It is extremely important that you pay attention to what today’s column says if you wish to live a longer, healthier, more alert and happier life. We yearn to be immortal but, I can safely say, it will not happen this human side of eternity. So the next best thing is to remain fit, well and absolutely alive for as long as possible. There is definitely something you can do about this.
Apart from having the luck in life’s lottery of inheriting good genes there are two sure ways to live a longer and healthier life. One, of course, is not to smoke. I will not bore you with going on and on about this. It has been said so often anyway, that smoking is extremely bad for you that the statement now goes in one ear and out of the other without stopping in the brain on the way. All the same, smoking is indeed deadly and you should know very well without being told again that you shouldn’t do it. I realize, however, that I am never going to convince a hardcore few of my friends who will no doubt all live to ninety puffing their three packs per day happily without a care in the world about such things as their poor, polluted hearts and lungs.
But that is probably because they take a lot of good, healthy exercise. For the other sure way to live longer, apart from giving up smoking entirely, is to exercise more. There is the strongest possible case for this. Professor Bengt Saltin of Copenhagen carried out the most extensive experiments with people who have never done much exercise. The results are illuminating. He gave them regular physical training and, after two or three months, found that the blood supply to all their muscles had greatly increased. The number of small blood vessels in their muscles had grown by as much as 60%. This meant that the muscles were receiving an increased flow of blood and could extract a lot more oxygen. And the heart, the most important muscle of all, responded by performing more slowly and efficiently because it was pumping more blood with every beat. And the slower the beat the considerably longer the life. Please remember this – it could add quite a few valuable years to your life and it is worth remembering that, really, a year of life won’t come again your way so it’s worth preserving, every glorious minute of it.
The lesson is that, no matter how sedentary and inactive you have been, if you now begin to indulge in regular, relatively undemanding exercise – a brisk 40 minute walk in the National Park, for instance – it will do you immeasurable good. No need to play hard squash or badminton or join a football team or enter for the next half-marathon. Much less than that is excellent for you. The only thing to remember is that the exercise must be regular. It must not be in bursts, arising from some temporary good resolution. The benefits of exercise cannot be stored up; they must be earned day in and day out. But if you do exercise not very strenuously day in and day out within a month see how much better you will feel.
And there will be added bonuses.
Research also shows conclusively that people who exercise regularly recover from illnesses more quickly; they fall over less often; and they are much less likely to suffer from depression. A psychiatrist at Glasgow University has reported in detail how a programme of supervised walking and jogging has greatly helped patients who have been going to their doctors suffering from severe depression.
Even more importantly, and of extraordinary interest, is the impact of exercise on the functioning of the brain. It had been thought that brain cells slowly but continually die with no hope of regeneration. But recently it has been found that neurogenesis, the creation of neurons in the brain, is possible. Specifically, one definite means of neurogenesis has been identified: aerobic exercise. In her book Can’t Remember What I Forgot: The Good News From the Front Lines of Memory Research, Sue Halpern explains the process by which exercise leads to “brain-gain”: it promotes new cell growth in old brains by increasing their blood volume and cell growth improves memory. “In addition,” Ms Halpern explains, “exercise… increased the amount of the chemical BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) circulating in the brain and it was BDNF that stimulated the birth of new brain cells… BDNF also enhanced neural plasticity, which was to say that it enabled the brain to prosper. In diseases like Alzheimer’s, depression, Parkinson’s and dementia more generally, BDNF levels were low. In people who exercised, BDNF levels rose.”
So while we await that far-off day when some marvellous elixir of fish-oil, blueberries, the nectar of wild orchids and Amazonian herbs banishes MCI (mild cognitive impairment) which afflicts us all sooner or later – and even overcomes the dreaded Alzheimer’s, until that day, there is something we all can do to assist not only our physical well-being but also our mental health. That great old English 18th century poet and man of letters, Samuel Johnson, knew what he was saying: “I have found in life how much happiness is gained, or, to put it more carefully, how much misery is escaped, by frequent and violent agitation of the body.”
Let your New Year’s resolution this year be more serious than usual: exercise daily.