Written by: Aaron Whitten

What is true "health and fitness"? Most gyms have some variation of the term within their name yet gazing about at the membership base reveals little as to what the term means or exactly what folks are trying to achieve. Should you let the meathead lifting a thousand pounds define what it means, the late night infomercial selling the latest must-have piece of equipment or the young man selling supplements at the local health food store? What does it mean to you? If you are like the vast majority of folks out there it probably means something like this: A body devoid of illness or disease that is highly functional throughout its natural lifespan. You simply want to feel good as long as possible without taking extreme measures or spending a fortune. Yet with the endless deluge of advertisements for plans, gyms and supplements it can be a daunting task to filter out what is pertinent to your goal. Let’s skip the hyperbole and utilize some proven data to determine how to live a long, healthy life.

If you want to live a long life it is useful to look at what can cause the opposite. Decades of data collected by the government and private sectors reveal some common trends in morbidity. Most of these are so well known that they may seem like common sense but it is helpful nonetheless to reiterate them here. Doing so will clarify our objectives and the factual correlations between lifestyle and life expectancy. We can act conversely to institute changes that will have positive long lasting effects. Really what we are after is simplification; instead of getting bogged down by the flood of pseudo information that bombards us constantly we can step back and realize the big picture.

Our first stop is bodyweight. Simply put, heavier people tend to die earlier. This is not necessarily the weight itself but the lifestyle that led to the obesity. Fatter people tend to suffer from cardiovascular disease and insulin related issues at a far greater frequency than persons of a normal weight, primarily due to poor nutrition. This does not mean that you have to be rail-thin but you should possess a normal BMI. The most common argument against the BMI is that it fails to take into account lean muscle mass, however for nearly everyone outside of competitive bodybuilding this is irrelevant. If you have any excess body fat whatsoever you cannot complain about the BMI charts. Unfortunately modern society has become so numb to obesity that a person who would have been considered quite portly fifty years ago is now acceptable, leading to the outcry against the BMI. Rule number one: Maintain a lean bodyweight and proper BMI score.

Our second stop is in step with the first: Nutrition. With all the endless diets out there it may seem like an impossible task to decipher which is best for you. The proper course of action here is to ignore the propaganda and look at the data. Doing so reveals a few key facts that you can easily apply. The first is caloric restriction. Persons who restricted their calories to the proper amount to maintain a healthy BMI lived longer. There is some argument about whether further restriction would continue to increase longevity but it is irrelevant; we don’t want to spend our lives starving. Instead, just eat the proper amount for your gender, age, height and expenditure; typically between 1500-2500 calories. There are free charts available from government dietetic sites to help you easily ascertain the right amount. As for where those calories should come from, take a departure from extreme approaches and follow one of moderation. We know conclusively that higher sugar intakes are associated with morbidity so eliminate excess carbohydrates from your diet. This does not mean a radical approach like the Atkins plan. In fact if you simply adhere to non-processed foods, such as meats, fruits and vegetables you will not need to concern yourself with monitoring carbs at all. Use common sense steps such as avoiding excess fats from fried foods and try to eat fresh as often as possible. That’s it. Keep your calories down and eat real food.

The final stop is exercise. Data clearly demonstrates that sedentary individuals die earlier and with more disease. Again this is related to the first points since a sedentary person will often have a higher BMI and is less likely to monitor their diet. How much activity and what type? We know that aerobic exercise is essential to heart health while resistance work maintains bone integrity and increases the metabolic rate, which in turn aids in lowering the BMI. Despite what millions of dollars of advertisements would have you to believe, walking has proven as effective, if not more so, than other forms of aerobic exercise. It isn’t touted in the media because there is no profit to be made from it. Thirty minutes of brisk walking daily seems to be ideal though data is inconclusive due to excessive variability in exercise tolerance and disease factors. With resistance work a simple full body routine performed twice weekly is sufficient to maintain or increase lean mass without radical programs or fancy equipment. A pair of dumbbells may be all that you ever need. Emphasis on full body exercises like squats and pushups is preferable to single joint movements for efficiency’s sake. Distilling it even further we can state that moving the body for at least a half hour daily has a direct correlation on life expectancy. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it regularly.

There are less tangible points such as stress reduction, spiritual health and flexibility that are undoubtedly part of the equation though we don’t know the extent to which they affect our longevity. Common sense should apply here as well though; try to live a happy life. Take time to enjoy the things that bring you pleasure and reduce those that do not. If you have time to explore these topics they may prove helpful in your quest for an optimal existence but don’t allow them to become a stressor themselves. Focus on what we know unequivocally that impacts our time here.

Putting it all together would produce something like this:

Paul is a 43 year old office worker with a family history of cardiovascular issues. In order to minimize his risk potential and maximize his own health he has taken the following actions. He eats a sensible diet consisting of oatmeal and fruit at breakfast, a chicken breast sandwich and side salad at lunch and steamed vegetables, rice and fish for dinner. He takes a long walk with his wife and two children after dinner and, if time and energy permits, will complete a brief workout routine in his garage consisting of pushups, squats and leg raises. This regimen has allowed him to maintain a trim 165lb on his 5’10” frame with no visible excess fat. He takes time for family vacations twice yearly and sleeps in whenever he can. He is an active member of his church and delights in his daughter’s success in gymnastics and violin.

Remember, sift through the propaganda and rely on known data to guide you toward lasting health and fitness. If anything seems too extreme or demanding it is probably counterproductive. Use common sense and recognize that anything which cannot be easily integrated into a lifelong change may not be as healthy as it seems. Stay lean, eat your greens and move your body often.