
The older I get, the more “stiff” I feel when I get up in the morning. My back, in particular, is often a problem area for me. I use a lacross ball and foam roller almost daily in a stretching routine and I’ve notice dramatic results – and you can do when you are just sitting around watching TV!
Why? And With Whom?
Regardless of your age today, you don’t have to age like “normal” people do. What you do has a fantastic impact, for good or bad, on how you age. Genetics counts for a little, but behavior counts for much more. Knowing this is the easy part. How do you actually change your lifestyle?
Here are two of my best secrets. If you can figure out your “why” and “with whom” you’ll be on your way to making progress. What is the most compelling reason (bigger than yourself) for you to get into shape? And who are you going to do it with?
My why is about family. I want to connect with my kids, grandkids, and maybe even my great grandkids in the outdoors. In fact, I plan on taking my grandkids on the John Muir Trail when they are 16-18. I’ve got to be in pretty great shape to do that.
My “with whom” is my CrossFit community at Centric CrossFit. I don’t have the discipline to go to the gym. I need a family of people doing it with me. When I’ve got it, I find that I can push myself hard and find new levels of athletic performance. The biggest reason people fail at getting healthy is that they don’t have this kind of community.
So find your “why.” Find people who will do it with you – and go kick some ass. And if you still need a little more inspiration, consider 94-year-old Marcel Remy, one of my fitness heroes…