Battling Nature (Part 3): Soldiers in the Field

4 min read

This is the last in a series on what scientific discoveries are revealing about the aging process and how the findings will change the way people age.

Though more than 30 years have passed since Dr. Howard Wechsler was discharged from the army, the 62-year-old San Franciscan isn't done fighting yet. These days, he's not fighting the type of war he fought in the jungles of Vietnam. Wechsler is fighting a different battle -- the battle to stay young, healthy and fit -- against time, the basic tenets of biology and the natural progression of life itself.

The fight isn't easy, health experts are saying. It requires an unwavering discipline and motivation to exercise regularly, eat right and maintain a positive attitude, elements crucial in holding back diseases of the enemy -- old age.

Wechsler's tactic is to be on the offensive, making exercise one of his weapons of choice.

He works out three times a week, with each routine including 20 minutes on a cardiovascular machine and 40 minutes of weights and other muscle-strengthening exercises. With his trainer's help and good humor, Wechsler said that exercise has been rewarding, allowing him to stay active and travel and do as much as he'd like.

"My goal is fitness and the quality of life I'll achieve by being my fittest," the retired anesthesiologist said.

Wechsler is doing just the right thing because exercise is "one of the most important factors in reducing the effects of the aging process," said Miriam Nelson, director of the Center for Physical Fitness at Tufts University and author of the best-selling book Strong Women Stay Young.

Exercise offsets the body's natural tendency to gain body fat and lose muscle and bone mass, which starts at age 35. Without exercise, loss of muscle strength and cardiovascular fitness quickly follow, making any type of physical activity more difficult.

In addition to helping a person stay trim, regular exercise also reduces the risk for heart disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity and depression, while improving self-confidence, sleep quality and self-esteem, said Nelson.

One of Nelson's studies was landmark, examining women age 50 to 70 who had always been sedentary. After one year of strength training twice a week, the women became 75 percent stronger. The women also lost fat and gained muscle and bone mass in their hips and spines.

Bill Valentine also knows the importance of exercise. The 61-year-old Northern California resident spends nearly two hours every day on cardiovascular machines, in the weight room or playing racquetball, despite a busy, fast-paced job. But that's not all -- Valentine's strategy also includes eating foods that are low in fat and packed with nutrients.

He avoids butter and eggs and eats meat only once a week. He said that he doesn't feel deprived because he likes eating the vegetables and pasta that make up a large portion of his diet.

Diet plays an integral role in preventing old-age diseases, said Dr. Robert Russell, associate director of the Jean Mayer U.S. Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

Russell pointed out several key nutrients important in maintaining health, which older people should take care to include in their diet: calcium and vitamin D, which prevent osteoporosis; vitamin E, which studies are showing reduces the risk of heart disease and Alzheimer's disease; and vitamin B12, which guards against anemia and nerve dysfunction.

In general, getting recommended amounts of nutrients in the daily diet ensures good nutrition, which keeps the immune system healthy and the body free from infection and cancer, said Russell, who is now studying the role of nutrition in preventing macular degeneration, a common eye disease in older people.

On the other end of the spectrum, eating too much can be a problem, he said. Men with a waist of more than 40 inches and women with a waist of more than 35 inches are at increased risk for osteoarthritis, heart disease, cancer, diabetes and a score of other chronic diseases.

But it doesn't take the threat of disease to motivate people like Valentine and Wechsler. To them, they said, the benefits of a healthy lifestyle go above and beyond avoiding chronic disease and premature death. Their dedication to exercise and a healthy diet is about feeling young and staying active for as long as their genes, their bodies and time will allow -- until the battle ends.