How to improve Healthspan

Otto von Bismarck introduced the world’s first aged pension program to Germany in 1889. It was available upon reaching 70, the life expectancy at the time. Thanks Otto.

Today, life expectancy is higher and retirement age lower. Two changes that impact important facets of our lives: wealth and health. Those extra years of life don’t come for free. A decent retirement requires more savings, along with good health.

Lifespan and healthspan are different.  Lifespan: how long we live. Healthspan: how long we live in good health. Health is often defined as the absence of disease. This isn’t enough. Rather it is the ability to navigate your chosen environment and pursuits without restriction from disease, illness, pain or injury.  For some that is playing golf or tennis. For others it is gardening or walking.  For many it is simply the ability to sit and read without discomfort.

Saving for retirement requires habits that enable it. Likewise for health. Creating good habits improves our health in the long term. And the earlier you start the better. Like the power of compound interest, the compounding effect of healthy habits is enormous. Consider them health savings. Consider smoking, inactivity, and poor diet as health taxes.

A healthy lifestyle can be unappreciated in our younger years.  Largely because most things that lead to chronic disease are silent. Hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, excess stomach fat, and insulin resistance (leading to type 2 diabetes) all develop gradually and silently. I.e. you don’t feel them. These metabolic problems (collectively called metabolic syndrome), contribute to not-so-silent disease: heart disease, cognitive decline (dementia), stroke, and cancer. Metabolic disorders can also contribute to the development of joint inflammation and arthritis.

So beyond fads, what are 4 simple things you can do to improve your healthspan?

1. Diet

Different diets work for different people, and the one that works best is the one we can sustain. Unrefined foods, such as vegetables, fruit, lean meat, complex carbs (debate rages over the amount), grains, and good fats (avocados, olive oils) are best. Something close to the Mediterranean or DASH diets.

2. Exercise

Strength and anaerobic exercise: As detailed in our recent blog resistance training is important to maintain strength. But muscle is also highly metabolically active, so both resistance training and higher intensity training can improve metabolic health.

Aerobic exercise. A big topic for another blog, but a good rule of thumb is to do 30-45 mins of moderate exercise 5 times per week. It will differ depending on your baseline fitness and performance needs, but aim to make yourself a little short of breath. Cycling, jogging, power walking, tennis and golf are all excellent.

3. Sleep

Inadequate sleep contributes to a range of disorders including depression, chronic pain, and metabolic disease.  Matthew Walker’s ‘Why we sleep’ is an excellent resource for those needing help to improve their sleep quality.

4. Stress

We have evolved to deal with acute stress very well; to run from the danger or fight the immediate threat. However our modern lives have created an environment of chronic stress for which our bodies are ill equipped to deal with.  Chronic stress contributes to metabolic disease, and shouldn’t be ignored. A good starting point for those needing help with chronic stress is here.

The good life:

My parents retired 15 years ago and spend much of their time travelling around outback Australia in a caravan.  They buy vegetables from local farmers, and often catch their own fish before cooking it on an open fire. They meet new friends and communicate in person.  For exercise they hike through canyons and swim in rivers. They have few stressors and sleep well, often under the stars. Importantly, many of their healthy habits are incidental to their life. They don’t regard themselves as particularly healthy, but they have built a simple life that is. Good food, regular exercise, talking with friends, pursuing their hobbies and interests, and sleeping well.

Often the healthiest thing we can do is to simplify our life.

If you need help reducing pain, recovering from injury, or improving your health habits, we’re here to help.

Keep moving.