Happy Old Age

I had some difficulty writing about being healthy. I felt I had to “walk the talk.”  It was presumptuous to write about healthy living if I myself was not.  I am not at all healthy. I do not do anything to ensure my physical well being.  Prior to treading on my pathway to health, I had not exercised in ages.  I could not even go up a flight of stairs without stopping to catch my breath.  Five Suryas into Yoga and I am sweating like a pig.  A pig, that’s an apt term for the lifestyle I had embraced.  I love food. Of course I know the general bad food: salt, sugar and fat.  But I grew up eating salt with vinegar as my main dish and loved (still do) fudge. I was (well I’d like to think) in pretty good shape up till my 30s, but truthfully, as you get older, you lose the metabolism you were once so proud of.

So why am I writing about healthy living now?  Well, I realized that if there is ONE thing I can control about my life, it would be my health.  While I cannot directly control the polluted air I breath, the toxins in the environment, or the high price of gas(!) I could directly control what I ingest (physically and spiritually.) While I cannot control time, I can make decisions that directly affect how hard I push the aging accelerator pedal. Or better yet, age gracefully.  So I sought to track down the Fountain of Youth.  What ensures wellness? How do people age and can we take a pill to extend life?  Add good years? Ripen rather than wither?

There are so-called “Blue Zones” or places around the world where people tend to live longer and healthier lives. “The Italian island of Sardinia, has the highest number of male centenarians in the world…Okinawa, Japan, has the longest disability-free life expectancy…. Loma Linda, California, a community of Seventh Day Adventists has a life expectancy that’s nine to 11 years greater than that of other Americans….Middle-age mortality is lowest on Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula.” (Dan Buettner, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest.)  So, what do these people have in common?

Physical activity that is entrenched in their daily life: The author met a 104 Sardinian who was chopping wood at 9AM. People in Blue Zones lived in environments that required them to engage daily in physical activity but in an effortless way. Okinawans sat on the floor, Sardinians lived in vertical houses and Costa Ricans tended their gardens.  The little bursts of energy they exerted all day long added significantly over the years and decades.

A healthy diet: The food that stands out among centenarians is legumes or beans, nuts and whole grains.  A Mediterranean diet, is notably healthy with its mix of fruits, vegetables, olive oil, fish, legumes and whole grains. Also, Seventh Day Adventists follow a plant-based diet inspired directly from Genesis.

Having a spiritual practice, a sense of purpose or “downshifting”: A lot of the centenarians were found happily tending their gardens and farms. Most centenarians have a consistent religious practice or belief. They pursue a culture of “downshifting” or taking time out to relax and ease their minds. Okinawans take a few minutes of the day to pay tribute to their ancestors. Seventh Day Adventists take a Sabbath Saturday, a “sanctuary in time.” Sardinians, pray for a certain period every day. Interestingly, I read that clergymen were among the longest-lived men and nuns were among the oldest women. 

Emotional connections: A good deal of centenarians placed a high premium on family, friends and social networks.  For example, Okinawans maintain a strong sense of community, making sure that each member is respected ad feels valued.

As I said, I do not exercise. I abhor physical activity that is unnatural, like biking in a stationary bike, running a treadmill, or lifting weights.  Some people take great pleasure in it.  It’s just not for me. I cannot do something I feel is just a simulation of what I should be doing—really biking, really running, or really carrying objects (but truthfully, even the real thing, I still seem to loathe.) I explained this to my doctor, and she said: “Find an exercise you like doing so you can sustain it since you are not forcing yourself.” Similarly, those in the Blue Zones were actively moving about in their daily life since their environment provided them with natural ways to move. So, rather than exercising for the sake of it, I should change my lifestyle to inject more activity into my life (i.e. walk instead of ride my car, use the stairs, play games with my kids, garden.) The regimen should also be sustainable. Yoga works for me, and so does swimming.  These are activities I would do just because. I would not have to conjure up reasons to avoid it.  And I would not tire myself out. In fact, moderate exercise should not make you feel tired because inversely, exercise feeds oxygen to the body and burns fuel.

On eating healthy, I could not be vegetarian.  I delight in food.  I cannot possibly miss out on Beef nights.  My mouth waters when I think of Chulleton and crave the gamey taste of lamb. I love my doctor.  She said: “Although fruits, grains and vegetables should be the bulk of your diet, do not deprive yourself.  If you are craving for steak, give in to the urge. Otherwise, you will also get sick because you are unhappy.”  I did not make that up.  Really. Also according to Robert Kane (Director, Center on Aging, University of Minnesota):  “Eating a reasonable diet makes a lot of sense. Again, it doesn’t mean that I think you have to be a vegetarian. One of the goals to a healthy lifestyle is moderation in all things… One certainly can metabolize a certain amount of meat, but again it’s a question of are you eating European portions or American portions [Pinoy portions are definitely tiny.]? Are you eating meat a couple of times a week, or are you eating it every day for two meals a day? Are you eating processed meats that are filled with fat? Or are you eating good cuts of fairly lean meat?” Also, the Sardinians’ daily diet consist of meat, beans and pasta, AND a glass and a half of red wine every day. With my mind (and stomach) appeased, I have since taken a huge step towards eating healthy, buying a lot of locally grown vegetables and fruits, although I am not giving up just cutting back on meat.  By cutting back, we also lower our carbon footprint, but that’s another story.  (Here is a NY Times Article: Putting Meat Back in its Place that inspired me.)  We have an abundance of locally grown fruits and vegetables.  And with the wealth of wisdom from the Internet, the recipes are endless!  Among my new discoveries is Yacon (apart from the wonder vegetables like malunggay, camote and sayote tops.) It is an edible vegetable that tastes like a crossed apple and watermelon.   Amazingly, its sweetness is not sugar but inulin, an indigestible sugar.  It is gaining popularity among diabetics because of its low sugar properties.  Additionally, food that contain antioxidants such as cinnamon, beans and berries are said to prevent cellular damage (Alzheimer’s, cancer, etc…)  Nuts are also loaded with healthy fats and improve cardiovascular health. A fascinating trivia: Did you know that Okinawans practice hara hachi bu which literally means eating only until they are 80 percent full?

Third is having a sense of purpose and having periods of calm.  This means having a belief system or religion that sets you free from fear and stress, having a sense of belonging in the universe, or having faith that life knows what it’s doing. A key component to aging gracefully is wanting to live because you know you are meant to be here. Moreover, taking moments of serenity makes sense, as emotional stress plays a role in a lot of illness.  Stress makes arteries constrict and blood clot faster.  Stress makes people more likely to smoke, overeat, drink to excess or work too hard. As it has always been prescribed but seldom followed: pray, meditate, and breathe into everything you do.  You heal not just your physical body but all that you are: body, life, soul and spirit.

Fourth, wellness is as easy as surrounding oneself and reconnecting with the people who really care about you.  Science now supports what we have known all along: Without strong social and spiritual connections, we wither. Isolation leads to illness and suffering. To borrow the author’s words: “We are evolutionally designed to socialize so there is a biological link between connectedness and how well our bodies work.”  In fact, singles do not live as long as married people. Really. “…[N]ever-married people were 58 percent more likely to die earlier than an age-matched group of married people. Divorced or separated people were 27 percent more likely to die earlier than married people” (2006 study from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.) The key though is to avoid adverse relationships (the ones that stress us out) and foster the good ones. Another interesting trivia: Having kids can help you live longer. Giving birth after forty more than quadruples a woman’s chances of living to 100. Studies also confirm that men who father children live longer, especially if they start raising a family at a younger age.  Days take on more meaning when you have people who care about you.

In a nutshell, my pathway to health is simply: injecting activity in my daily life, eating a good amount of fruits and vegetables (and a little meat *wink.), working on my inner life, and valuing social connectedness. So began my journey aimed at living a full-filled life and adding at least ten GOOD years to it. Following the rhythms and cycles of nature, it takes three weeks to make a habit.  I have yet to say I am healthy.  But, I am taking steps in hopefully the right direction.

And please don’t forget, most centenarians have a glass or two of red wine a day.

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