all so healthy now compared to 100 years ago. An American born today
has a life expectancy of 78. Before 1900 it was only 47.
The reason our grandparents had shorter lives was not, as many propose, mainly owing because of childbirth and childhood diseases. More than half of adult deaths in 1900 could be laid to pneumonia, tuberculosis, and intestinal infections. Accidental deaths occurred twice as often as they do now.
We can thank modern medicine and science for this change. We know how to avoid flu, get over pneumonia, and set a broken leg. Cholera hardly exists. Even kidney failure, another disease that plagued our grandparents, is treatable now.
With so many extra years added to our lifespans, the new challenge is reaching beyond thinking about our lifespan to the idea of a long “healthspan.” None of us wants an extra 20 years of pain, debility and mental confusion if we can avoid them.
Will those years be good ones? Will you be active, useful, mentally vital and engaged with life all the way to the end?
Medicine can give you a long lifespan; you have to give yourself a long healthspan.
At a minimum that includes eating healthily, treating depression if it shadows you, avoiding stupid risks like riding a motorcycle without a helmet, building a network of friends and family, not smoking, and learning to deal with stress.
If you ever suspected that Americans were couch potatoes, the World Health Organization has the proof. In the US, 40% of adults fail to get minimal sufficient exercise every week. The Germans are even worse, at 42%.
On a global scale, the relationship of exercise to life expectancy isn’t simple. Poor countries like Uganda and Lesotho rank high for exercise, but healthcare and high HIV/AIDS rates devastate the population. China, which has a very active population also has world-class pollution that is presumed to knock three years of life off its people.
But overall, there is a positive relationship among developed nations between more exercise and longer lives. In Europe, the countries with the fewest couch potatoes—Sweden, Switzerland, France, the Netherlands, and Spain—have one to two years longer life expectancies than less active countries like Ireland, the UK, and Germany. Canadians with high rates of physical activity also have four more years of life expectancy than their US neighbors.
Those trends are complicated, as mentioned. But there’s plentiful research on individuals and the effects of exercise. More is better, as long as you are not trying to out-achieve super athletes.
When the WHO looked at the problem of inactivity, it also set guidelines for how much exercise is needed to keep people healthier. It’s actually a modest prescription. If you walk a dog and convince him to quit smelling the bushes and hup hup, you’re halfway there. All it takes for a start is a little more than 20 minutes a day of moderate aerobic activity, a little resistance work, and some balancing exercises to help prevent falls.
Herewith, the guidelines:
150 minutes or more per week in moderate-intensity aerobic activity
That could include brisk walking at 4 mph, swimming, heavy cleaning, biking 10-12 mph, mowing the lawn with a power mower, volleyball, gardening, badminton, tennis doubles, or any similar effort)
Do all aerobic activity performed in bouts of 10 minutes or longer
Seek to increase this to 300 minutes a week for even more benefits
Do these at least 3 days a week
You can keep it simple, like standing on one foot or heel-to-toe walking
Do resistance exercises 2 or more days a week
You can use resistance bands, weights, or body weight
If you don’t know what to do, find a trainer or class to get started
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