As we move through life, our DNA begins to literally unravel at the ends. This is what leads to the symptoms and indications of what we call aging. Our nutritional patterns can dramatically accelerate or slow this process, as can reducing other sources of excess inflammation. Inflammation comes from any kind of stress, and it causes oxidation. Emotional duress, dangerous foods, excess alcohol, smoking, lethargy, exposure to chemical agents and the elements (sunburn, frost bite, windburns, etc.). All these and more cause aging because they are sources of stress and inflammation.
You may have heard of the antioxidants you can get from food and other sources. They blunt the effects of oxidants, which are the free radicals that bombard your system at the microscopic level. This is what oxidation is. It’s rather like the way a microwave heats food: It uses tiny particles to pummel the food. The friction of the impacts is what generates the heat that cooks the food. But, this is also why microwaved food tends to look wilted or collapsed. It’s also why microwaved food tends to lack nutrition compared to conventionally cooked meals. Similarly, free radicals are literally perforating your cells and DNA. It’s like we live inside a shooting gallery and we’re being riddled with bullets.
To offset some of the damage that simply being alive will eventually cause, it is important to understand the ways we can make adjustments to unhealthy habits. The three most easily adapted patterns are nutrition and hydration, physical activity and rest. Here are some suggestions for each.
Nutrition and Hydration
It should be taken for granted that food and drink can either be medicine or poison. Water is necessary for all biological processes, so staying hydrated makes everything run efficiently and gives your body a chance to flush out toxins. It’s easy to quickly swallow lots of excess calories and other additives, so sticking to fresh water (infused with flavor by soaking fruits, vegetables and/or herbs and spices for variety) is an important practice. Caffeine in reasonable amounts helps with mental clarity, metabolism, and mood; however, it is also a diuretic. With that in mind, keep your intake of teas and coffees to a minimum to avoid dehydration. Remove all sodas from your diet as quickly as possible: They have the additional risk of depleting your bones (cola’s acidity might leach minerals from your skeleton in your body’s attempt to maintain the pH balance in your blood).
Construct your meals around fresh vegetables and fruits. Think in terms of filling most of the space on your plate with them, then filling in the sides (literally side dishes) with fist-sized portions of complete proteins and unrefined starches. Your meals should be resplendent with color. The colors of natural foods are the sources of those antioxidants that grab onto free radicals and reduce them battering you to death.
It cannot be stressed enough that remaining physically active is critical to wellness. As we age, we produce lower levels of many hormones. Hormones speak the language of the body, and they communicate between and regulate all our bodily functions. This includes producing and maintaining muscles, bones and connective tissues. Proper nutrition is fundamental to all this, but so is exercise.
Maintaining muscle mass allows us to move safely and independently. It also supports a healthy metabolism, alert mind and stable mood. On top of that, doing impact and/or resistance exercise stimulates the formation of new muscle and bone cells. If we do not make demands of our bodies, they will break down from atrophy. Literally use it or lose it.
Exercises that are low impact, but which still create the stimulation needed to maintain strength and mobility, are those that require us to exert ourselves (generally while supporting our own weight and posture) without exposing us to injury. Strength, balance, coordination and conditioning activities are all essential. This is because movement sends little reverberations through our skeletons, which jiggle our bone cells. This shaking stimulates the bone cells to split and make new bone material. This is what maintains bone density.
For strength, focus more on body weight, cable machines and free weights (dumbbells and kettlebells especially). As much as possible, avoid machines: They generally restrict movement, and they tend to do much of the work of stabilizing the resistance and/or balance required to execute the movement. Unless you are injured or purposefully working on isolation exercises, it is better to force yourself to control your efforts on your own. As much as possible, include exercises like chest pressing, rowing (pulling backward), squatting or standing from sitting, bending over, pressing overhead and pulling downward. I might suggest a workout comprised of the following: pushups, standing cable row, walking lunges (with or without dumbbells), alternating kettlebell pick ups, overhead dumbbell presses and seated or kneeling cable pulldowns. In addition, tai chi, qi gong, hiking or walking (not jogging), swimming or water aerobics, cycling and yoga are all excellent for seniors.
As we age, our hormone levels change. This can both make getting enough sleep difficult (and thus exacerbating mental decline) while also undermining our ability to have energy to remain active (and thus exacerbating a slowing metabolism). Fatigue is a source of stress, and thus inflammation. Although adequate sleep is essential throughout our lives, what I mean by rest might be better described as relaxation and mental focus. To improve mental acuitym I suggest meditation, studying a foreign language, making a hobby of something creative (music, art, dance, etc.) and solving puzzles of whatever kind. Give your mind activities that keep you curious and minimize your ability to focus on fretting.
Jack Kirven completed the MFA in Dance at UCLA, and earned certification as a personal trainer through NASM. His wellness philosophy is founded upon integrated lifestyles as opposed to isolated workouts. Visit him at jackkirven.com and INTEGRE8Twellness.com.