Gympocalypse has started. The gym has the atmosphere of a sweaty brawl in an overpacked pub.
Walk on the footpaths, and you’ll find yourself dodging some red-faced joggers struggling because they have over-cooked their debut into running.
The January penance is in full bloom as we try to flagellate ourselves for the hedonism of a raucous December. There seems to be uniform conformity to doing everything in extremes at this time of year. We eat and drink so much that we dread the sight of a bottle of wine again in December, then go on a January health kick so unsustainable that it’s doomed to fail by February.
The fitness industry is booming and has been for the last 10 years, yet as a country Ireland is continuing get fatter and less healthy. But we are living longer, all the same.
In 1990, life expectancy at birth was 74.1 years in Europe. In 2017, it was 80.9 years. However, adding quantity to our life is no guarantee of maintaining a quality of life. The likelihood of surviving cancer, heart attack and stroke are higher than ever, thanks to improved healthcare and medicine.
The prospects of surviving without a resultant disability are less probable. Medical advances increase life expectancy but have resulted in people spending far more of their lives suffering illness. It appears that the extra time we are living appears to be consumed by poor health.
European men and women spend 79% and 74% of their lives, respectively, in good health meaning that they live around one fifth of their lives in bad health! It would be better if “healthy life expectancy” (the years we spend in good health as we get older) increased too.
A Danish study established that only about 20% of how long the average person lives is dictated by our genes. The other 80 % is decided by our lifestyle. What really helps us live longer, healthier lives? Should we be stretching with yoga, pounding the pavements or pumping iron?
People in the world’s ‘Blue Zones’ have the greatest life expectancy, and more importantly, remain healthy for longest percentage of their life — they don’t go to the gym, they don’t lift weights and they don’t run marathons. These Blue Zones — Loma Linda (USA), Nicoya (Costa Rica), Sardinia (Italy), Ikaria (Greece), Okinawa (Japan) — have the highest concentration of centenarians in the world and share a number of commonalities.
The world’s longest-lived people populate environments that constantly push them into moving without thinking about it. They grow gardens and do not use mechanical equipment for house and garden work. The Okinawans call it ikigai and the Nicoyans call it plan de vida, but it translates into “why I wake up in the morning”.
It can be understood as having a “purpose in life” (overall) or a “reason for living” (specific).
Knowing your sense of purpose is worth up to seven years of extra life expectancy. Even people in the Blue Zones experience stress. Stress can activate an inflammatory response in the brain as well as the body, and lead to chronic inflammation which is associated with every major age-related disease. The world’s longest-lived people are able to shed that stress.
Okinawans take a few moments each day to remember their ancestors; Adventists pray; Ikarians take a nap; and Sardinians do happy hour.
Most of these centenarians enjoy a glass or two of wine per day, they don’t binge drink their 14 units of alcohol on a Friday or Saturday night.
Successful centenarians tend to be monogamous and committed to their families, investing huge time and effort in raising their children. Aging parents and grandparents usually live nearby or in the home (it lowers disease and mortality rates of children in the home too).
They chose — or are born into — social circles that support healthy behaviours, eat well and are trustworthy.
These friends “meet for a common purpose”, sometimes daily or a couple days a week, to gossip, experience life, to share advice and even financial help when needed. If you socialise with unhealthy people, this will have a measurable harmful effect on your own health over time.
Okinawans created ‘moais’ — groups of about five young children grouped together that make a commitment to each other for life. As their second family, they meet regularly with their moai for both work and play and to pool resources. Some moais have lasted over 90 years.
In all five Blue Zones, social connectedness is ingrained into the culture. Isolation and loneliness causes poor health and a loss of quality years in the lives of our elderly.
There is no short-term fix. No one pill, gym or pair of runners offers a guarantee of good health and adding years to your life but by devoting time to good friends, family and destressing just might add more life to your years.
Local physio and Newbridge AC member Barry Kehoe offers advice to runners of all levels. See www.kehoephysio.com