Jack LaLanne died on January 23, 2011 at the age of 96. His passion for exercise, diet control, and a positive attitude toward life is an inspiration to all of us.
In the course I teach on the psychology of aging, Jack LaLanne is a hero. Videotaped interviews of his birthdays, right up to the age of 96, have always drawn a combination of laughs and oohs and aahs of amazement, invariably followed by class discussions in which all avow to adopt a healthier lifestyle. I'm not sure how long those promises to change behavior last (though I did see a former student of mine last night at the gym), but I hope that seeing healthy and vigorous 90-year-olds can have a positive impact on the lives of young people.
What are the lessons we can learn from LaLanne? First, it's not that hard to make changes in your lifestyle to help yourself age more successfully. LaLanne's diet is highly restricted, and not for everyone, but caloric restriction (at least to some extent) seems to be one component of the formula for a long life. So watch those total calories you consume, and especially the "bad" calories that come from sugary foods and drinks.
Second, aerobic exercise should be a part of your weekly (or better, daily) routines. Get that heart rate high enough up to be able to pump the blood through your arteries which in turn will feed your muscles the oxygen they need to work efficiently. The best thing about aerobic exercise is that it is fun! A natural way to get "high." Shortly after starting your workout, those endorphins will kick in and you will feel great. You will also feel better about yourself.
It's not enough to go for a run or get on that treadmill, though. Your exercise absolutely must include some form of resistance training. Not all of us will look like Jack LaLanne did in his heydey, but it's never too late to begin some form of weight lifting.
At my gym there are one-hour weight-lifting classes taught to music (called Body Pump). I first discovered this program while on vacation (yes, I exercise on vacation) and was thrilled when my local gym decided to make it available to members. If there's a program like this near you, I'd suggest you check it out. After only a few weeks, you will see improvements in your muscle tone and strength.
Most importantly, lifting weights will help offset two of the worst evils of the aging process. The first is sarcopenia, the loss of muscle with age. The second is osteopenia, the loss of bone strength. Both of these processes occur natrually with age, but both are exacerbated by lack of exercise. For some people, bone loss becomes severe and they develop osteoporosis. Believe me, you would rather be lifting weights than having to take medication for the rest of your life to avoid brittle bones.
My research on aging focuses on psychological changes, but I've long been intrigued by the mind-body relationship and how it changes with age. Your sense of personal identity is tied in with the functioning of your body, and as I've found in my research, the more active your body, the better you feel about yourself overall. There are also benefits of exercise on mental abilities such as memory, concentration, attention, and speed.
A word of warning: before you trade in your couch potato duds for workout gear, make sure you check with a health professional so that you don't put yourself at risk. After that, start off slow, perhaps get a personal trainer, and soon you will reap the rewards.
So thanks, Jack, for inspiring all of us to lead healthier lives. We toast you with a glass of carrot juice!
Also feel free to take my online survey, posted on the website, to evaluate your own healthy habits. You can compare your results to those of other PT readers!
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, 2012