A female friend recently asked me if I thought she looked fit. For a male, that is a nightmare question because it is open to so many different interpretations! Pausing a moment, I decided to play it safe and replied “Sure, have you been working out?” Good call! That was exactly what she meant and, given our age difference, it led to a longer conversation about ageing, exercise and health.
The psychology of ageing is interesting, of course, because its relationship to longevity and health depends very much on what you mean by “age”. The common measure of this is our functional age, quite literally meaning the number of days (or hours or years or whatever) since we were born. So far, so good… Well my functional age is ## (nope, not telling you!). Then there is my subjective age, which is very mood and situation dependent. Got flu this week, so feel ten years older at least. Then again, listening to the radio in the car today, the ABBA track “Does your mother know” brought back memories of bad pub singing by me and a girl called Dawn in 1987 and I suddenly felt much younger (well, for three minutes or so!). But what of the relationship with exercise, health and longevity?
Well, I don’t have a TARDIS, so travelling through time isn’t an option and I smoke too, so guess I need to look elsewhere for advice. Ok, what about the idea of biological age? Now that’s a very tricky concept! Up to the age of about 30, so-called “aerobic power” will do for most psychology experiments. Over-simplifying things, this is the index derived from treadmill exercises that get our heart and lungs up to maximum capacity and we see how sustainable that is. Problem here is that beyond the age of 30, we typically decline in aerobic power at a rate of about 1% per year in the average person and other physiological factors combine to make this a less useful measure. So, what can we do instead?
Recent work undertaken in Norway, involving almost 40k people, has sort of cracked the code. This is based on the idea of fitness age. Specifically, it’s a measure based on BMI (body-mass index), age, resting heart rate, etc., plus answers to questions indexing three variables; how often we exercise, how long for, and how hard we push ourselves. If you are interested in determining your own fitness age, there’s a nice online test you can try and it’s now stimulating interesting research into the psychology of ageing and exercise.
So, what do we know so far? Well, we are all generally healthier if we stop thinking about ways of extending the number of years we will live after birth, which is of course impossible, and instead thinking about pushing back the number of years we have left until we die. That simple reorientation in thinking alone helps more than we might expect! In terms of exercise, we can achieve a “younger” fitness age if we get the frequency, duration and level right relative to our chronological age, BMI, etc. And by definition, a younger fitness age means our death has been delayed…
Alas, it is not quite that simple. There are many benefits of exercise at my age (which I am still not telling you!). Managed correctly, it can reduce my chances of a heart attack, delay dementia and improve my sexual health. Even then, though, exercise means I am at greater risk of joint problems, it may make me more prone to obsessive compulsive problems, and it will also accelerate tooth decay!
So, where does all this leave us? Not sure…but to go back to the opening question from my friend and flipping it, at least I can offer my own definition of what a “fit” man over 30 is. Following the Norwegian logic, the man who has lost his own teeth, is limping, can’t remember his address and who keeps washing is hands just could be the fittest guy of all! Oh, and his sexual health is probably ok too…