I still recall vividly the events unfolding in Cairo's Tahrir Square a couple years ago as Hosni Mubarak was counting his final days in power. I remember these events because I was at home on the couch paralyzed with back pain, stuck flipping between CNN, ABC, and Fox. Going to work was out of the question - a rarity for me. It took about a half an hour to get from the couch to the car and another half hour to get from the parked car to the doctor’s office, every step in excruciating pain (I should have called 911). I was in my mid 50’s and felt like an old man. My body was broken.
Fast-forward three years. I am pain free, never miss work, sleep better, have an incredible energy level, and am a better skier, snowboarder, tennis player, and surfer than I was five, ten, even twenty years ago: (full disclosure, I only recently took up surfing). What's my secret? Actually no secret; the solution is well-known: diet and exercise. But there’s more to this than the same chorus you've heard before.
My personal epiphany came in a book entitled Younger Next Year. The subtitle got my attention: “A guide to living like 50 until you're 80 and beyond”. The book encourages people in their 50’s to get plenty of exercise, watch what they eat, and stay focused and committed in the mind. At this same time a couple friends invited me to a morning “Boot Camp” training regimen that sounded like a fun, social way to rebuild my broken body. I figured I could give it a try until I healed myself. So while I was getting stronger at Boot Camp, I also began watching my food intake, for better performance. Today I wouldn't dream of stopping my regular exercise routine. There's too much on the line.
My story is not unique. Developments in the sciences of the body, including our genetic makeup and technology, have converged to make measurable progress in energy and fitness a reality for millions. We understand better for example how muscle deteriorates at roughly 1% per year (10% per decade) after about age 40. Our grandparents may have known this subconsciously, but didn't know it quantitatively. Today we can measure exactly how our bodies are performing.
Another development is better training. Trainers today have tremendous resources at their disposal for getting the most out of people. Research starts at the high end; when any professional athlete is hurt, a lot of money is at risk, so research on getting them healthy and in top performance as efficiently as possible is well funded. That expertise filters down to the rest of the training community, and is available through providers such as Trainer MD (full disclosure, Trainer MD is also a customer). A good trainer, whether individually or with a group (I prefer the latter for its social benefits), is part motivator, part coach, part friend.
One important caveat: talk to your doctor before embarking on a fitness program. What we don't know we don't know can really hurt us. With our health, always talk to an expert first.
In business, we track a lot of numbers to help us make a variety of decisions. Technology, such as the Garmin watch which monitors blood pressure and heart speed, has made tracking your physical progress much easier. But if this becomes a task, ditch it. (Personally I don’t use these, but most high performers quanfity a lot of fitness indicators carefully).
A few observations and my personal testimonial on the food we eat. We understand better today how the consumption of processed foods that taste so good going down can be so harmful to us. The average American consumes approximately 110 pounds of processed sugar (mostly high fructose corn syrup) per year; our grandparents consumed less than 10% of that amount including cane sugar. While soda pop consumption is declining, sports drinks are mostly just sugar water. Being just a little disciplined with our eating habits can make a world of difference.
Reasonable people can argue whether genetically modified foods have contributed to the spike in allergies to peanuts, milk (lactose), and wheat (gluten) in so many of our children, and other new maladies, but if the skeptics are right, doesn't it make sense to err on the side of caution? Eating as our forebears did, consuming more unprocessed (real) food, rather than food that has been processed for taste and marketability. Want proof? Google a list of 10 successful diet programs, and notice the most common theme: the absence of processed foods, substituting instead real fruit and vegetables, real meat or other protein, and a small dose of complex carbohydrates.
More good news is that our healthcare system is beginning to focus more on wellness than just fixing people who are already broken. A development in the health-insurance industry is that many medical providers are now compensated for keeping people out of their offices, rather than billing them only when they come in. Many employer sponsored insurance plans now pay for joining Weight Watchers, health clubs or other wellness organizations too. No secret here: weight loss and regular exercise mean fewer health problems.
The authors of Younger Next Year cite that some 70% of diseases today are lifestyle related, and that 50% of the maladies associated with old age can be eliminated altogether through diet and exercise. Lifestyle (diet and exercise) have a direct impact on the cost of healthcare, and now there’s money – lots of it - in keeping people fit. So this won't be the last you'll hear of this health evolution.
Here's the best news of all. I still indulge myself: I love steak, I love pizza, I enjoy having a beer with friends. But too much of any of these makes me feel less than fit, so it's easier to self-regulate than to be motivated by guilt. For me, staying fit means staying with skiers 30 years younger, getting to a ball that nobody expects me to reach; it means showing up at work with energy and purpose, and it also means creating active memories with my family in fun and interesting places. It means not being stuck on the couch watching Egypt on TV in paralyzing pain. It means… life is good.