How To Stay Healthy As You Age
At the youthful age of 87, Charles Eugster asked for some help. He told a bodybuilder that he wanted a beach body. "There are beautiful seventy-year-old girls out there," he said, "and I’d like to turn their heads." But simply showing off a six-pack wasn’t enough. Eight years later, he broke the British age-group records for the 100 metres sprint and the long jump.
The newspapers called him the country’s fittest pensioner, and his story teaches us some useful lessons. He wanted to help change perceptions of what it means to be old. And he showed that even advanced old age could be active, fun and inspiring.
So what can we do to stay happy and healthy as we get older?
One of the best places to find out is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. This has followed hundreds of ordinary men and women since the 1930s, from teenage years through to old age. There’s plenty of wisdom here – and some surprises, even for the researchers.
The good news is that we shouldn’t obsess about cholesterol, or the stressful events that life throws at us. Forget the faddy diets and superfoods. There are many other things that have a bigger impact if we want to age well (and even get that beach body). Most of them are well within our control.
The key finding about stress is that stressful events are not as harmful as we might expect. Some people have a lot of stress in their lives, but still age very well. It’s how you deal with it that matters most. So developing coping skills, being positive and able to adjust to life’s changes is very important. If you can do this without resorting to cigarettes, even better.
The benefits of exercise as you age
Taking regular exercise is a big one. At any age, it gives us more energy and keeps us healthier for longer. In fact, older age is when we need exercise the most. That’s because our metabolism is slowing down and our muscles are becoming less dense. So take a walk and start dancing lessons. Or try some gentle weight training, stair climbing or digging in the garden.
The importance of social connections
One of the Harvard researchers says ageing well is like being tickled – it needs someone else. He’s spot-on, because many studies show how our social connections promote good health. These connections include everyone - a spouse, brothers and sisters, neighbours, even the postie. People with satisfying relationships remain more healthy and more alert, although no-one really knows why. It may be because men and women who live alone tend to eat less well. People with a good social life may also have stronger immune systems.
Education and learning
The researchers tell us that pursuing education also helps. Studying often brings wellbeing and a connection to the wider community. Some people like the feeling of forgetting themselves, and realising how much about the world they still have to learn – even in their 80s. With easy-to-use online courses like those at FutureLearn, you don’t even need to be away from home to boost your brain power.
Don't chase your youth - chase your health
Most of us would struggle to bring Charles Eugster’s level of focus to our lives. But by adding a little extra physical and mental activity in our later years, everyone wins. As he taught us, we should be setting this example for future generations. Getting older and reaching 'retirement' is no reason to go slow - far better to keep moving, working and learning.
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