George Burns smoked 10 to 15 cigars every day of his adult life; yet, he lived to be 100. Burns may have had genetic protective factors such as cellular repair mechanisms. Or maybe he was just lucky.
In 2011, Live Science – www.tinyurl.com/livescience-100 – reported on a study of 477 Ashkenazi Jews between the ages of 95 and 112, conducted at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, which showed genes are more responsible than lifestyle for longevity. The elderly subjects had just as many bad habits (smoking, drinking, poor diet, obesity and lack of exercise) as the subjects in the control group whom they outlived.
Still, the head of the research team, Nir Barzilai, said it would be wrong to ignore health advice and assume our genes fully determine how long we will live. He reaffirms that diet and exercise can postpone or ward off chronic disease and extend life. Bad genes don’t always get expressed. They are influenced by many factors, including the environment and our lifestyle.
Unfortunately, we all know people who develop cancer or other life-threatening diseases despite a lifestyle replete with physical activity and exemplary dietary habits. What triggers disease has been on my mind lately, because someone I know who’s always taken excellent care of herself has been dealing with advanced cancer.
Yet, I also wholeheartedly believe in the benefits of exercise and eating right. Paradoxical cases like Burns, or non-smokers who develop lung or other cancers, are outliers. Unfortunately, they’re the ones we tend to notice.
Rather than proselytize, I’ll quote Peter Twist, a well-known figure in the Canadian fitness industry. He is a former NHL conditioning coach and currently runs a successful fitness business. He was in peak shape, three years ago, when he was diagnosed in his late-40s with stage 4 cancer. What does he now believe about the role of lifestyle after going through difficult cancer treatment and facing the uncertainty of his prognosis?
In an interview with the Vancouver Sun (“Conditioning coach Peter Twist shares battle with cancer,” March 5), he said his battle has “shifted my compass a little bit from helping people to build a body that works but also understanding they need to be their best when their best is needed. That is the purpose of training and eating healthy. We all have a big challenge coming down the chute at some point.”
I agree with Twist that if we get ourselves lean, fit and strong when we are well, it puts us in a better position should a medical crisis arise. This is not to say we should exercise solely to prepare ourselves for an illness that may or may not strike us at some point. When we take good care of ourselves, we can enjoy a better quality of life in the present and reduce our risks of negative health outcomes down the road – perhaps overriding genetic predisposition. We need to make smart choices, even though there are no guarantees. No one ever said life is fair. Bad things happen to good people and to people who do all the right things.
No matter what condition you’re in, you can help yourself. You may not be able to do everything on your own. You may not have all the tools. It’s not necessary to have all of the answers. What’s more important is starting with the right questions.
Begin by listing something that would improve the quality of your life. I don’t mean unrealistic fantasies like winning the lottery. I’m referring to aspects of your health, fitness or wellness that you have some control over. Perhaps you want to be able to walk around the block or up a flight of stairs without being out of breath. Maybe you’d like to run a 5-km race to raise money for your favourite cause.
Next you must come up with a plan to achieve your desired outcome. What specific actions will you take? Working with a plan and taking steps in the right direction will improve your odds of success for a healthy and happier life, perhaps even a longer one. Stop making excuses and start taking action.
When I see people exercising in walkers, wheelchairs, or with a white cane, or I see my ailing friend smile and keep going forward, I am reminded that optimism and determination are essential ingredients for a life well lived.
Gloria Schwartz is a personal trainer at the Soloway JCC.