About the Author
Henry S. Lodge, MD, FACP, listed variously as “One of the Best Doctors in New York/America/the World,” headed a twenty-doctor practice in Manhattan and was the Robert Burch Family Professor of Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.
Read an Excerpt
Why another exercise book, and why this book specifically? Because your life should be better. Much better. And recent science has revolutionized our understanding of how exercise can reshape your body, your brain, and your life. We explained the why and the how of exercise in our previous Younger Next Year books, and Chris’s book, Thinner This Year.
Chris Crowley is my patient, dear friend, and partner in writing these books. More important, he is the living, breathing, exuberant voice of vibrant aging in America. Chris is out there living all of our dreams, and his whole purpose in life is to pull you into the dream with him.
In this book, we take the best information from Younger Next Year and the innovative exercise programs from Thinner This Year to give you a road map to your best life. And what a life it can be!
In the decade since we wrote the Younger books, new scientific research has only underscored our fundamental message about exercise. A serious exercise program will keep you healthier, more engaged, and living younger for the rest of your life. Physical fitness reverses most of the inflammation of modern life—heart disease, stroke, diabetes, most of arthritis—all of the things that we associate with normal American aging. You become a much better version of yourself, at any age, and you become functionally younger. Not by months, or years, but by decades. A seventy-year-old man or woman who follows our program will have the aerobic capacity of a healthy forty-five-year-old. You really can live twenty-five years younger than your driver’s license says almost all the way through your life.
And your brain will get younger, too. Newer research has shown that there are enormous cognitive benefits of exercise. The data and individual biology vary, but when you are fit, you are 10 percent more cognitively efficient than when you are sedentary. Simply put, your brain does more, and it does it better. Interestingly, sleep does the same thing. So the fit, rested version of you is about 20 percent smarter than the tired, out-of-shape you. And that’s in addition to the health and longevity benefits of exercise. That’s why we think your best life is still waiting for you. With this book in your hands and sweating.
It’s often said, and accurately, that your brain is the most complex, sophisticated object in the known universe—100 billion neurons, each with up to 10,000 connections to other neurons—dwarfing the Internet in information flow and challenging scientists to develop entirely new branches of mathematics to try to understand it. The federal government recently funded the ten-year Brain Initiative to examine the connections and cross talk among all the areas of the brain because that’s where the vast majority of brain processing takes place. This new frontier of brain science is important because our brains work by synthesizing vast amounts of data from many sources. As you read this, your brain is primarily processing the visual information of the text. But it’s also keenly aware of your emotions, physical surroundings, internal chemistry, and your body’s position in space. It’s the fusion of these disparate inputs that creates our consciousness and consciousness rests on a base of physical information.
So what do you do to turn on this most complex object in the universe? Watch TV on the sofa? Putz around online? No. Your brain grows best when it is given challenges that involve many areas at once. And there are only three great challenges that are hard enough to keep the brain healthy and growing. True emotional engagement with others, cognitive and social engagement with tasks that matter, and exercise. Motion. Moving your body through space is unbelievably complicated. We take it for granted, but even simple movement requires the entire brain to coordinate body parts. Movement is at the heart of evolution, it’s key for improving our cognitive and emotional brains.
Let’s look at how exercise transforms your brain for the long haul. One study showed a 40 percent reduction in the risk of Alzheimer’s in people who do some kind of aerobic activity regularly. Other studies, using very careful measurements of brain size on MRI scans, showed that people who exercise for three months grow new brain. And the new brain is not just in the motion areas, where you would expect it, but also in the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls executive function (complex thoughts, rational calculations, decision making, etc.).
Just as impressively, you change the brain chemistry of your emotions as well. It has now been shown that exercise is as effective as medication in treating both anxiety and depression. Exercise releases a powerful brain chemistry that in turn creates the energy, optimism, and mood elevation you need in order to engage with life at your best. This is important for many reasons, not least because American longevity is increasing at a stunning rate. Statistically, you are likely to live a long time. The big question in this book is how well will you live that life?
There is a lot of debate over why we are living longer. Modern medicine gets some credit. Cutting the smoking rate in half in the last fifty years has been a major contributor, but whatever is driving this increase in longevity, there is no doubt that it is happening, and in a big way. American life expectancy has been increasing by about four hours a day since the 1970s (that means that every day you live beyond age sixty-five, you add four hours to your life expectancy). Financial planners now tell healthy couples in their sixties to plan on at least one of them living to ninety-five. Even this might be conservative.
Recently I gave a talk about the future of aging, and it was an opportunity for me to pick some very smart brains at Columbia University, which is an international leader in this area. No one knows what’s going to happen, but here’s my take: For the next decade, the increase will continue at around the current rate. In ten to twenty years, we will probably figure out more effective ways to individualize medical care through genomic medicine (using your individual genetics to tailor diagnosis and treatment specifically for you and the genetics of your infection or cancer). In the twenty- to thirty-year range we might (might) be able to alter the fundamental genetics of human longevity. We can already extend the life span of worms tenfold, and add a third to the lives of mice through simple genetic manipulation, so real progress in this area is likely. How much is open to debate, as are a host of ethical and social concerns, but those have never stopped progress.
So congratulations! We got longevity, whether we wanted it or not. Now, what are we going to do with it? The problem with the new longevity is that so many Americans outlive the quality component of their lives by years, and even decades. Some of this is unavoidable, but because 70 percent of our illness and injury is lifestyle related, most of the misery and limitations of aging are self-imposed—the natural outcome of the biology of sedentary living. Some of it is because our expectations are mired in an outdated cultural model: We think aging is going to be grim, and our actions ensure that the prophecy is fulfilled.
If you ask people about growing old, they will give you the standard, gloomy answer, which is some variation of “aging is hard, full of aches, pains, and loss.” Loss of function, loss of friends, loss of purpose—all summed up by the adage “aging is not for sissies.” Not that those things aren’t real, and hard parts of aging, but they are more than offset by surprising positive aspects. The actual views about aging from the front lines are far better than you think and will change your perspective on the last third of life. If, instead of generic questions, you ask what a person’s actual experience is as he or she grows older, you get a very different answer from the old cultural narrative. Researchers have studied aging in cultures around the world, and the positive results are remarkably consistent across continents and societies.
It turns out that we continue to grow as people throughout our lives, and that the years from our fifties onward are times of enormous personal growth, change, and reinvention. Research into aging has undergone a marked shift in the last decade, with the recognition of the tremendous potential for happy and productive lives for many, if not most, of us through our seventies, into our eighties, and in some cases into our nineties. There are few long-term studies of people over the course of their lives, but one is the Harvard Grant Study of Aging, which follows a group of Harvard college students from the late 1930s and 1940s. The different trajectories of the lives of these men, now in their eighties and nineties, show that they continued to grow and evolve, finding new passions, meeting new challenges, and carving out new definitions of self, community, and relationships throughout their lives. (There are some similar studies for women, but they aren’t as long-term. Nonetheless, the data tell the same story.) There is no static plateau, where you have finished growing and stay the same for the rest of your life. You continue to live. And for most people studied, it continues to be exciting and meaningful, even happy.
Surprisingly, self-reported life satisfaction/happiness goes down from your midtwenties through your early fifties, probably representing the stress of the years of raising children, establishing one’s career, dealing with the financial strain of mortgages, tuition, etc. These are also years when you are struggling to figure out who you are as an adult, carving your place in the world, having your successes and your failures, and ultimately becoming comfortable with what you have, or have not, achieved. By your midfifties, this phase of life—when you are completing the major tasks of career and family—is over, and you are looking forward to retirement, which seems like the ultimate negative definition of self. (“I’m retired” defines you as who you used to be but says nothing about who you are and, more important, offers no excitement about who you are going to be.) So you would expect the data to show less happiness in the later years.
It turns out that happiness goes up from your midfifties onward, not down. And the curve continues upward at a steep rate at least into your early eighties, which is as far as studies have measured. When you look at the happiness graph that follows, it looks like a lopsided smile, with the biggest grin on the older side of the curve.
Good news! It can be life-changing for people to learn that the last third is every bit as dynamic and full of possibility as the first two-thirds and in some ways more so, because you are freed of many of the emotional burdens you carried when younger.