“Live long and prosper.” -Spock
“Live long and drop dead.” -Grok
Got your attention? (Thought so.) Sisson’s gone morbid, you say. Not exactly. Death is on the docket for today but more so the time leading up to death – (for some) a period of morbidity during which we experience major illness and impairment. We live, of course, with the prospect of our own mortality and how it will befall us, but we’re also emotional witnesses to that of our loved ones. I’ve lost many family and friends at this point in my life. Although I believe most had a good life, not many had what any of us would consider a “good death.”
Calorie restriction is all the rage in anti-aging circles. A few mice and worm studies seem to show that drastic reductions in food intake over a long period of time have the effect of prolonging life – although I’m not sure I’d call it living. For one, these animals are actually restricted. There’s no ad libitum access to food. They’d prefer to eat more, but are prevented from doing so. I guarantee you they’re unhappy and, if they could put (cartoonish high-pitched) voice to physiological state, would say they’re starving.
Jack LaLanne died last week. He was 96, still a bit sweaty from his morning workout when they found him, and had a vicegrip of a handshake that could crush a man half his age – even on his deathbed. Old farmers had nothing on his grip.
Jack’s TV show was one of my first exposures to the world of fitness, or, as he put it, physical culture. Growing up in New England, I had spent my days exploring the adjacent backwoods, climbing trees, skinning knees, and getting into trouble, but I wasn’t “working out.” I had no concept of it. I was just doing what felt right and what was fun, and most kids did the same. Jack LaLanne introduced us to the formal concept of physical fitness. He was one of the first to realize that the childhood impulse toward physicality and movement needed to be nurtured and developed in adulthood. I still remember sitting in a chair in front of the TV doing knees-to-chests, just like Jack.
The idea that brain and brawn are mutually exclusive is fairly well embedded in our culture; the popularity of phrases used to describe weightlifting enthusiasts, like “dumb jock” or “meathead,” make its pervasiveness pretty clear. But is it true? In a word, no. Anyone who’s ever heard Mark Rippetoe assess a novice squatter like a master mechanical engineer, Keith Norris wax poetic about the savage grace of physical culture, or Robb Wolf employ a Battlestar Galactica reference to explain the biochemistry of a glutenous assault on your intestinal tract knows it to be false, but the rest of society tends to lag a bit. Luckily, a few recent studies suggest that resistance training actually promotes neurogenesis – the growth of new neurons in the brain – while another links overtraining to impeded cognitive ability later in life. It may be high time to start disseminating the image of the dumb jogger instead.
A few studies caught my attention this week, not for being all that surprising or groundbreaking or even new, but because they jibed with something I’ve been mulling over: physical activity in old age.
Studies: the first and second. I grouped these together because they largely deal with the same thing. The first, actually a review of a couple dozen separate studies, discusses how basic physical capability seems to predict mortality later in life, while the second focuses entirely on the predictive ability of a person’s walking speed. This is redundant to anyone who’s ever felt a euphoric post-workout rush or the satisfaction of completing a physically taxing task, but judging from the number of people who make endless loops in the parking lot to score that sweet spot by the door and avoid empty staircases in favor of crowded escalators, we are in the minority. Things like grip strength, the time it takes to rise from a chair, the ability to balance on one leg, and walking speed were strong determinants of mortality. The death rate was 1.67 times higher in folks with weak grips, 2 times higher in those who were slowest to rise from the chair, and 2.87 times greater in people who walked at the slowest pace. Most of the studies reviewed were of older subjects, but the physical activity markers were predictive in young people, too. The walking study found that normal gait speed was an indicator of mortality with predictive power similar to BMI, smoking status, blood pressure, and other chronic conditions.
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