Keeping Death At Bay

My uncle died last week. He was 87, so he had a nice, long life, and in the end, he left us peacefully. It’s how we all hope we’ll go, so there wasn’t much anguish at the funeral. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help feeling that his death had caused a metaphorical arrow to spin until it pointed directly at me. Soon, it will be my turn. Not to die, necessarily, but to experience death at close hand. For, my parents are now the only ones left. He was my last uncle. There is now only empty space where other people once stood.

There’s nothing like the prospect of death to focus the mind. I’ve heard this said many times before, but now I can feel it. So, keeping the spectre of death well within my sight, I am looking at ways keep it at bay for as long as I can.

Theoretical hopes about magic potions, super-fruits, or cryogenics aside, the only tried and true way to extend your life is to follow the basic rules we all know : eat well, exercise often. It’s natural to hope for some kind of short-cut that will make this easier, but so far, there’s no getting around it. You have to put in the effort and be disciplined if you hope to live a long life.

A new study has confirmed this age-old wisdom. It compared a group of people who exercised regularly all of their lives, with a group of similarly aged adults who didn’t. Those who exercised regularly not only retained their muscle mass, but they also had the cholesterol levels and immune systems of young people. Additionally, the men retained higher levels of testosterone, keeping their strength high. Researchers were particularly surprised to find that their thymus glands, the gland which makes T cells and normally shrinks with age, continued to pump out T cells like someone half their age.

If you have a critical mind, you might already be wondering about the usual « chicken-and-egg » problem. Namely, did these regular exercisers really preserve their youth, or did they exercise regularly because of genetics – because they had already been gifted with stronger constitutions and immune systems, and so exercise came more easily to them? Well, the researchers took pains to eliminate that supposition by purposely excluding heavy drinkers, cigarette smokers, and people with high blood pressure and other chronic health conditions from the non-exercising group. The only significant difference between the group that exercised regularly, and the one that didn’t, was the exercise itself. So, the findings seem clear.

A key point is the type of exercise these people performed to achieve those results. In this case, it was cycling. However, if you don’t own a bike, or don’t particularly like riding one, you can chose something different. Repeated studies have shown that aerobic exercise is better for preserving health and preventing disease than resistance training, so pick an exercise that stresses your heart. It could be dancing, it could be running, it could be using an elliptical trainer. Even brisk walking, when done on a regular basis, will help you achieve similar results. Resistance training is still valuable for keeping muscles strong, so don’t abandon it entirely. But the focus should be on aerobic movement, several times a week, at a minimum.

« None of us is getting out of here alive » is another quote I’ve heard a lot lately. Truer words have never been spoken, and this week, I’ve been strongly reminded of that. But while we can’t avoid death completely, we do have an element of control. Barring unforeseen events, we can extend our years, and the quality our lives as we age, if we make the effort. All we have to do is move.

About the author: Rebecca Wong has an honours degree in English Literature from the University of Waterloo, and has been working in the herbal business since 2000. She has received her training in acupuncture and herbalism from respected authorities Paul Des Rosiers and Vu Le at the Ontario College of Traditional Chinese Medicine in Toronto, and Michael Tierra at the East West Herb School in California.

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