“Zeus granted Tithonus immortality but not youth. When hateful old age was pressing hard on him, with all its might, and he couldn’t move his limbs, much less lift them up, then she thought up this plan, a very good one indeed – she put him in her chamber, and she closed the shining doors over him.”
– Hymn to Aphrodite, Homer
Many of us have traded away our health for wealth. The consequence is an early death and, perhaps worse, painful old age. I have noticed, now in my second decade of dastardly discourse, how my colleagues and I have slowed even as coffers grow. Formerly spry squash players, dashing around the court, now stand as tree trunks, whirling branches for arms without legs. A hike to the Banff tea house requires more respite than remembered. The climb up the train station’s stairs is more lumber than limber. The lazy beach vacation beckons as we forego the adventure of youth. Sadly, such a vacation is a resignation of despair cloaked in royal clothes, an acceptance of an inability to enjoy what brings the most joy. Are we to sacrifice our health to our work, only to retire rich, free, and frail? What use is money and freedom without vitality?
Our elderly self is a much weaker version of our present self. Whatever we are able to do, we will be much less able to do in retirement. If we cannot hike a mountain now, we will barely walk a kilometer later; if we cannot swim a minute, we will barely tread water later; if we can barely lift a briefcase now, we will barely lift a baby later. It is haunting to think that decades from now, our faculties will be diminished manyfold.
The good news is the time to grow healthier is now, not later. With every passing day our body deteriorates, but we can substantially stop or reverse it with exercise. Study after study shows what common sense tells us: the more we exercise, the longer and better we are likely to live. For must of us who were never elite athletes, the only way to go is up. We can improve ourselves tremendously, from walkers to become marathon runners; from beach bathers to swimmers and long-distance paddlers; from green skiers to black diamond shredders. The road to vitality does not happen overnight, nor over a 6-week program or a 6-month program. Real improvement in vitality happens over a matter of years, requiring daily commitment, and happens by increasing, ever so slightly, the activity we do today. A sedentary person can increase total activity by an hour a month and, in two years, be active nearly an hour a day, achieving a level of vitality in the rarified air of the one-percent.
The keys to health are conceptually easy but hard to do in our society. Avoid take-out food and restaurants. Avoid face-time hours in the office. Avoid late nights. Avoid elevators, escalators, cars and subways. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Instead, prepare your own food, walk on your feet or ride a bike, do something active every day, and sleep eight hours a day. It is a simple recipe which yields great gains.