Ageless is a book by science writer Andrew Steele. Most of the book goes into the physiology of how we age and how we can potentially stop that from happening.
In one of his final chapters he does have some recommendations on what we can do or not do to give ourselves a statistically better chance of living longer. Here they are:
Don’t smoke. No real news here, smoking is really quite bad for you. If you’re under 30 and stop smoking, it’s likely that your life expectancy can recover back to normal. If you end up smoking most of your life, you can probably expect to take as much as ten years off your life compared to if you never smoked a single cigarette. Not only does smoking increase your chance of lung cancer, it also increases incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and dementia – so basically all the main causes of death (apart from maybe a certain virus…). Smoking also makes you look older too, thinning the skin, causing baldness, wrinkles and greying hair.
Don’t eat too much. I once heard that you age at the rate that you produce insulin – so basically at the rate that you eat. Steele sort of backs this up. Being obese can definitely shorten your life. But it’s actually visceral fat that’s the most dangerous – the fat that can build up around your organs that can screw with your physiology and health. Subcutaneous fat around your butt and legs are less dangerous. What this basically means is: Avoid a beer belly as much as possible, since that’s an indication that fat is building up around your innards. What you eat can matter too – there’s evidence for vegetarianism and eating fruit and vegetables being good for you (who knew?). Meanwhile, sugary, processed, fatty food and alcohol should probably be limited. To sum up, look in the mirror and see if you could do with losing some weight – it could extend your life.
Get some exercise. I bet you’re learning tons of new stuff today! Yes, whenever we’ve been told that exercise is good for you, they were probably right. Both cardio and resistance training is good for longevity, and generally the sweet spot is about 30 minutes per day. There is some evidence suggesting that you can exercise too much, but that problem probably won’t be applicable to most.
Get seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Data suggest that those that live longest sleep not too little and not too much. Even so, it’s hard to conclude that sleeping the right amount causes you to live longer, since there’s a chance that people who are more prone to sickness and illness have to sleep longer or have their sleep disrupted with pain or other symptoms. Nevertheless, sleep is a rejuvenative process for the body and especially the brain, so it probably should be treated with respect.
Get vaccinated and wash your hands. Never before has this been better advice than right now, with people dropping like flies amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Usually we have to contend with the flu season which can leave us bed-bound for a few days each year – this is especially bad for the elderly who can even die from flu. That’s why vaccines are recommended to people over the age of 65, so they can be protected from infections that could wipe them out. There’s a case for the rest of the population to be vaccinated too, since flu in itself is a nasty illness that can wipe out health and productivity, and spread to unvaccinated people too. Infections like flu and HPV are implicated in other more serious diseases like heart disease, stroke, and cancer, so it makes sense to limit the number of infections that we have to overcome in our lives.
Take care of your teeth. Steele highlights some research linking the lack of mouth hygiene with diseases as serious as dementia and heart disease. We’re not sure how or why this can be, but it’s a good excuse to brush effectively and frequently.
Wear sunscreen. As annoying as it can be to apply, sunscreen can stop our skin from getting smashed by damaging ultraviolet rays from the sun, thereby preventing dangerous DNA mutations that could lead to cancer. Not only that, the sun can age our skin quicker by causing discolorations and wrinkles.
Monitor your heart rate and blood pressure. High blood pressure can lead to events like stroke, heart disease and vascular dementia. The seriousness of these events mean that we should keep an eye on our blood pressure. Investing in a blood pressure cuff and periodically measuring our blood pressure is the only way we can know what our figures are, since there’s no other way of feeling that our blood pressure is high in the way that we can notice how fast our hearts are beating. Targets that we should aim for are blood pressures of less than 120/80 mmHg and around 60 beats per minute. The best way to lower these figures? You guessed it: Good diet and exercise.
Don’t bother with supplements. As popular as they are, Steele doesn’t see the benefit of dietary supplements, and some like beta-carotene and Vitamin E could even increase the risk of mortality. It could be better to invest the money spent on supplements instead in a gym membership, or some healthier foods.
Don’t bother with longevity drugs – yet. Most of the book covered treatments that are currently being developed to increase human longevity. But Steele advises not to seek out stem cells, metformin, rapamycin or low-dose aspirin just yet. Even though evidence from animal studies may look promising, in humans it could be different and as with taking any type of drug there are unwanted side-effects.
Be a woman. Although there’s nothing you can really do about this, it’s true that women live longer than men on average. It might be due to men having fewer genes because of the slightly shortened Y chromosome, where women have two X chromosomes. Another possibility is that male sex hormones reduce lifespan – there have been observations that castrated males and eunuchs live much longer.
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” J. Krishnamurti
We live in a world where the four biggest killers after the age of 40 are cancer, stroke, neurodegenerative disease, and cardiovascular disease. Although the life-expectancy in almost every country has increased in the past century, there seems to be more incidence of these diseases, as well as inflammatory diseases such as arthritis and autoimmune disorders like coeliac disease. As a result, people (including myself) are always trying to find out how they can reduce risk of disease and increase longevity. New bold claims by scientists to increase lifespan include use of drugs like rapamycin, metformin and low-dose aspirin. Other lifestyle changes such as gluten-free diet, low-carb diet and intermittent fasting are also gaining traction in the media as ways to live a healthier life and prevent disease. Consensus is being achieved by the medical world that Western eating habits may be the root cause of the problem. Over 2000 years ago Hippocrates, a classical Greek physician said that “all disease begins in the gut”, and I think he may have been onto something there.
What is time-restricted eating (intermittent fasting)?
Time-restricted eating is type of intermittent fasting method in which uses alternating windows of feeding with windows of no caloric intake (fasting). It has been made widely popular in the last few years, and has been the subject of documentaries, podcasts and articles in recent times. Many sources cite a wide array of health benefits, which was the reason why I personally decided to give it a go. I have now been intermittent fasting for over a year and I will share my thoughts on the method as a strategy to live a healthier life.
I first came across the concept of intermittent fasting, I was confused. The book I was reading by Tim Ferriss named Tools of Titans described intermittent fasting along with terms I had never heard of such as ‘ketosis’. I had an instant aversion to it. Conventional wisdom told me that eating frequent, small meals was the recipe for good health. I had even made it a rule to eat on average every three hours that I was awake. I had never thought of timing of meals as a serious factor to consider when making diet choices. And besides, wasn’t it supposed to be a terrible thing whenever we skipped breakfast?
Fast forward six months and I thought I would give it a go. I would skip breakfast, and wait until mid-afternoon before I ate my first meal. When the time came that my first meal was due, I rushed to the nearest takeaway joint to stuff my face with high fat, high sugar foods. When dinner arrived, I did the same thing again. By the end of the day, I was telling myself that I would never do it again. The hunger I felt was painful, and the foods I ended up eating were extremely unhealthy. A month later, I thought I would give it another try. Over 12 months later, I am still fasting somewhere between 12-18 hours per day, every day.
I decided to persist with intermittent fasting because of the supposed benefits that it achieves. Here they are:
Fat loss and potentially muscle gain
Evolutionarily, storage of fat was useful for humans since during harsh winters where food was scarce, the body could use its fat stores for energy. Now in the 21st century, excess fat storage in the body is causing a list of chronic diseases such as stroke, heart attack, and Type 2 diabetes and the majority of people are now looking to rid themselves of this excess fat. The reason why people find fat loss so difficult is because our bodies prefer to use energy derived from glucose in the blood and glycogen from the liver. Once the levels of glucose and glycogen are depleted, the body will turn to the fat stores and turn it into ketones in our liver for energy. Fasting is considered the easiest way to access the fat storage in our body for use as energy, inducing fat loss. However, some suggest that by fasting, it is naturally leading to caloric deficit, and that the subsequent lower intake of calories leads to the fat loss. Fasting leads to an increase in the release of noradrenaline, which is associated with fat loss, as well as an increase in metabolic rate, meaning more calories would be being burned off by the body at rest. Interestingly, it has been noted that fasting leads to an increase in natural growth hormone in the body, preserving against muscle loss. I know it’s hard to believe, but actors Hugh Jackman and Terry Crews are known for their intermittent fasting practices, and they are hardly lacking in muscle. Female stars like Beyonce and Jennifer Lopez have also been reported to be advocates of intermittent fasting.
The longest fast on record was 382 days. The patient weighed in at 456 pounds (~207 kg) and weighted out 180 pounds (~82 kg).
Intermittent fasting can slow down the aging process by activating cellular housekeeping processes, increasing insulin sensitivity and lowering inflammation.
When our bodies are in a fasted state, less energy is available for the cells. This activates a process called autophagy, where the weaker cells are chosen to die while the stronger, more robust cells are rejuvenated upon refeeding. It is possible that autophagy can help prevent against formation of cancerous tumours and has been found to be true in animal studies. Fasting lowers insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) which is known as a strong driver of cancer. And since IGF-1 is related to insulin, this could be the link between the sugar and carbohydrates leading to the insulin release from the pancreas and driving the aging process. Spending more time in a fasted state also leads to lower insulin secretion from the pancreas, which therefore increases the sensitivity of cells to insulin, further protecting the body from diseases of the pancreas such as metabolic syndrome or Type 2 diabetes. Inflammatory markers that are associated to cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative disease also become lowered from intermittent fasting. Mice who were subjected to intermittent fasting experiments lived 40% longer compared to mice that didn’t fast at all.
Intermittent fasting is easier than dieting.
Skipping breakfast or dinner saves time in our increasingly busy lifestyles. There’s no need to wash up, cook and eat that extra meal. I also found personally that skipping breakfast allowed me to be much more productive in the mornings. I no longer had bouts of “brain fog” shortly after breakfast as a result an insulin spike in the blood. Evolutionarily, it makes sense for humans to be more alert when we are hungry – we are in more desperate need to hunt down our next meal and need to be more productive in an unfed state. Personally, I found that intermittent fasting was really easy to be compliant with and after the first couple of days it was very easy to put into action. It wasn’t restrictive in terms of which food I allowed myself to eat either. Traditional diets are designed to take a lot of willpower (which will eventually let you down) and are short-term. Intermittent fasting is something I can envisage doing for life.
Intermittent fasting is not a one-size-fits-all solution to everyone’s health problems. It is important before deciding to partake in intermittent fasting that it is suitable. If meals are being skipped it can lead to nutrient deficiency so it is important to plan meals to get enough micronutrients in the diet. For underweight people looking to gain weight, it is a lot harder to gain weight when intermittent fasting, and fasting could also be a bad idea for people who are prone to eating disorders such as anorexia. In people suffering from diabetes, it may lead to hypoglycemia. In women it could cause disruption of the menstrual cycle. I personally found that high intensity workouts were tougher in a fasted state. And of course fasting for 16 hours at a time can cause a bout of hunger or two, although after the first couple of days it became easy to manage. Intermittent fasting should be used as a method that supplements a healthy and nutritious diet. Eating unhealthy foods while intermittent fasting is not something that I would advise, although I struggle with this myself. Finally, most research into this new field of study is in animal models and clinical data is scarce, so it is important to take the research findings with a pinch of salt.
Human psychology is dumb. Why is it that most of us chow down on unhealthy foods, and refuse to exercise knowing that one day this is going to come back to bite us? We really are creatures of comfort, preferring to binge-watch Netflix on the couch instead of actually moving our bodies and looking after ourselves. What would it take to step back, take a long hard look ourselves, and decide to change our poor lifestyle choices? Luckily, it feels to me that more and more people are taking action and taking care of their health and fitness in recent times. This is my personal story of how I transformed my weak, inactive “nerd body” to something much more athletic.
Up until last year I had only been to the gym a little more than a handful of times in my life. I didn’t enjoy it, and it was expensive. Why would I pay to do an activity I didn’t enjoy? It was painful, and I couldn’t understand why anyone would enjoy that burning feeling in the muscles that you get when you lift a weight. Besides, I was playing table tennis regularly, and occasionally having a skateboard session. I even walked around a snooker table for a couple hours a day too. Surely that’s enough physical recreation to keep a 25-year-old man fit and healthy? Evidently, I still had a lot to learn. I was doing my best to ignore little signs that my health and fitness was declining. I was getting ill more often, my digestion was poor, and my weak body was stopping me from participating from certain activities. For instance, I barely played any tennis anymore since I couldn’t perform an overhead service action without shoulder pain. My knees started aching when I went skateboarding, and my achilles hurt if I ran too much. The funniest part is, I just thought it was an inevitable part of life. At some point in your mid-twenties, you reach peak physical shape. After that it starts declining until you eventually die. Isn’t that the way life works? This was the way I was living – in a vicious circle of inactivity to avoid pain and injury. Luckily at the time, I was living and travelling with a certified gym nut. He would go to the gym almost daily, and hounded me to go with him for about a month. Eventually, I agreed, under the condition that he would sneak me in for free.
The false start
The first workout, I just blitzed my body. I performed each set to failure, and it was painful, just like I always remembered working out at the gym to be. My body was wrecked and achy and I couldn’t go again for another five days, when I just did the same thing. After the third or fourth workout, the staff at the gym found out that my friend was sneaking me in after hours and said that I would have to buy a gym membership. That was the best thing that could have happened, and since I joined the gym I would have to go more often to get my money’s worth.
Getting up to speed
I started to go five or six times a week. By this point I had honed in on my weekly schedule. Monday through to Sunday I planned my sessions in this order: Legs, Chest, Back, Shoulders, Calisthenics (sometimes), High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT). This body split allowed me to work around my delayed onset muscle stiffness (DOMS). For example, I knew after doing my leg workout that I wouldn’t have to do another one for at least six days, and I could work out my upper-body during the time I was recovering. Here are the main exercises I performed in the gym: Legs: Squat (front and back), deadlift (regular and sumo), dumbbell lunge, leg press. Chest: Bench press, incline dumbbell press, decline dumbbell press, cable flyes, dips (weighted). Back: Lat pulldown (wide grip), seated row, bent over dumbbell row, pull-up, inverted row Shoulders: Military press, dumbbell shoulder press, lateral dumbbell raises. Calisthenics: pull-ups, dips, L-sit (on a dip bar), back extensions. HIIT: A mixture of jump squat, box jump, broad jump, sprints, handstand hold, plank, high knees, mountain climber, bear crawl, push up, pull up, burpees. Rep ranges were 6-8 for most sets, and HIIT sessions would be three sets of a 9-exercise circuit of 45 seconds on/ 15 seconds rest, with three minutes between sets. I would also incorporate about 20 minutes of basic stretching at the end of each workout. I logged each workout and in the first month I had 12 gym sessions. In the second month I recorded 25 gym sessions. Here are before and after photos.
What I ate
I made an effort to reduce refined sugar intake. Other than that, I didn’t change my diet much. My go-to meal was roasted chicken drums or thighs with steamed mixed vegetables. Sometimes I added some mixed beans in. When I went out for dinner, I didn’t change my eating habits. I just chose whatever I wanted. My diet was already high in meat consumption so I didn’t consume any protein supplements or any other workout supplements. Here are some of the lessons I learned during this two-month period.
Sport isn’t the same as exercise.
One of the distinctions I learned during this period is that the effect of sport on the body is not the same as the effect of exercise on the body. I can’t think of any sport (other than weightlifting) that would produce the same kind of body transformation as what this gym program did. That said, participating in sport without gym workouts beats complete inactivity.
Think in terms of body recomposition instead of weight loss/gain.
So many people (myself included) focus on weight goals when they start working out. They want to lose or gain a certain amount of pounds or kilos, and are overly attached to this goal. I kept a close eye on my weight throughout the training period. At the start I was 59 kg (130 lbs) and by the end my weight was fluctuating between 59 kg and 62 kg (130-137 lbs), so there was no discernible weight change. While most people know that when they work out most of the strength gained is the consequence of more muscle mass (hypertrophy), not many people think about the amount of fat that they shed too. As a result, those who are looking to gain or lose weight get frustrated that the number on the scale isn’t changing quick enough. Instead, they should be focusing on increases in strength and endurance that they are making, indicating that there are positive changes occurring in the body.
Write as much as possible.
I found that logging each workout in terms of how many sets/reps of each exercise were done (and at which weight) was really beneficial to getting more out of the workouts. Memory alone would not be good enough to remember these parameters, so it was useful before the workout to see what I had done the previous week on the same body split. That way, I could make sure I progressed in one way or another during the session, instead of trying to work out how much weight I could lift each time.
Almost never go 100% effort.
In hindsight, I know that my early workouts where I went to failure with each set were a bad idea. Not only is it painful, it is really taxing on the body. The amount of hydrogen ions produced in the muscle can get to a dangerous level, meaning that not only could I not work out for the next five days due to muscle stiffness, I was potentially making it very difficult for the muscle to grow too and putting my body under a lot of stress. Not many people would disagree that doing the same workout at 75% effort each day for the five days would achieve a greater result than one session at 100% followed by four days of rest. Another reason I didn’t go 100% is so that I could achieve a progression in weight/reps in the next workout. Nowadays, the only time I would personally go 100% is for competition or testing, which is rare.
Make your workout as fun as possible.
Most people don’t go to the gym simply because they don’t enjoy it, not because they deliberately want their body to lose all strength, function and mobility. I knew that to get the maximum compliance to the program I was planning on doing, I had to make the workouts as fun as possible. I chose to do my favourite exercises in each body split while discarding the ones I didn’t like. I didn’t work to failure, making it less painful and keeping myself fresh for the next workout. I also incorporated new skills like L-sits and handstand holds into my workout to give me the novelty of learning something new.
Exercise for the right reasons.
Before immersing myself into a regular workout program, I knew I needed to outline the reasons to work out. A weight goal or appearance goal would cause impatience and a craving for quick results. I still kept an eye on these things regularly, but I did not base the success of my program on these things. Instead I decided that one of the reasons I would be working out was to be able to learn to muscle up (an exercise on a pull-up bar where a pull-up transitions into a bar dip on the top of the bar), so I would need to increase my strength in order to achieve this goal. Another reason was to remain injury-free and increase my mobility so that I could increase performance while playing sport. In the end, I defined success as simply just going to the gym. Any time I went to the gym, no matter what happened in the workout, I would view it as a success.
Get to know how your own psychology works to destroy your excuses.
How do you hack your brain to want to go to the gym? I realize that everyone is different, so everyone has to think about their own psychology and how they make decisions. Are they more likely to skip gym if they planned to go after work or before work? Do they always bail on leg workouts? Incorporate leg exercises into each workout. Workout buddy always bails on you? Go alone. Personally, I knew that making the workout fun and not exerting myself were keys to getting me to go to the gym. The promise of a nice meal after the workout, as well as living close by to the gym, and having a gym-going roommate were factors that helped to get me to the gym more often. I also followed lots of Instagram profiles of calisthenics athletes who were performing muscle-ups so that I could be reminded of reasons why I should keep to my planned workout schedule.
You don’t need to do crunches and leg raises to get a visible six-pack.
Abdominal workouts are easily my least favourite, so I didn’t do any targeted abdominal work. Even so, I still managed a pretty impressive body transformation and more visible abs. For anyone with a goal of “getting abs”, I would focus on diet. Consider reducing carb and sugar intake, or intermittent fasting (although I didn’t fast during this training period). In terms of actual exercises, I believe sprinting, interval training, and HIIT sessions to be valuable since the rectus abdominis (six-pack muscles) is the main muscle used in a forced exhalation. On top of that, try to engage your core in exercises where most people don’t, like performing push-ups or pull-ups in the hollow body position. However, if training for strength, then core muscles should definitely be trained, since core strength will help with any big lift.
I didn’t know how unhealthy I was until I became healthy.
Looking back at old photos, I did not see how much my appearance was declining at the time. My face was fat, my skin was bad, my muscle tone was non-existent. Only when I started working out did I realise that I was light years away from peak physical shape, and it was no wonder I was getting injured and sick all the time. The good news is, it wasn’t even very difficult to get into half-decent shape. Obviously, everyone is different. Someone who is in worse physical condition than I was may think they’re too far gone so their health and fitness will never go back to the way it was when they were young, but in my opinion it’s never too late to start being more active.
Conclusion: Exercise, have fun, and never stop.
Overall, the I found the keys to successful body recomposition are to partake in focused exercise instead of/alongside sport, and to do it consistently over a period of time. Be in it for the long haul by having fun and not working too hard, as health and fitness is a continuous, lifelong journey and not just a remedy for poor health. Think of the times you have been sick or injured, and how much that affected the rest of your life – work, relationships, self-esteem etc. Why wait for it to happen before you finally decide to achieve the health and fitness you want?