Ida Keeling set a new world record for the 100-meter dash within her 100-plus age group in May 2016. While reading about a centenarian running sprints and setting records, it’s typical to question things a bit. There are plenty of folks nearly half her age that are reliant on canes and oxygen tanks, unable to exert much physical energy without needing a major surgical procedure afterward. How is this possible? What are the necessary ingredients for maintaining such impressive health deep into old age?
The answer, quite often, is the same regardless of the demographic in question. Maintaining health in old age looks similar to maintaining health in toddlerhood, pubescence, or middle age. Occasionally, popular articles emerge touting the secret to great health in your 40s, as if the advice were strictly intended for 40-somethings and would be inaccurate, even dangerous, for the 38- or 51-year old to heed.
The answer is always painfully simple. It’s never anything sensational or news-worthy (note the irony in my writing a piece about its un-news-worthiness). Answering this question reminds me of the athlete, after a stunning performance on the grandest of stages, sitting at the press conference amid a sea of flashing cameras and reporters eagerly asking for the secret to success. Most responses, often with a shy shrug, sound like “I don’t know, I just did it” or “I kept it simple” or “I just did the right things”. Attractive for the headlines? No. But accurate? Yes.
The fad diet, the trendy workout, the “secret formula” – I greet them all with a sprinkle of skepticism. I embrace the simple when it comes to maintaining health and wellness: it’s far easier to follow “simple” and to make habits out of simple behaviors. Plus it takes less cognitive horsepower to stick with simple, realistic plans (a note of caution: don’t mistake “simple and realistic” for “a waste of time” and “not going to get me healthy”). Complex plans, in which several highly challenging, potentially unrealistic health-minded goals are being set at once, require more willpower, which is a commodity that can be depleted. Once this happens, we may experience a complete loss of personal control.
Below is a compilation of quotes extracted from conversations (not my own) with centenarians who were asked for advice about living long and well. The language is simple, honest, and direct, not at all secrets. In a society in which many are answering the question about health with attractive gadgets and gizmos a-plenty, oftentimes the answers that elicit a “Wait, that’s it?!” are the wisest to follow.
1.) “One shouldn’t eat too much in the evening, it may cause sickness” ~ Stanislaw Kowalski
This could easily be attributed to a mother admonishing her 6-year old before bedtime. If heavy eating is something you’re unwilling to give up, make sure to devote time earlier in the day to gluttony. In the same interview, Kowalski was quoted as saying, “It’s better not to eat enough than to eat too much”. It’s difficult for societies such as ours, whose appetites are insatiable and whose access to heavy eating establishments is almost too easy, to read and accept this as sage advice.
2.) “I’ve got to get my hour in every day” ~ Ida Keeling
Incorporating exercise as a firm and non-negotiable part of one’s daily life – just like brushing one’s teeth and taking a shower – makes it routinized. Any action over time and with deliberate practice will become routinized. The brain’s neural connections become stronger and thicker in response to repetitive action—good or bad. Making activity a natural part of your life, over and over again, will, like a muscle, make that part of your life stronger and more seamless to carry out.
3.) “I never want to go backwards. I’m a forward type of person” ~ Ida Keeling
Set goals for yourself. Start simple and small; accomplishing them will encourage you to set more challenging personal goals. Goals force you to look forward, not yearn for or stay stuck in the past.
4.) “Moderation, attitude, gratitude … that’s it” ~ Lauretta Taggart
Mindset affects health. Cardio-respiratory health, sleep, even posture are influenced by our mental outlook. Adopting a mindset focused on growing, learning, and loving opens us up to new experiences, facilitates creativity, and makes it more likely that we’ll take better care of ourselves and those around us.
5.) “Family…that’s what makes me happy” ~ Susannah Mushatt Jones
Harvard psychiatrist Robert Waldinger is the director of the Laboratory of Adult Development at Massachusetts General Hospital, at which he’s spearheading a study on adult happiness that has tracked hundreds of American men for over 75 years. In his TED talk outlining the findings, his main conclusion, beautiful in its simplicity: form good relationships and you’ll be alright.
6.) “Sleep and eat well and you will live a long time” ~ Misao Okawa
Get a good night’s sleep, for goodness sake. There are those who are simply unable to do this – nursing mothers and chronic insomniacs come to mind – but for the rest of us, our excuses for getting less than 7 or 8 hours nightly are usually lame and without much merit.
7.) “I participate in lots of activities” ~ Bernando Lapallo
Immerse yourself in a new hobby or interest. Something that stretches your body (not in the pliability sense, but rather something demanding) or mind, and takes you out of your comfort zone. For many of us, as we age and settle into our jobs and families, we no longer get exposed to new skills and crafts. Picking up squash, learning the harpsichord, and basket weaving are fine examples of (likely) new activities that stimulate the senses and challenge us.
Don’t eat too much, move your body regularly, set goals, surround yourself with loved ones, sleep well, and find new interests. Nothing sexy or new about it. Attractive for the headlines? No. But accurate? Yes.
by Greg Chertok, M.Ed., CC-AASP