Recently I listened to an episode of the TED Radio Hour featuring Steven Johnson, whose TED Talk started from the premise that you publish a newspaper only every 100 years and it only has a single headline. So your headline must be about the most important thing that happened over the last 100 years, in our case from about 1920 to present. What would it be? Something about World War II? The Great Depression? Nuclear weapons? Space travel? The Internet? The Chicago Cubs winning the World Series? (This would be my vote.) These all seem like great candidates but none of them was chosen by the author.
What did he choose? Longevity.
Longevity is defined as long life or long existence or service, but this is relative, so practicality speaking it can refer to lifespan, or how long a person lives. And the author pointed out that over the last 100 years we have doubled our lifespan, and such a dramatic change in longevity has never really been seen before now. This is an enormous accomplishment. This is because for a very, very long time, leading up to 1920 or so, average lifespan was about half what it is now.
And this doubling of lifespan is not seen only in richer countries but rather across the globe. Based on the author’s research, the main factors contributing to this seismic shift are things like the development of artificial fertilizer (to grow more crops to prevent famine), plumbing, refrigeration, vaccines, antibiotics, chlorinated water, sewer systems, and medical advancements. You see, it’s not that everyone passed away around the age of 35 or 40 before 1920, it’s that there were many things challenging us back then that most of us are now able to overcome without effort, such as famine, diseases like polio, tuberculosis and scarlet fever, malnutrition and starvation, infections, etc. The author pointed out that back then, only about a third of people survived childhood. And even if you DID survive childhood, if you then contracted one of the diseases for which there was no treatment, that was likely the end of it. We take all of these things for granted now and are very fortunate to have twice as much life as the average person 100 years ago.
One thought experiment would be to ask yourself how long you would live or would have lived had you not had access to the advancements that have led to a doubling of our lifespan. For example, suppose as a child you had a severe infection that required anti-biotics. Had anti-biotics not been available you probably would not have survived. How old were you? In my own case, I would have lasted about 10 days total. I was born with a birth defect called pyloric stenosis, a condition which blocks food from entering the small intestine. Fortunately in 1965, and of course currently, the condition is fairly easily corrected by surgery.
Notice that things like jogging, push-ups, vitamins, and the Food Pyramid are not on the list of things contributing to our doubled lifespan over the last 100 years. And it’s not that such things are not important and do not contribute to a longer life, they surely do. But such things are more relevant to something called HEALTH-SPAN than they are to lifespan. Health-span is the period of one’s life during which one is healthy and free of disease (mental or physical) and physical breakdown that prevents activity and self-sufficiency.
For example, let’s say that because of poor lifestyle someone develops Type II Diabetes at the age of 43. And because of poor adherence to treatment and continued poor lifestyle (such as a diet of processed food and a lack of exercise) the person develops serious complications, and by age 56 is confined to a wheelchair after foot amputation, and neuropathy has led to seriously compromised vision. Let’s say that this person lives another 15 years on public assistance and under constant care, and passes away at the age of 71. This person had a relatively “normal” lifespan (71 years) but a seriously curtailed health-span of about 48 years.
Many people believe that health-span is more important than lifespan. We are largely able to take for granted the factors that contribute to our lifespan, because they are automatically available to most of us and we don’t really need to do anything to have them. Most of us are very, very lucky. But health-span requires choices and on-going, relatively difficult work. That said, the payoffs are enormous. Imagine a world where most people are active, independent and self-sufficient for most of their lives!
How To Improve Health-Span
Lest you think this blog has veered too far away from joint-friendly, age-friendly strength training and the healthy lifestyle to support it, now you see the point: The more we are able to build and retain functional muscle and fitness without joint injury, and support that muscle mass through nutrition and frequent activity, the more we are able to contribute to a long and vibrant health-span. Yes, calisthenics, I always knew you had most of the answers!
So here is my challenge to you. If your health-span is lagging behind your lifespan, if you wake every day and feel older than you did the day before, if your joints hurt a little more, if your pants are just a bit tighter, your face puffier, your willingness to take the stairs a thing of the past, understand that it’s not too late to fix this. It’s not too late to get your health-span back on track. This is not really the case with lifespan. Serious lifespan challenges usually end up stopping the lifespan. But health-span challenges are gradual, building up slowly over time, barely noticed day to day, until one day the pain and lethargy are just too great and you think “how did I get here?”
Just as these problems slowly build up over time, so can (and should) the solutions. The two most important things for you to do are to start and maintain a suitable strength training program, and get your nutrition on track. I’ll discuss the latter in another article. As for the former, I have provided many introductory calisthenics resources here and on my Youtube channel, including my book, my one-year muscle building calisthenics template, a step-by-step guide to training basic calisthenics, and my guide to all the exercises you can do with gymnastics rings. Once you have taken a look at these resources and are ready to get started, head over to my training page and download my eight week beginner program (PDF) or eight week intermediate program (PDF), each of which contains every exercise to perform every day of the program, and a place to write down your sets and reps for each workout. You are also invited to consider my individual consultation and coaching programs for one-on-one guidance.