Thursday, May 14, 2009

How to Live to be 100 (Or Until the Bus Hits You)

Fiery plane crash. Rock climbing accident. Cancer. Crushed in one of those huge metal turnstiles/revolving door of spikes they have at the zoo that look like an Iron Maiden. (Am I the only one who is terrified by those things? I’m using the “stroller entrance” whether or not I have any kids in tow. Just saying.) I wasn’t sure how it was going to happen but every since I can remember, I’ve been convinced I was going to die young.

This belief has caused me to engage in some rather risky behavior (along with a severe case of political apathy - who cares who wins the election if I’m going to DIE?): cliff dancing - definitely more fun & probably more dangerous than you are imagining, meeting strangers off the Internet, scaling buildings & then jumping into dumpsters on the off chance those security cameras could get us onto Max-X, going on a week long road trip with a guy I hardly knew (and then I married him! Hi honey!!), and a chronic habit of reading whilst walking that actually caused me to get knocked on the head by one of those mechanical arms that guard parking lots. Obviously none of these things killed me (those guard arms are lighter than they look), but that bad attitude also led me to not care overly much about my health.

Now that I am 29, I have finally come to accept the fact that I’m here to stay. And I’m very happy about that. I wake up every day grateful for my life. Things that I never gave much thought to before - pesticides, global warming, transfats, Barrack Obama, BASE jumping legality, cockroach bits in my chocolate - I suddenly have very strong & vocal opinions about. And health - mine, yours, my kids’, that guy’s over there - has become paramount.

So now I’m faced with the task of weeding out all those unhealthy behaviors that I ignored over the years. I’ve managed to get rid of the big offenders by fixing my diet, keeping up on my doctor’s check-ups, exercising regularly, getting loads of therapy, and choosing Time over Cosmo in all those waiting rooms. What’s left is a mish-mash of little pet neuroses.

What’s Your Pet?
In one of the saddest bits of research I’ve come across lately, many people avoid exercise because of severe acne. I know that other body image issues affect exercise as well. “I’m too fat to go to the gym!” “I’m too uncoordinated to play sports!” “My boobs are too big to run!” “I’d die of embarrassment if I made a mistake in step class!” “I am the six-fingered man & there’s this guy named Inigo Montoya!”

I’m not denigrating these excuses. They are definitely a source of concern and I totally sympathize with the nagging fear that everyone is staring at your physical imperfections. But when our fears hold us back, it’s time to take action.

Life Tweaks
I’m sure you’ve heard of the Longevity Study conducted by the Harvard Institute of Health. It’s not terribly new. In it, the researchers interview hundreds of centenarians and came up with a list of behaviors they all have in common. Note: nowhere on the list will you find anything about being acne-free, coordinated, small-boobed or even five-fingered.

How to Live to be 100
1. Be a girl. (Sorry guys, it’s true! Guess I will have the last laugh on all those horrid blind dates! Oh, wait, I already do.)

2. Have good genes. (Another one you can’t choose but stick around because the rest of the list is all stuff under your direct control.)

3. Engage in a great deal of physical activity. (See? Doesn’t matter if you punch yourself in the face in boxing - which I have totally done btw - all that matters is you are movin’ and groovin’.)

4. Eat little or no meat. (I didn’t make that up. It’s in there, I swear!)

5. Don’t smoke. If you do, stop.

6. Don’t drink heavily.

7. Gain little to no weight in adulthood. (Easier said than done, Harvard!)

8. Don’t overeat. (The famously long-lived Okinawans in the study took in about 10-20% less calories than the average American adult. They actually have a philosophy: Eat until you are 80% full. When you figure out how to tell when you hit that 80% mark, please let me know.)

9. Consume less fat & make the fat you do eat of the good variety (nuts, fish, Chris Farley.)

10. Eat lots of fruits and veggies.

11. Get regular physical activity as long as you are able.

13. Have a positive outlook.

14. Maintain close ties with family & friends.

The researchers conclude by saying that no matter what our gender or our genes predispose us to, most of us could add a decade or more to our lives simply by doing the above things. So if you, like me, have finally decided that the universe is not out to get you, try making a few tweaks. Start with the last one, it’ll make you feel better almost instantaneously. Plus, your mom called. She wants to tell you she loves you. And then she wants to do the I-told-you-so dance because, really, she was right about the peas.

Note: Thursdays are The Great Fitness Experiment Greatest Hits. This post originally ran Feb. 26, 2008.