Which is more important to you: your ‘healthspan’ or your ‘lifespan’? We need to start thinking about this because as a population we are living longer, but increasingly in poor health. We are surrendering our quality of life in our quest for longevity.
According to the Office of National Statistics, if you were aged 65 years in the UK in 2020 you could expect to live on average a further 20 years (22 for women). But only 10 years of these are likely to be ‘disability free’ (free from a limiting persistent illness that limits day-to-day activities). For most of us therefore age 75 is likely to be the end of our healthspan.
Is there anything we can do that will make a difference?
Professor Sir Chris Whitty, our Chief Medical Officer, says there is. He has just published his annual report Health in an Aging Society. In it he says that whilst some of good health in old age is due to good luck, “the chances of delaying disease and disability are substantially increased by straightforward measures individuals can take to prevent or significantly delay disease and maintain physical, mental and social activity”.
What are these measures? “They are old-fashioned things actually” says Whitty. Healthy eating, exercise, mental stimulation, drinking only in moderation, and stopping smoking.
Importantly Whitty says “And if I was to highlight just one of those it would be that exercising for the longest possible time has a huge positive impact on both physical and mental health”. His message chimes with that expounded by the American doctor Peter Attia in his book Outlive: The Science and Art of Longevity. In it Attia says “Exercise might well be the most potent longevity intervention that exists”.
The best way of building exercise into your life is to do something you enjoy. But not all exercise is equal when it comes to strength, balance, bone health, and cardiovascular fitness, which are crucial as we head into older age. Swimming and cycling for instance do nothing for your bone health because they’re not weight bearing exercises, whilst Pilates and Yoga rarely leave you out of breath, so don’t impact on your cardiovascular fitness.
Nordic walking is one of the few exercises that works your whole body, using around 90 per cent of your muscles when done properly. It raises your heart rate even at the same speed as your regular walking; it strengthens your shoulders, arms, back and core as well as your lower body muscles; and it supports your joints, making it more comfortable to walk if you’ve sore hips or knees. Nordic walking is also a sociable activity and of course it’s done outdoors in parks and countryside spaces which research consistently shows boosts our mental wellbeing.