The 21st century has to be the greatest time to be alive. Life is easier than it’s ever been.
Thanks to modern medicine and technology you can expect to live longer than your parents. But you can’t assume you’ll enjoy those extra years in good health. Because the convenience of modern living is working to prevent it.
And you have to push against some of that convenience in the interests of your long-term health.
So, do you want to be part of the growing “ageing and unwell” population? Or are you willing to make a little effort now and enjoy health and independence as you age?
Declining healthy life expectancy
Between the 1980s and today, average life expectancy in the UK has increased by over 10 years (1) (2). This accomplishment is amazing. But increases in healthy life expectancy have not kept pace (3). The result is a growing “ageing and unwell” population.
It’s always in the news. It’s a huge challenge for the NHS, social care, and the public finances. How society will cope is the subject of endless political debate.
But that debate is abstract. So, let’s make it personal. You can expect the last 20-25% of your life to be spent in poor health (2). That’s close to 19 years for women and 16 years for men.
And when it’s you, years of deteriorating health and quality of life isn’t society’s problem and the solution isn’t political.
To quote a GP friend,
” we’re not living longer – we’re just taking longer to die.”
But that gloomy future isn’t inevitable. It’s just statistics. It’s the depressing old age the average person can expect. You don’t have to be average.
Invest in your long-term health and the future is much brighter. You can look forward to a long and fulfilling life, with poor health only at the very end.
Before we talk about how you can invest in your long-term health let’s define health.
What is health?
Believe it or not, health is not easily defined. We all have different ideas of what it means to be healthy. Here are a few alternatives.
“the condition of the body and the degree to which it is free from illness”
Cambridge English Dictionary
“absence of disease and the presence of high levels of function”
20th century medical model of health
“a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”
World Health Organisation 1946
“The extent to which an individual or group is able to realize aspirations and satisfy needs, and to change or cope with the environment. Health is a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living; it is a positive concept, emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities.”
World Health Organisation – Ottawa Charter 1986
Not intimidated by these lofty definitions, I thought I’d throw my own into the mix.
“Health is the resource that allows you to engage with life unhindered by physical incapacity, chronic illness or disease.”
I place less emphasis on the complex issues of social and mental health. And that’s a reflection of my ignorance; not their lack of importance. However, my definition does describe an attainable health ideal for middle age and beyond. And I’d argue physical health makes mental and social health easier to achieve.
The reality of ageing healthily
The proverb “old age doesn’t come alone” could have been invented for your physiology. Hormonal change, metabolic decline, neurodegeneration, reduced immune function, loss of bone and muscle mass, the years take their toll.
Ageing doesn’t have to be a steady descent into infirmity and ill-health. Yet our modern lifestyle encourages that decline, and you have to make the decision to resist. No escaping it, if you want to enjoy the freedom and independence to mature in good health, it requires work.
And it’s never too late to start. True, a bit like a pension, the earlier you invest the bigger the potential benefit in old age. But unlike a pension, a small investment makes a big difference at any age. And you benefit immediately with improved health and wellbeing. But the rub is – you can never stop investing.
Investing in your health
I’m going to assume you don’t smoke and don’t cross the road without looking both ways. Because if you do either – or any other equally dumb shit – you need to fix that first. That said, how do you invest in your future health?
You invest in three areas. Nutrition, movement and strength training.
The influence of nutrition on long-term health risk can’t be over-estimated. A healthy diet reduces your risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis…essentially all the chronic conditions that lower quality of life in old age.
Fortunately, taking care of your nutrition is fairly straightforward.
Keep it simple – if you can’t understand how it’s made or don’t recognise most of the ingredients – don’t eat it. You’ll cut out almost all processed foods and their manufactured “healthy” alternatives.
Eat more plants – I’m a big fan of meat, fish and dairy. They’re delicious, packed with essential nutrients and should be part of everyone’s diet. But most of what you eat should be plants. Essential micronutrients, antioxidants and the health of your gut aside; the big benefit is most healthy plant-based foods are less energy dense. No more worries about over-eating and weight gain.
Don’t eat the same thing all the time – to ensure you get the full range of essential nutrients you must vary what you eat. And a variety keeps food interesting – to eat, cook and shop for. Every meal doesn’t have to be different, but to don’t get stuck in a rut.
Home cook most of your meals – scratch cooking is the only way to be in control of what you’re eating. Rely on ready meals and takeaways, and you’re subcontracting your health to the food industry – the equivalent of asking Charles Ponzi to run your pension scheme. Take control of your health and prepare your own meals. They’ll taste better and quickly make ready meals taste awful. Yes, it takes a bit more effort, but it’s essential.
Avoid dieting – restrictive diets are harmful and don’t last. Sure, change may be necessary, but sustainable change and health are long-term endeavours.
Supplement with vitamin D – it’s the only nutrient that’s hard to get from your diet. With enough sunlight, the body produces its own, but northern European winters, sun block and indoor living make it hard. Vitamin D is just too important to your long-term health to do without.
Nothing is banned – but take a little time to understand the food you eat. A little knowledge will influence your decisions and you’ll end up making the right choice most of the time. And most of the time is enough.
Movement not exercise
You were born to move – a lot. It’s your evolutionary heritage, so much part of your DNA, you don’t function properly without it. Movement is essential maintenance for your body’s systems. And that’s a problem in a world designed to avoid it. Work, travel, leisure – modern life is deliberately inert.
Exercise is not enough. It’s a planned, often repetitive activity squeezed into a sedentary lifestyle. To optimise your health your body needs to move repeatedly throughout the day, every day. And it thrives on a variety that stretches your range of motion.
And that’s not easy. You have to look for opportunities to move in an environment built to avoid it. Try to
- Find opportunities to walk. Two minutes, ten minutes or an hour – any walk counts, and the benefits quickly add up
- Keep essential items out of reach – it’ll make it hard not to move
- Take breaks from sitting, stand up and move around, just a few minutes is enough
- Bend, reach, stretch, jump, climb, crawl or squat whenever you can. The more variation in your movement the better.
Be creative. Don’t get stuck in a limited range of motion habit. Your body, mind and inner child will thank you.
Strength training is number three on the list but it is still non-negotiable.
Bone density and muscle mass decrease with age. Unchecked it’s an insidious downward spiral that wrecks quality of life. Eventually a lack of strength, endurance and balance make life exhausting and injurious falls an everyday threat. The medical term is frailty, and it affects half of those over 65 years old (4). But independence and freedom are compromised well before the decline reaches clinical frailty.
Strength training puts the breaks on muscle and bone loss. It can’t stop it completely, but the difference it makes is dramatic. Modern life outsources the need to be strong to technology. But strength is essential to health and you need to work to keep it.
Strength training; not resistance training. Elastic bands, pink dumbbells and machines that do most of the work might provide “resistance” – but you need to pick up heavy stuff up.
Kettlebells, barbells, truck tyres – you get the idea. Things heavy enough to force your body to hang on to muscle and bone mass. And then you need to eat the nutrients to support that hard work.
Starting later in life, you’ll never achieve the potential of your youth. But the good news is, if you’re new to strength training, you can make a huge amount of progress in middle age and beyond. You can reverse enough strength loss and build up your reserves ready to ride out the inevitable decline in good health.
And ladies, your increased risk of osteoporosis makes the need for strength training even greater.
Time to make a start
Nutrition, movement and strength training. The fundamentals of healthy ageing. The investment may appear daunting, but it really isn’t. Small changes make a big difference and add up quickly. Getting started takes a conscious decision. You need to relinquish some of the apparent conveniences of modern life. It’s worth the effort and your body will thrive. Make a start, your future self will thank you.
And honestly, it’ll make life more enjoyable.
Hi, I’m Ralph – a nutritionist with over 25 years’ experience as a professional chef. I’m based in Edinburgh where I provide one-to-one nutrition coaching. If you’re not in Edinburgh I can help you online.