Healthy Aging: Planning for Tomorrow
“So, Mom, what is it like getting old?”
Even as teenagers go, it was an unusually insensitive question. It still ranks high on my long list of things-I’m-not-very-proud-of. I don’t recall why that question was so important to me, as this happened much longer ago than I care to admit.
My Mom’s response is still edged in my mind.
“Nothing really changes,” she said, with that unshakeable patience that raising four kids had infused in her. “You feel just as young inside. It’s just the outside that changes.”
I now know just how true those words were. Like most boomers, I have a bad case of mirroritis—the state of shock that sets in when you look in the mirror, and the person staring back is not at all the one supposed to be there. Ah yes, the joys of aging.
But as I have come to learn over time, the glass isn’t necessarily half empty. Yes, the bad news is that your body keeps changing—relentlessly, and in strange and unpredictable ways. The good news is what my Mom so long ago foretold: You don’t feel any older. You begin to experience what the yoga tradition has long held: There is a timeless element to our mind, our soul—the part of us that stays the same, even when the circumstances of our life, including the body, change.
When it comes to the aging of our body, that element of timelessness is there as an element of choice. How quickly we age, and even how we age, is not just left to Father Time. Research on the health beneifts of diet, exercise, and yes, yoga therapy, unanimously tell us that our long-term health and longevity is linked to our daily lifestyle. Something as seemingly simple as the foods you eat, how much you exercise you get, how well you manage stress, and the balance of rest and activity in your life impact not only how long you live, but how healthy you stay as you get older.
The equation is simple, all other things equal, healthy lifestyle habits = healthy aging. Good lifestyle habits like regular exericse, eating a healthy diet, and stress management reduce your risk of contracting some of the most common age-related chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. In fact, lifestyle factors play as much of a role in determining your longterm health as where your ball landed in the fickle roulette of genetic makeup, perhaps even greater. Adopting more healthy eating, exercise, or stress management habits can even reverse serious disease, such heart disease.
This is a simple truth, and we have heard it all before, perhaps ad nauseum. But if you think about it, the implications are pretty remarkable. It means that—all other things even—we have a tremendous amount of choice in how we feel as we get older and how healthy we’ll be as we age. Where we end up on the bell curve of health and well-being versus disease and disability is to a large extent under our control, barring, of course, the intervention of fate.
We spend a great many years planning for retirement and putting money aside so we can live a comfortable and secure life in our old age. Yet, when it comes to planning for our long-term health and vitality, most of us expend much less time and effort. Ironically so, because without health, preparing for a financially comfortable retirement is a waste.
Changing lifestyle habits is not an easy thing to do. At best, it serves as another painful reminder that the pace of life is too fast and there is too little time to do too many things. At worst, it puts us face to face with our personal demons—just think of the emotional toll of passing up that delicious piece of pie to stay sleek and slender.
So really, who needs to add more do’s and don’ts, should’s and shouldnt’s to our already overcrowded timetable? And is it really going to make a difference anyway?
As my younger brother wryly commented when I at 18 years-old became a vegetarian and started sermonizing about the virtues of healthy eating to everyone within earshot: “But Sis, what will happen if you get hit by a car later in life and squashed to a pulp? Then it will all have been for nothing!”
He was into graphic detail as younger brothers are inclined to. And he was, as all big sisters know that younger brothers are are equally apt to, missing the point. Adopting more healthy habits does make a big difference, And not just ten, twenty years, thirty years into the future. Living a healthy lifestyle is really about how you feel now and every day from now on. How fresh you are when you wake up in the morning; how much energy and enthusiasm you have throughout the day; how well you feel inside and therefore, how much affection you are able to bestow on your loved ones.
And therein lies the secret. The little steps—gettomg a regular yoga practice in, staying clear of the transfats, cutting out the doughnut in the morning, eating your daily 5-8 servings of fruits and veggies, taking that ten-minute walk at night, getting to bed just a little earlier—add up to a lot over time. As you begin to experience the difference these things make in your life, it becomes easier and easier to keep up those changes and add more over time.
Planning for a healthy tomorrow is just that—like saving a little money consistently every year, continuously adjusting your health habits over time. Be patient and compassionate with yourself—and set small goals. The little victories, like pennies in a piggy bank, add up to big changes over time.