I’ve interviewed and talked to many people in their 50s, 60s and 70s who don’t think of aging as some grim reality to be accepted. They have programs in place for taking care of themselves. They strenuously exercise — they’re into bicycle racing, lifting heavy weights, strength training — challenging their bodies and minds. We humans are designed to work hard. We tend to fall apart if we take it too easy. In 300 BC, when Alexander the Great was doing his thing marching through Asia, the head of his personal guard was 65 years old. This guy carried a shield and a sword and was out there fighting. At 65, he was a normal, healthy, hardworking man. What was retirement in 300 BC? It was leaving the fighting and going to work on one’s farm — no La-Z-Boy chairs or TVs. Of course there were other health challenges back then, but the idea of age discrimination as we think of it did not exist. One could either do the task or not.
We’re living longer lives, but in order to live both longer and healthier lives we need to be making good decisions. Even if it’s true that as we age we’re faced with certain obstacles, what’s even more real is that if we “take it easy” we’re going to die. We have to believe in our capabilities, and not expect that we are overly limited by age.
When I studied martial arts, the toughest competitors were over 70; major architects are usually over 65; Kim Gordon is 66; Tony Hawk is 51. These are all fit, engaged, active human beings whose lives aren’t defined by their age. So what are the secrets to outmaneuvering society’s negative view on aging and living better and longer lives? Here are a few:
Food is fuel for our bodies; it is also medicine. Let’s think of everything we put into our bodies as having positives and negatives. When we eat something, we can think about its effect. Maybe that cake is worth the negative effect, or maybe not. We understand so many complex things around our lives, but few of us really understand the thing that keeps us alive: our food.
The single most important thing to understand about food is the glycemic load: a number that estimates how much the food will raise a person’s blood glucose level after eating it. When we eat something that’s sweet, our body metabolizes it quickly, and unless we are going to immediately run 5 miles, the body converts the sugar to fat. If you want to learn more about glycemic load, read Ray Kurzweil’s book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, where he explains it beautifully.
If you want to scare yourself, pull up some statistics that the life insurance people have put together about what they think a healthy, normal BMI (body mass index) is: somewhere around 22, which is pretty fit. But most Americans don’t live by these terms; we think about how close to a level of obesity we are, not how close to optimal fitness for our health.
I’ve talked to some people who say their exercise is gardening. I’ve witnessed them garden and it is some rather intense gardening — digging and shoveling are hard work. All of our bodies need to be challenged regularly and correctly. If we don’t want our bones to become brittle, we need to apply loads to our bodies. Our muscles, tendons and everything surrounding them will become more robust, and we’ll feel better all around. When our bodies are sturdier, our muscles supple and our BMI where it should be, we can move around space easier, with much more fluidity. It can totally change our mindset. We will no longer feel disempowered and weak. Strangely enough, just a little thing like feeling strong when opening the door can make a tremendous psychological difference in our day.
3. Posture and Flexibility
As we age, our muscles tend to stick together more. Gravity also tends to want us to cave in and stoop forward. But just like anything else about aging, this is an outcome that can be avoided. It requires work, but these conditions are optional. Maybe we are fine being stiff and slumped over. But if that is not the way we would like to navigate the world around us, there are some easy fixes. We can daily foam roll our muscles. Have someone who knows what they are doing show us how to stretch. Yoga anyone? Have a teacher show us what it feels like to stand up properly using all our erector muscles. Be tall. A great deal of what people assume is unavoidable back pain and muscle stiffness can be entirely mitigated.
4. Do Not Retire
If we Google “Retirement plus death,” we’ll see that one of the quickest ways to die is to retire. I’ve spoken to experts and scholars on this; one of them was Dr. Connie Mariano, White House Medical Chief under Clinton and Bush. I asked her why presidents live so long, much longer than the average person. How is it that the people who are already in the world’s most stressful job are living longer than average? The secret is: they all have a sense of purpose, they don’t stop and they certainly don’t retire. We need this sense of purpose, and for most of us, it’s our work.
The #1 anxiety that we have found in people our age is not mortality, it’s a lack of usefulness in the world — the dread of becoming irrelevant. The key is to keep busy with meaningful work. If forced out of a career, and it happens, we immediately get busy with being helpful and useful doing something else wherever we can. Family, church, social groups, volunteering, or training for a new career. Keep moving, keep the calendar full, keep a sense of agency in life.
5. Stick With What Works
Probably the best book I ever read about middle age and aging is Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. She talks about a certain point in our 50s, more or less, when we reevaluate, recalibrate, looking back at what works and what doesn’t. We have to get rid of the stuff that doesn’t work and do more of the stuff that does work. This applies to our social groups as well; stay with the people who are better for us.
What’s more, go full Kondo and declutter the house. How much of that stuff makes us happy, and how much of it weighs us down?
Hagerty also talks about concentrating on something we’re great at instead of something we’re only good at. As does Peter Drucker, the famous business author, who says we should stop trying to be good at everything and get great at one thing. We essentially have a second life now. Let’s spend it doing something we excel at surrounded by things and people that add value to our existence.
6. Embrace the Way You Look
If we’re keeping busy with other things, like being great at something and having a sense of purpose, questions about wrinkles and looks become less important. Embracing the way we look and taking care of what we have as best we can is a good way to think of this. This doesn’t mean ignoring our upkeep, but going for the perfection of our 20-year-old self is not going to end well. Trust us on that one. What may look like a youthful intervention at 50 can start to look monstrous at 70.
7. But Look the Best You Can
Vanity gets a bad rap. We don’t mean the self-obsessed pathological form of vanity, but a healthy regard for the way we want the world to see us. We had one rather famous doctor tell us that vanity was his main vector to getting people into a healthier lifestyle. Looking sharp so that we feel good about ourselves is also a sign of good mental health. We live in a society of other people, and those people are constantly reflecting to us what they think of our self-chosen stylistic messaging.
Here are a few simple directions that may be useful: get a good haircut or if the wild look is for you, wear it consciously. Take care of your teeth with regular brushing/flossing and the occasional white strips, which may seem obvious but is often overlooked as we age. Finally, wear clothing that fits, again rather obvious, but especially for men this is often overlooked. This is not anything crazy, or tremendously spendy, just simple self care that will go a long way towards letting yourself and others know that you feel you are worth it.
8. Be Social: Get Out and Meet People
Our communities tend to shrink with age. Combine that with the unfortunate age siloing so common in western countries, and we end up with an epidemic of loneliness. This is not just a sad critique of modern life, it has immense health consequences. Being lonely has the same impact as smoking 2 packs of cigarettes a day. The cure? Add people to your life. And we don’t mean adding Facebook friends, we mean real live people. Become a joiner. This is easier for women than men, but guys, you can do this. Join the YMCA as a youth volunteer. Join the church choir. Join the bike club, book club, HOA, whatever. Make a habit of saying yes to any and all invitations. Sitting alone binging on TV is doing exactly what we think it is: wasting time, and is that what we really want to be doing now?
9. Recognize That the Time is Now
We never know when life is going to end. We might have a certain amount of control over our longevity, because we take care of ourselves, see good doctors, etc. But, the truth is we don’t have full control of everything and things happen. The time is now. That thing that we have been wanting to do, let’s do it. If we’re happy doing what we do, let’s do twice as much of it. And if we don’t like something about our current circumstance, let’s change it or try to adjust it. Don’t wait, don’t settle. This is our life, we only get one, and now is the time to make fullest use of it.
10. It’s All Good
The first 9 of these are work. They require effort and conscious choices. Sometimes this stuff is really hard, much harder than when we were younger. On the other hand, life is pretty great. By now we have all lost people, we have seen family and friends get sick, maybe we have gone through some scary health crises. I spent the better part of a year in a hospital hooked to an IV filled with chemicals that kept me alive. In a superficial way that was not my best year. But what stays with me about that year, were the kids in the ward with childhood lymphoma and leukemia. They weren’t scared, or even sad. They chose to find joy in the simple everyday things around them.
Every day we get a choice of what we choose to look at, and how we choose to feel. We can look at the sky and marvel at the clouds, or we can choose to mope and drag our feet. This may sound Hallmark-card simple, but we have control over the most important part of our lives: what we choose to focus on. Personally, I have found that daily meditation is tremendously helpful. We can appreciate and be joyful for what we have, and who we are, or not. We can choose self-acceptance and take the actions that give us increased self-confidence, or not. We may not have control over much in the world, but we absolutely have control over what we decide to focus on.