You find a lot of machine metaphors when trying to understand how the human body works. Fuel is compared to food, for example, or an engine is compared to our digestive process. Computer circuitry is said to be like our nervous system. And just like mechanical parts, body parts are said to wear out with time and overuse.
But a machine doesn’t have feelings. Or morality. It doesn’t have an internal compass that tells it why it shouldn’t party all night and eat soda and chips all day, nor a knowing side that nudges it to go outside, connect with nature, and move its mechanical parts in a healthy way.
The machine metaphor for the human body overlooks one of the most critical components to good health: good character. And yet the human body as a machine idea is everywhere.
In the past, doctors drew metaphors from nature to describe health and biology. Perhaps Weismann’s idea was influenced by the ever-increasing role machines have played in our lives since the industrial revolution. Whatever the inspiration, the idea is more ingrained than ever. And the modern medical model continues to justify it. Worn out hips, knees, and even hearts can now be replaced by a skilled surgeon, much like how a mechanic replaces a faulty fuel pump.
It’s easy to accept the wear-and-tear concept because we can easily find evidence of it. Unfortunately, it overlooks how our choices are the foundation of our long-term health. We don’t consider that many of those who exhibit signs of physical and cognitive decline are suffering from the many seductions of our modern era.
So why do some people manage to keep strong bodies and sharp minds after racking up so many more miles than others?
There’s no shortage of Instagram pages devoted to the fit-pics of 20- and 30- somethings, but we’d be wise to pay more attention to those who retain a healthy, active physique into their 70s. These are people who, just by virtue of existing, challenge the notion of how we’re supposed to age.
According to life expectancy estimates, we’re predicted to peter out by our mid-70s. However, many seem to wither away years or decades earlier. So how do some manage to keep their body and mind in good shape? We’re often told it’s better genes or access to better mechanics. Most of us know better. At a basic level, the practices that lead to health and longevity are no secret at all. So why don’t people all practice them?
The most cost-effective and potent “elixirs of youth” are diet and exercise, according to Emily Servante, a personal trainer with Ultimate Performance. These powerful elixirs benefit our health at any age, but they may hold even more power the older you get.
“When people reach their 70s, they often find themselves standing at a crossroads with their health, with two very different paths before them,” Servante said. “Lifestyle decisions in this decade can determine whether they continue to age well and maintain vitality, strength, and mental acuity, or see their health rapidly decline.”
Sometimes the key is in education. After all, if you don’t know that all that cake and television is killing you, you won’t have the motivation to take the harder path. So in hopes of getting that motivation, it helps to know how poor habits lead to pain and disease.
To understand how your lifestyle dictates your health, consider the process found to drive disease.
Researchers have determined that what really accelerates the degenerative process is something called inflammation.
Inflammation is a normal, healthy feature of our immune response and tissue repair, but it’s only supposed to last for a short duration. Inflammation switches on when it’s needed and switches off when it’s not.
Chronic inflammation is a different story. If your body is always inflamed, it will begin to deteriorate. If you want another machine metaphor, think of inflammation as biological rust.
To demonstrate how much of a relationship inflammation has with the aging process, an article published in the July 2018 edition of the journal Nature Reviews Cardiology uses a hybrid term: “inflammageing.”
“Most older individuals develop inflammageing, a condition characterized by elevated levels of blood inflammatory markers that carries high susceptibility to chronic morbidity, disability, frailty, and premature death,” the researchers wrote. “Inflammageing is a risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, and clinical trials suggest that this association is causal.”
Inflammageing is also a risk factor for chronic kidney disease, cancer, depression, dementia, and something called sarcopenia: a decline in muscle mass and strength. Sarcopenia can start when you’re younger, but as you age, the risk increases tremendously.
According to Servante, advanced sarcopenia can lead to other problems that often plague the elderly.
“With reduced muscle mass comes impaired physical function, reduced strength, poorer coordination, and increased risk of trips and falls,” she said.
Several things can contribute to the development of sarcopenia. However, inactivity and a bad diet are the most common factors. These also happen to be the factors we can directly control.
“Research shows that individuals who perform little to no physical activity have a 55 percent increased risk for sarcopenia compared to physically active individuals,” Servante said.
And this is where the wear-and-tear theory begins to fall apart. Belts, gauges, gears, and motors demonstrably wear out over time, but the human body can actually improve with use. Regular exercise helps us hold on to our muscle tissue, thereby preventing, or at least slowing, the advance of sarcopenia. Adequate nutrition helps our body continue to rebuild itself and repair injuries we sustain. Machines don’t self-repair or get better with use.
Terri A. Corcoran of Falls Church, Virginia, is living proof. She’s a healthy 71-year-old woman who has been active her entire life. She used to take dance and fitness classes when she was younger, but eventually switched to working out with videos at home. Today, her regimen includes some Pilates, a few yoga moves, dance, some light weights, and walks around the block when the weather is decent.
“I had to switch from VCR tapes to DVDs at some point, and my workouts today are not as vigorous as they were when I was younger, but I do not gain weight,” Corcoran said.
Of course, if exercise is too rigorous for your body to handle, you can suffer a setback. A few years ago, Corcoran hurt her knee during a workout, but it didn’t stop her. Instead, she modified her routine for lighter impact. This approach has allowed Corcoran to better handle the challenges of life.
But it isn’t simply her exercise routine that has kept her healthy: it’s a quality of character that has enabled her to stay diligent in her routine as well as exercise self-restraint when it comes to things that could damage her mind and body.
“I have always done things in moderation, tried to eat relatively well, no smoking, no alcohol, no drugs. I was the primary caregiver for my deceased husband for over 15 years, which was a lot of physical exertion for me, so that kept me moving. Lots of up and down stairs,” Corcoran said.
Finding the Right Exercise
Grocery store and gas station checkout lanes try to seduce us with candy bars and junk food, but a diet rich in fresh fruit and vegetables can reduce inflammation. We also need to consume a sufficient amount of protein to maintain our musculature. And that maintenance also requires that we exert effort and resist the allure of the couch. But what kind of exercise should you consider to fight inflammaging? It mostly depends on what you like, and the current physical shape of your body.
For Bonnie Frankel (77), exercise has always been a way of life. When she entered junior college at age 44, she fell in love with running track, and became the oldest woman ever to compete in a Division One collegiate sport. Later, she began training for the Olympic trials at 60. Today she runs 25 to 30 miles per week.
But you don’t have to be an Olympic-level athlete to reap the benefits of exercise. Frankel believes that these benefits are available to anyone at any age. Her 2019 book “Bonnie’s Theory: Finding the Right Exercise,” explains how to get started.
“For beginners, I would recommend to start slowly with low impact exercises such as walking, cycling, and water exercises. Exercising outdoors is even better as you get the natural vitamin D, and are able to inhale fresh air. Also, try a yoga class or a stretch class and lift weights a couple days a week. I suggest you modify your exercise routine to find out what feels best for you,” Frankel said.
You should also strive to be mindful about your movement. Throughout her life, Frankel has had to tailor her workouts to her circumstances. She was diagnosed with breast cancer and endured multiple surgeries in her thirties, and at 56, she had hip surgery. But with each challenge, Frankel found healing through movement.
“I rehabilitated myself through each surgery to regain and return my body and mind to be healthy and fit by engaging in a variety of exercises and sports,” Frankel said. “My inspiration to stay healthy today is to keep challenging myself to explore different workouts.”
That mindset of persistence and resilience makes all the difference between those who rapidly decline after injury and those who recover. Neither of these traits has anything to do with muscles or physical fitness, but in the end, they make all the difference.
But your motivation to exercise needn’t rest on your determination alone. The best exercise is something you enjoy and makes you feel good—and because you enjoy it, you’re more likely to sustain it. But give some thought to maintaining your muscle. If you don’t have some landscaping work to do in the yard or something else that involves lifting and moving things, you may need to make other efforts. Servante recommends that elders try to fit in some form of resistance or weight-bearing exercises.
“Resistance training is one of the most effective means of maintaining healthy body composition and decreasing the risks of bone loss and muscular strength that come with aging. Especially for post-menopausal women, resistance training can be highly beneficial in counteracting the decrease in insulin sensitivity,” Servante said.
Your character also has other effects on top of helping you persist in your fitness routine and eat well. That’s because mindset also plays a substantial role in how well you age, says Blanca Garcia, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Health Canal.
“The first thing I noticed with people that are over 70 that are fit and healthy and set them apart from someone that may not be so healthy is the positive attitude,” Garcia said. “Most people with a positive disposition will often feel good and want to do activities that make them feel even better. They are more likely to be social and enjoy taking walks and having exercise buddies.”
Maintaining an upbeat attitude is often reflected in the company we keep. But this can be a challenge as we grow older. If old friends pass away, and younger family members are too busy to provide encouragement and support, elders can fall into loneliness and despair. Garcia says seniors who are more proactive in seeking a community support system are more likely to thrive.
“Looking for senior centers and making new friends into older age can really help a person achieve health goals,” she said.