Age is a wonderful thing. What a crime to waste it on people who believe -- as I once did -- that waking up tired, depressed, stiff and achy is an inevitable product of aging.
Approaching 60, I'd forgotten how good I could feel. I believed that my sense of malaise and lack of energy were inescapable consequences of getting older.
I've since discovered that they were nothing of the sort. My age wasn't the issue; instead, I was suffering from surplus body fat and sustained inactivity. If the refrigerator hadn't been 20 feet from the sofa, I wouldn't have gotten any exercise at all.
Once I undertook a healthy eating and rigorous exercise regimen, I lost 62 pounds and recovered the energy and enthusiasm of my youth, along with the stamina and flexibility of my high-school basketball days. Seven years later, I still feel like a baby bird who has just broken out of its eggshell and sees a whole new world.
In his book Younger Next Year, Dr. Henry Lodge points out that blaming the calendar for medical problems is a common mistake. The date on our birth certificate does not determine the state of our well-being.
Surplus weight and an under exercised body -- not the calendar -- account for most of the deterioration associated with aging. Based on a series of research studies, Dr. Dean Ornish assures us that comprehensive lifestyle changes may stop or even reverse the progression of coronary heart disease, prostate cancer, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, hypercholesterolemia, and other chronic conditions.
(Unfortunately, the aging effect of surplus pounds isn't limited to seniors. The neck arteries of obese children and teens push the vascular age of these children up three decades. Obese fifteen-year-olds have the fatty buildup of plaque that is more typical for 45-year-olds.)
Physical deterioration, however, is only part of the story. Extra weight and a lack of exercise also increase the risk for mental deterioration. A UCLA research team reports that obese and overweight individuals have less brain tissue than normal-weight individuals and their brains look years older. Researchers concluded that being overweight or obese is associated with detectable brain volume deficits in elderly subjects.
Their findings are consistent with a 27-year National Institute of Health study involving 10,000 patients at Kaiser Permanente Medical Foundation. Researchers concluded that the risk of dementia increased by 35 percent for patients who were overweight and 74 percent for those who were obese.
My own experience disproves the myth that poor health is an inevitable consequence of aging. A health and risk assessment at the time I decided to get fit placed me in the 90th percentile for heart disease, cancer and stroke. The assessment took into account personal medical history, family medical history, daily habits and results of diagnostic tests. Although I was age 59, my body performed like that of a 75-year-old.
After losing weight and making exercise a regular part of my life, I had my health reassessed. In less than six months, the risk of life-threatening medical problems was reduced to normal and my body performed like that of a woman in her late forties. This reversal demonstrates how quickly and dynamically the body works its way back to health.
If you need more proof that age is just a number, you need only look at the increasing population of older athletes. Dara Torres, now in her early 40s, is a five-time Olympic swimmer. Bob Borglund, 80 years young, placed first in his age division in the 113th Boston Marathon, finishing the 26.2-mile race in just over 4 hours, averaging well over 6 miles an hour.
The National Senior Games continue to expand. The largest-ever competition -- held in August 2009 in Palo Alto, California -- involved 12,750 athletes in 800 events ranging from archery and badminton to sailing and soccer. On the international front, the Huntsman World Senior Games, held each October in southern Utah, attracts athletes from around the world--from Japan to Russia and from Alaska to Australia.
Closer to home, I find neighbors and friends who have decided to take back their health and reclaim their youth. One in particular stands out.
Peggy Davidson. Courtesy of Union Newspaper
Peggy Davidson was a Johnny-come-lately athlete. She was such a heavy smoker that at age 40, she couldn't blow out the candles on her birthday cake. She was too busy to get fit; she was married, worked full-time and was raising a grandchild. Plus, she had no experience with sports.
Invited on a hike by acquaintances, Peggy found herself hopelessly out of shape. She tried running on a local track to prepare for the next hiking trip and found she couldn't complete a single lap. Yet she persevered. Six years later, she has completed a hundred-mile endurance run three times. Peggy has turned back her biological clock, just as you can too.
Dr. Lodge asserts that if you are willing to exercise regularly and eat on the slim side, even though the clock is ticking away, you can perform well both physically and mentally into your 90s. When I asked Dr. Lodge if it was ever too late to begin, he quickly responded. "Yes," he said, "the day after your funeral."
Here are three ideas to help you drink from the fountain of youth:
1. Take the fork out of your mouth and take a fork in the road. Resolve to adopt a diet of conscious, healthy eating.
2. Just do it. Set weight and exercise goals. Assemble a team. Get help from your doctor, physical therapist, nutritionist or others if needed. Begin and continue.
3. Become a student again. The brain is plastic and can absorb new information and acquire new skills. Old dogs can learn new tricks and need to learn new tricks to stay mentally alert.
Reaching maturity need not signal the loss of a youthful zest for living. Indeed, each stage of life is rich with potential for growth and development. If you're willing to open your mind to new ideas, your remaining years can provide as many opportunities for learning and discovery as the early years of your youth. And by committing to a healthful diet and regular physical activity, you will once again know, rather than vaguely recall, how good you can feel.