Growing older doesn’t mean growing old

My preschooler shuffled around on his seat until his face was almost pressed against the glass of the gondola. The whir of the cables serenaded us over rocks, grass and the odd sheep, until a small shudder rocked the gondola and we stopped.

“Why have we stopped?” My son asked, clearly slightly worried that his trip was ruined.

“It’ll start again in a minute. Sometimes the workers have to stop the gondola if someone needs to get on and they can’t jump on like you did while the gondola is moving. They might be in wheelchair or not be able to walk very fast.” I frowned as I tried to find a way to explain this that a 3-year-old would understand. A little lightbulb blinked over my head as an idea popped into it. “Like how Granddad can’t walk very fast. The gondola workers would probably have to stop the gondola if Granddad wanted to get on. Then he could take his time getting on.”

Master 3 sat and digested this information for a full 30 seconds before he started in with the follow-up questions.

“Why can’t Granddad walk very fast?”

“Because he’s o-,” I stopped myself short. I had actually almost said the words because he’s old. I mentally shook myself. That kind of thinking is, to be frank, absolute bullshit. I’ve met people far older who are very active. A colleague of mine had a 93-year-old cycle to a cooking class to support a friend of his. He didn’t even need the class himself, as he cooked all of his own meals. In his own home, where he lived independently. And he taught English classes. I mean, talk about the epitome of aging well.

Thing is, we think of that lovely older gentlemen as an exception to the rule. In general, we think that getting older means getting old. Being frail. And it doesn’t. Or at least, it doesn’t have to. In the ‘blue zones’ of the world people routinely live beyond 100 years in good health. These five places are geographically spread, culturally different, nutritionally different, and yet they all enjoy great health and wellbeing. So what do they have in common? What are the secrets to aging well?

A team of medical researchers, anthropologists, demographers, and epidemiologists set out to answer that question by visiting the blue zones and they came up with nine lifestyle habits the blue zones all have in common.

  1. Move naturally – centenarians are not going to the gym in the blue zones. They just walk everywhere, do chores by hand and tend their gardens. Their physical activity is built into their day and they don’t even think about it.
  2. Purpose – this is less tangible that exercise and nutrition, but it’s incredibly powerful. People in the blue zones feel they have a sense of purpose. A reason to get up in the morning.
  3. Down shift – it’s not that they don’t experience any stress, it’s that they have effective de-stressing activities. Some pray, some drink wine with friends, some nap. Point is, they take some time each day to chill out.
  4. 80% rule – I don’t actually like the title of this one because I think it’s possible that it’s missed the point slightly. In one of the blue zones (Okinawa), there’s this saying “Hara hachi bu”, which basically means stop eating when you’re about 80% full. But I suspect a large part of knowing that you’re 80% full is eating slowly and mindfully. Also, people in the blue zones aren’t loading up on food at night (which is not so great for health). They generally have a small meal in the afternoon or early evening and a nice long fast overnight before breakfast the next morning. A 12-16 hour overnight fast has been shown to be fantastic for health in other studies, so I think there’s something to that.
  5. Plant slant – it’s not that they don’t eat meat, okay? Meat is not the devil. It’s that they don’t each much meat, and they eat heaps of plants. Beans and lentils in particular are consumed in all of the blue zones.
  6. Wine at 5 – again, I wonder if this title misses the point. Not all of the blue zones drink alcohol. But when they do, they drink moderately (no one is getting hammered) with loved ones over a meal. I personally wonder if the sharing of food, conversation and love is the real culprit here?
  7. Belong – most people who live to be 100 belong to some kind of faith-based community. The kind of faith doesn’t matter. The point here is the community. The sense of belonging.
  8. Loved ones first – multiple generations live close by (if not in the same house) and a lot of time and love is put into family. The blue zones researchers noted that having grandparents close by was actually associated with decreased mortality and disease in their grandchildren!
  9. Right tribe – this point is all about social connections. Happiness and good health are somewhat contagious, and blue zone centenarians surround themselves with a network of friends who share their healthy habits.

(You can read more about the blue zones here. I love the lessons we can learn from the blue zones but I warn you that the website has become quite commercialized these days, with options to buy meal planners, etc.)

All of this raced through my mind while I pondered what to say to my preschooler. Why can’t Granddad walk fast?

“Because he doesn’t do enough walking, so his legs aren’t very strong anymore.” Somewhat oversimplified perhaps, as it ignores other medical issues, but still, it’s closer to the real point than just saying that he’s old.

Well, if you’ve ever met a 3-year-old, you will be able to imagine the follow-up questions to that one! We ended up having a huge discussion about it. In the end, my preschooler decided, quite firmly, that we will go walking with Granddad this summer. We will help his legs get stronger a little bit at a time, so that he can walk faster. Only not quite as fast as Master 3, because that little competitive boy still wants to be “the fastest”, okay?

You’re in for it now, Granddad. Sorry not sorry about that one! Walking with your grandchild will tick the box for move naturally, purpose, down shift, loved ones first and right tribe. So lace up those sneakers!

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