Time is like a river running down from the mountains. It always moves in one direction, and the second that flow of water touches you, it is past you. You can’t stop the flow. But unlike a river, time does not get replenished.
When the flow of time is plentiful, you take it for granted, but as the flow starts diminishing, you begin to notice and value it more highly. Over time, the flow of time starts drying out and the flow becomes a trickle and eventually stops. Time becomes more valuable as we have less of it.
Computer Science Professor Randy Pausch faced this reality when he was diagnosed in August of 2007 with terminal pancreatic cancer at the age of 46. He was given three to six months to live. He eventually passed away in July 2008 but not before delivering one of the most watched YouTube videos of all time.
A self-described efficiency freak, Randy preferred to answer his phone while riding his bike (not sure that I would try this). He joked once in a lecture that he had yet to find a way to make more time, but he was trying.
While Randy never did find a way to make more time, he became an instant expert on what to do with his limited time on earth the minute he was given his terminal diagnosis. As is customary of retiring faculty at Carnegie Mellon, he was asked to deliver a final lecture.
After his terminal diagnosis his wife Jai did not think that giving a lecture was a good use of his limited time, but there was something inside of Randy that kept pushing him, and he committed to a September 18 date. It took Randy a while to figure out exactly what he wanted to say, but it finally dawned on him that all the things he valued in life were rooted in the dreams and goals he had as a child, so he aptly named his last lecture “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.”
The lecture has been viewed over 20 million times on YouTube, but its popularity has less to do with achieving your childhood dreams and more with how to lead your life the right way. “If you lead your life the right way, the karma will take care of itself. The dreams will come to you,” was Randy’s key message.
Nothing makes you realize the value of time more than knowing that your time is finite.
"Time is all you have. And you may find one day that you have less than you think"
We cannot make more time but we can change how fast we age
Our minds might tell us we’re 65 or 37 years old but in reality our internal age may be significantly different.
I know what you’re thinking.
Is this yet another version of Benjamin Button?
And in a sense it is but it’s also based on recent academic research on aging. Specifically research dealing with the difference between your chronological and biological age. Your chronological age is based on your birthday. In contrast, your biological age depends on how healthy you are, not when you were born. It measures the wear and tear on your body parts.
For example, in a study done by Dr. Dan Belsky at Duke University following adult males from the time they were 26 years old to age 38 he found that the rate of aging varied tremendously. The study looked at measures such as the functions of kidneys, liver, lungs, metabolic and immune systems as well as levels of cholesterol, cardio fitness, lung function and the length of telomeres (these are the caps at the end of our DNA strands that have been found to shorten with age).
The results were eye-opening. Some males were aging as fast as three years per chronological year while others were lowering their bio age at a rate less than that predicted by their chronological age. At the end of the study participants all 38 years of age exhibited a biological age range from 30 to nearly 60 years old.
Other researchers have used different methods to measure aging such as the epigenetic clock discovered by Dr. Steve Horvath at UCLA in 2013. What’s remarkable about the epigenetic clock is its accuracy in predicting lifespan even after adjusting for chronological age, gender, health practices and previous aliments.
This is not some new age science peddled by oil snake salesmen. It’s serious research backed by hundreds of millions of dollars of new venture capital. It’s been rumored that anti-aging Company Altos Labs who counts Steve Horvath among its staff and reputably Jeff Bezos among its investors has raised close to $300 million since its inception in 2021. Investing in age-related research has taken off with no signs of cooling off.
Anti-aging is not just reserved for ego-maniac billionaires
Have you ever wondered why some people look and act much younger than their chronological peers? My 93 year old uncle in Costa Rica is one of them. He still travels the world by himself, looks amazing, walks everywhere and socializes across all age groups. I’m not sure what his biological age is but I am pretty sure that it is much lower than the number of candles on his birthday cake (if that is even possible).
People can be significantly younger than their chronological age and guess what? Here’s the best part is that all it takes according to Dr. Kara Fitzgerald author of the Younger You is proper diet and a healthy lifestyle.
You must be wondering, “Can it really be that easy?”
That’s what I was wondering about until I looked at the results of her pilot study where participants reduced their biological age by over 3 years by following an 8 week program of a very doable diet and lifestyle. No strange injections or supplements. Everything in the study could have been bought at your local grocery store. No need to be a billionaire like Jeff Bezos or Larry Ellison.
Now, the pilot study was admittedly small but Dr. Fitzgerald as well as numerous functional medicine practitioners have been finding remarkable results with their clinical patients throughout the years by following very similar diet and lifestyle recommendations.
I am not a doctor but I think that there is something to all of this that can be highly beneficial to our lives. In a sense I don’t really care about how much younger I might be biologically but what I do care about is feeling younger and more energetic today and in the future.
That’s why I was impressed by some of the key benefits from following the recommendations in Younger You and other functional medicine practitioners:
To be clear nobody is promising eternal life. What the research shows is that easy to implement nutrition and lifestyle practices can make our biological age move in reverse. By how much is still an open question but the premise that one can significantly improve one’s quality of life is enough for me.
"Your biological age is a critical component in the entire aging process, and again, can be very different from your chronological age"
I hope that you find this research as exciting as I do but before I get to some science-based recommendations for how to lower your biological age first we need to clear up a couple of widely held misconceptions that could be holding you back:
Misconception #1 - It's all about your genes
How many times have you heard people justify their lifestyle and in particular their nutrition and exercise choices on their ancestor’s genes? “There is no point in eating healthy as I come from bad genes”. Or, “Everybody in my family has died young so why should I kill myself exercising.” And there is the other extreme of “My parents both lived to 95 years of age and they never exercised?” “I’m luckily from a good gene pool”.
There is a common myth held even among highly educated people that your genes determine how long we live. I must admit that I held this view for a long time. My dad lived to age 88 and my mom to age 92. On my mom’s side of the family there are people that have lived past 100. So for many years I held on to the notion that I had good genes and that I would live into my 90’s.
What I didn’t know is that genes only account for about 30% of a person’s longevity. The environment in which we live and our lifestyle choices account for the rest. Where we live, what we eat, our ability to deal with stress, our general fitness, and our mental outlook are all more important taken together than our genetic endowment.
Misconception #2 - Everybody ages at the same rate
We tend to lump people into age groups and believe that everybody is basically the same. For example, a person older than 65 years of age is in the retired bucket. Anybody in their 80’s is decrepit and in need of daily assistance, and so on.
In reality there is a wide divergence how people age. Based on looks some people age well, others not so. That’s the external side, but what about under the hood? Different body parts age at different rates within all of us. Medical research done on identical twins has found that the older you are the more variation in overall health. The same genes applied to different environments and lifestyle choices can lead to a wide spectrum of health outcomes.
Everybody gets older but we do it at significantly different rates depending on our environment and lifestyle choices. The importance of your genetic endowment diminishes with age. Our health care choices and actions become much more influential.
Misconception #3 - You can't do anything about it
Many people admit defeat before even trying. They’ve been leading a sedentary lifestyle that they are comfortable with and do not want to change. While we are all experts at rationalizing our behavior, there is always a benefit to improving your lifestyle and health choices.
Clearly, the older you are the less beneficial these changes will be to your overall health, but studies have shown that even individuals already in their 60’s and 70’s show significant improvements to their overall health after going through wellness programs involving diet, stress management and exercise.
It's never too late to start. Some of the recent "senior" runners in the Boston marathon did not get started until their 50's or 60's.
Levering research to feel and look great
You must be wondering what comes next. Surely the hammer is about to drop. A bad surprise? The recommendation to only eat rabbit food, drink water, and run in circles for a minimum of six hours a day? Easy if you’re a hamster, right?
Here’s something we can both agree on – eating like a hamster won’t work. Not in the short-term but certainly not in the long-term.
But before you get discouraged I have some great news. You don’t have to become a hamster. All you have to do is follow some easy and fairly straightforward nutrition and lifestyle suggestions.
Now, to be clear I am not recommending a specific protocol or guaranteeing a drop in your biological age. For that go look up the specific guidelines of the Younger You or similar programs.
I am, however, suggesting a set of anti-aging practices that the vast majority of functional medicine practitioners have found helpful but that too many of us have not quite yet implemented in our daily lives.
Here’s we go:
Anti-Aging Practice 1 - Proper Nutrition
Watch your diet - preferably prepare meals at home emphasizing a plant-based diet. Dr. Marc Agronin author of the book “The Dementia Caregiver” swears by the MIND diet which includes generous portions of fruits and vegetables, fish, legumes, chicken, and olive oil while refraining from processed foods, sugar, whole-fat dairy and red meat. At home meals typically have 30% fewer calories than restaurant meals. Poor diet is both the number one cause of death and long-term disability in the US.
Maintain a healthy body weight - Obesity is linked to all sorts of issues such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. Keep your body mass index (BMI) between 19 and 25. I know, not easy to do and the trend globally has been up. Fight the trend for your own survival. Your metabolism slows 5 percent every decade after the age of thirty. Don’t eat like your younger self. You will only make it harder on yourself.
Watch your sweet tooth - Sugar intake is becoming a key public health issue contributing to major adverse effects. Sugar makes your blood insulin levels spike. High-sugar diets are associated with an increased risk of many diseases, including heart disease, the number one cause of death worldwide. High-sugar diets can also lead to obesity, inflammation and high triglyceride levels, and high blood pressure.
Drink alcohol in moderation - that means a lot less than you think. Most doctors would have you stop at one drink per day. If you’re going to drink, have some red wine. Your liver will thank you. Excessive alcohol consumption lowers the body’s immunity to disease.
Never smoke – enough said.
Anti-Aging Practice 2 - Exercise
Move – walk, jog or run. You could take a spin or Zumba class. Anything to get your heart pumping. The optimal aerobic training involves maintaining between 60 and 80 percent of your maximum heart rate for between 30 and 45 minutes. Your maximum heart rate is calculated as 220 minus your age. I just turned 60 years old so my maximum heart rate is 160. Ideally, I should exercise at least three times a week and maintain my heart rate between 96 to 128 heart beats per minute. Get yourself a heart monitor.
Aerobic exercise has all kinds of beneficial effects on your physical heath. It has been shown to lower your risk for strokes, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. On top of that your mental and emotional energy will improve
Pump Up – strength training to build muscle strength. You don’t have to be all jacked up, but you should do enough strength training to overcome what doctors refer as sarcopenia. Sarcopenia begins in your mid-30s and refers to the gradual loss of muscle mass.
Both men and women should do strength training. It does not have to involve the use of free weights. You may prefer exercise machines which are easier for many people to use or work out at home using minimal equipment. You could rely on elastic band resistance training or simple old-fashioned exercises such as planks, pushups and squats. The idea is to reduce your body’s frailty. Two or three times a week for between 30 and 45 minutes should suffice.
Stretch – build flexibility and balance. This is really important as your muscles tend to stiffen up with age along with your risk for a fall. Dr. Mark Williams in his book The Art and Science of Aging Well recommends doing between 10 and 15 minutes daily of flexibility and balance training. If you enjoy group lessons, you’re in luck – you may want to try yoga, Tai Chi or Barre.
Anti-Aging Practice 3 - Mind Games
Keep learning new things -it might be learning to speak Spanish or how to build a rock wall. It might be learning more about the environment or how to salsa dance. Everybody should embrace becoming a lifelong learner. It’s not true that creativity declines with age. In fact, the ability to connect things and events while interpreting the context at hand increases with life experience and wisdom.
Challenge your brain - doing the same things over and over is highly unlikely to challenge your brain. You need to innovate. Medical researchers have found that the brain thrives on novelty and new challenges. If you never try anything new your connections in your brain will atrophy in a process known as synaptic pruning.
Our brains literally grow with our own actions and experiences. The brain is constantly being reshaped by a process called brain plasticity. Feed your brain new experiences and it will keep on building interconnections. Tackling something new is what’s important. Listen to Eleanor Roosevelt, “Do one thing every day that scares you.”
Going through the same routine everyday simple re-enforces existing brain connections, but novelty is necessary to build new connections. Make it part of your daily routine to challenge your brain.
Practice mindfulness – we all need to learn to at times slow down our thoughts. Many of the nitty gritty issues that annoy us on a daily basis will lessen in importance the more we can quiet our mind.
Mindfulness as practiced, say, through meditation enables us to lower our stress level and better enjoy the present. Lowering stress in our fast-moving society is increasingly becoming absolutely necessary for ensuring a healthy body, mind and brain. There are many forms of meditation. I don’t personally subscribe to any one form. For me it is more about quietly sitting down first thing in the morning and slowing down whatever is going through my head at the moment.
Anti-Aging Practice 4 - Managing Stress
Write your thoughts down. Journaling on a daily basis is one of the best ways to find clarity and slow our minds down. It seems that once you write something on paper many of our fears do not look as overwhelming.
Visualization is a close cousin of journaling. The idea is to visualize past happy experiences or things that bring you inner peace which in turn will shift attention away from the source of immediate stress. Maybe it is a memory from growing up, a favorite tree, or a special place in your heart.
Go for a walk, preferably surrounded by nature. Look up, around, and down. Look at the tree leaves swaying in the wind and listen to the sound of birds. If you’re lucky enough to live close to a place with water look at the rhythm of the water and listen carefully. Close your eyes. Breathe.
Breathe. Celebrity doctor Andrew Weil is a huge fan of breath work for dealing with stress. We often think of breathing as a purely automatic response, but by consciously measuring your breaths in and out you can gain control over your emotions.
Listen to calming music. This one works wonders for me. Many years ago, as part of a corporate retreat, I was tested to see what would lower my immediate stress level. For some people it is moving around. For others, it is breathing, and for me, it was listening to music.
Think of the worst possible outcome and how likely it really is. This idea comes from blogger Tim Ferris. Stress is a manifestation of fear. Tim’s suggestion is to stop and think what might actually go wrong, then quantify the likelihood of the worst outcome actually happening. This simple reframing will lower your stress as you realize that our worst hardly ever come true.
Pray or appeal to a spiritual power. I’m a bit reluctant to bring this up because many people frown at the mention of religion. But I do find that just by slowing down and speaking to a higher power, whatever that might be, tends to calm you down. I was raised Catholic, but when I pray, I talk to a higher power that does not fit any particular religious belief system. I simply believe that if you really need help there will be mysterious ways in which assistance will come your way. That belief by itself calms me down.
Anti-Aging Practice 5 - Playing the long Game starting Now
There is no tomorrow if there is not a today. Get going. Investing in your health is analogous to investing in your financial future. Taking that first step is hard but little steps done consistently yield a world of benefit.
Many people start small because that’s all they can do. A walk around the block, saying no to a night cap, doing 3 pushups, eating one portion instead of two, going to bed ½ hour earlier or starting a meditation practice. It’s never too late to start living a healthier lifestyle.
Stanford University Professor, Dr.BJ Fogg, says that there are three ways to develop new habits – have an epiphany, change your environment, or start by changing in tiny ways. Having an epiphany is too rare to be useful. That leaves us with the two other possibilities.
Changing your environment – your surroundings and who you associate with most frequently – is a great strategy for creating lasting lifestyle changes. Want a healthier, more physically active lifestyle? Try living in a community with easy access to nature trails and physical activities such as swimming, and exercise lessons.
As psychologist, Dr. Benjamin Hardy has said, “While you’re in an enriched environment, your desired behavior is automated and outsourced.” A healthy environment will almost automatically lead to an upgrade in lifestyle.
Institute small changes in your routines - a faster, more efficient method for creating change is to seek to implement small changes in the intended direction. That’s what Dr. BJ Fogg recommends in his book, Tiny Habits. Start by implementing small steps.
Do something that is easy to do, but do it consistently. A new habit takes time to form. A friend of mine once told me that for him running was as automated as brushing his teeth. That’s your goal – starting a behavior that you know will lead to a healthier lifestyle to the point where you continue doing it routinely without even thinking about it.
Turning Defense into Offense
According to the World Health Organization the average life expectancy for somebody living in the US is 78.5 years old. The average person can expect to enjoy 68.5 years of good health. That leaves the average person to live the last 10 years of their lives in poor health.
In the western world especially, we have grown accustomed to an unhealthy lifestyle of sedentary living, poor diet, and excessive food consumption. As a consequence, the average male in the US is today, on average, ten pounds heavier than a couple of decades ago without being any taller. Is that living well, or do you want to lower your biological age to enjoy a more energetic life in retirement?
The average person’s approach to their health care is to play defense. Medical Technology and medicines help you keep disease at bay. We all know that no game in life can be won by only playing defense. You must also learn to play offense and be proactive about maintaining good health.
I have given you 5 easy ways to switch from defense to offense but only you can execute on the field. Time to take advantage of science-based approaches to lowering your bio age. Your reward is a more energetic and healthy you!