Vector illustration red traditional chinese longevity symbol

What differentiates those that live a long healthy life and those that fall victim to disease?  Well…it’s not a simple, clear-cut answer.  However, there are a few things within our direct control that probably play a significant role in longevity, including healthy eating habits, regular exercise and a positive mental attitude.   With the proper education, nurturing and encouragement, we can all form those healthy habits and improve the chances that we land on the long end of the longevity spectrum.

Yesterday after filming for Insider’s Health, I had my eight year old son Hunter out on his bicycle on our cul de sac.  His spindly little legs pumping on his bicycle as tears filled his eyes and he cried, “Stupid bike!” as he lost his balance and fumbled to the ground.  His frustration was intense, and he wanted to give up.  Kicking the tires wildly, and screaming with frustration, he told me with conviction “I am never going to learn to ride this bike! And why would I anyway!?”  I knew he wanted to give up and stomp all the way home.  I also knew he would if I let him, but loving him too much to let him fail, I gently helped him back up onto his bike and told him, “It is hard for everyone in the beginning.  The fact that it’s difficult is normal.  It was difficult for me when I learned, and I have the scars on my knees to prove it.”  He composed himself, wiped the tears from his eyes and climbed back on the bike.  This time, with a bit of anger, he pushed a little harder and managed to make it up the steep slope of our common drive.  His posture straightened up with his helmet bobbing in the wind as he completed the length of the drive without incident.  This is one of the moments as a parent you wish you could freeze in time, and one of those moments I can’t help draw upon as an analogy for life.  Everything we approach in life that is new requires resilience and a positive attitude.

I see it every day in my personal training.  The clients that succeed are the ones that don’t give up.  My two 88 year-old clients inspire me daily.  One of them, named Buddy, a nickname she has had since childhood, told me a year ago that she wanted to get back to gardening.  To put things in perspective, Buddy is a widow who lives completely independently, bombs around town in a shiny red Forester, and is a colon cancer survivor.  She also recently recovered from a deep wound that almost didn’t heal after a year, and then a few months after we started training, slipped and broke her hand.  Now get back to gardening?  Really?  Everybody around her told her she was nuts.  I however, told her there was no reason why she couldn’t.  With the strength she already demonstrated in her daily living, I knew this was achievable.  An inner light turned on insider her brilliant blue eyes, which sparkled as she said, “I believe you.” and so we began doing back strengthening exercises twice a week working her body in motions that mimicked pulling weeds, stooping with potted soil, etc.  The free-weight became her imaginary heavy pot of soil, and we strengthened every ounce of her body from her biceps to her quadriceps using weights and balls.

I truly believe that when that inner light turns on, there is nothing stronger.  The power of the human spirit is stronger than any life force itself and the belief  that she could do this despite what her age says on the calendar is bigger than the facts.

Months later, as I approached her home for our training session, I was greeted by eighteen gorgeous plants firmly planted in the ground, their vibrant colors bursting from every angle.  Standing over her new garden, proud as a peacock, she was thrilled to report to me she had planted every single plant herself.  Before our warm-up that day, she described in details her joy of going to the nursery, picking out the plants, putting them into the ground and seeing them flourish.  To say there was an extra push that day in her session, an extra bounce in her step would be an understatement.  This is what life is about.

One thing I’ve learned while working with my clients is that as we age, we can’t give up the fight….Retirement is not the time to slow down as people often believe.  The Okinawans, who live on Okinawa, the island of Japan where the largest percentage of centenarians live, do not know the meaning of retirement. They live long industrious lives, working well into their 80’s and 90’s. They are predominantly farmers who eat a healthy and modest diet consisting of fruits, vegetables, rice, and some soy and fish. The Okinawa Centenarian Study, conducted by Dr. Suzuki, Principle Investigator of OCS, involving the study of 900 Centenarians, provides some insight into the extraordinary longevity found in Okinawa. The findings have revealed the Okinawans have both genetic and non-genetic longevity advantages ranging from dietary habits and physical activity to the psychological and social aspects.  One of the most fascinating findings comes from a study of the cardiovascular system of the aging population.  The elderly Okinawans were found to have impressively young, clean arteries, low cholesterol, and low homocysteine levels when compared to Westerners.*These factors help reduce their risk for coronary heart disease by up to 80 percent and keep their stroke levels low.  Homocysteine is an amino acid that causes damage to arterial walls.  It’s generally higher in people who don’t get enough folate, which is found predominantly in green leafy vegetables. * Their levels of vitamins B6 and B12 were also high compared to Westerners.

Okinawans are also at extremely low risk for hormone-dependent cancers including cancers of the breast, prostate, ovaries and colon.  Compared to North Americans they have 80 percent less breast cancer and prostate cancer, and less than half the ovarian and colon cancers. * Factors that lead to these astounding results include low caloric intake, high vegetable and fruit consumption, high intake of good fats like the omega-3s found in walnuts and fish, and a high fiber diet, high flavonoid intake. As a result of their diet and a relatively high level of physical activity, the Okinawans also tend to have relatively low body fat.

I am completely inspired by these findings, but know with my clients that I am up against a huge challenge-bigger than the hills my eight year old has learned to climb on his bike. and that is the American way of life.  We are assaulted at every corner with fast food joints, and seduced on a regular basis with alluring TV ads to make our mouths water. The scrumptious looking close-up of the deep fried onion ring basket which is hard to resist, but could stop a truck with its 2,710 calories and 203 grams of fat!  These meals should come with warning labels, not just nutrition labels….Then, instead of hitting the treadmill or making the stop at the gym on the way home from work we are sucked into the abyss of primetime reality T.V.  The only time you can make this work for you is if you park yourself on the treadmill and start walking uphill swiftly WHILE you watch your reality shows.  I am not perfect and even have my own favorite TV indulgence called, “So You Think You Can Dance.”  At least they are dancing and inspire me to keep doing the same! I can also sympathize with all of my clients who struggle with eating as I battled a fifteen year battle with food and compulsive over eating myself.  That is why I know you can do this…no matter what your age. You can make the change that is going to increase the years in your life as well as the life in your years.  Let’s all learn from the lessons of the Centenarian Study.

It is only when the fear of staying the same grows greater than the fear of change that my clients are ready to make that first step.  They get sick and tired of feeling sick and tired and so we begin.  A few steps forward and often a few steps back, but always remember that the path to success is through the path of failure.  You must fail to get TO success.

I am reading a fascinating book right now called “The Longevity Project” by Howard S. Friedman and Leslie R. Martin. It has some surprising discoveries for health and long life from a landmark eight-decade study.  A personality trait known as conscientiousness was the best predictor of longevity in the United States.  Conscientiousness is a term to describe those who are thrifty, persistent, detail-oriented, and responsible.  I took the test and scored a 48 out of 50 so I should be on my way to a long life.

So here we are full-circle in my opinion, of what may unlock some of the secrets to longevity. There are lessons to be learned by helping a child to learn to ride a bike and by encouraging a skeptical elderly client to get back to her passion for gardening…lessons about persistence, positive attitude and the importance of physical conditioning. And, of course, lessons to be learned about nutrition and healthy lifestyle from the Centenarian Study.  Longevity depends on ones ability to harness the power of persistence, a positive attitude, and the discipline necessary to develop and maintain well-being long beyond the “golden years”.

This doesn’t mean a radical change, but small, deliberate changes in the way you conduct your life.  Let’s consider the subtle changes you need to make in your lifestyle to enhance your longevity.   At first, these small changes may seem like huge sacrifices as they are so against the grain of our American culture.  You may want to fold your hands across your chest and scream like my son, “It’s not fair!”  Even to the seemingly small choices like turning off the T.V. and getting out on your bike, or taking the time to walk with your dog.  You may rather face being stoned than trade in your Big Mac for a green leafy salad.  But you need to realize how much lighter you will feel, and the greater energy you will possess by eating more raw food and spending more time to make health your hobby.

Find your passion in your life and make a vision board to create a dream.  It does not have to be a grandiose dream, even a simple one like growing a garden, or taking your grandchildren fishing can be life changing.  For me, trying to keep two plants alive on my front steps all summer has forced me to slow down and smell the petunias so to speak.  It requires deadheading the leaves, nurturing and watering, giving it care and attention.  Your body is no different.

And as for stress, there is definitely enough material on that subject for a whole other article…it is a killer for sure in excess, but some stress can be good for you…especially when it is the kind of stress to help you make the right life changes to get on the healthy road to living.  Change is stressful, but necessary for growth no doubt.

You may not believe you have the genetics to last 120 years, but Jeanne Louise Calment who was the oldest person recorded with the longest human life span in history at 122 years and 164 days will prove you wrong.  She lived independently in Arles, France till she was 110.  The good news…. Buddy and I will be going strong training together another twenty two years.  At that point I will be a spry 65. Retired?  Never!

* Direct Findings from the Okinawa Centenarian Study

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