Aging Well at CrossFit Ashland
The Compression of Morbidity
by Ryan Ruppert
In a perfect world we would all live a long life with no debilitating health problems and then one night pass away peacefully in our sleep (or in a blaze of glory doing something you love; whichever you prefer). Our current state of affairs in the modern world is far cry from this ideal. Many of us battle chronic health problems for long periods of time, some from childhood, and live a hindered life of slow decline and pain until the body finally succumbs. There are those among us however that manage to age gracefully with a sound body and a clear mind. What secrets do these folks know that most of us are in the dark about? We’ll talk more about some ideas on better aging later. This concept of aging well we’re discussing today is known formally as “compression of morbidity,” a phrase coined by Dr. James Fries of Stanford University School of Medicine. It simply means shortening the amount of time in your life that you are chronically ill or somehow debilitated by delaying the onset of the first chronic disability to as late in life as possible.
When we refer to chronic illness in this respect we are discussing the big killers and debilitators that we are all familiar with: heart disease, cancer, stroke, osteoarthritis, emphyzema, cirrhosis, and diabetes to name a few (Fries). Medical advancement in recent times has allowed us to live longer lives with these diseases, but has done little to prevent or delay their onset. The result has been named “the failure of success;” we can treat the symptoms of these diseases and prolong life in their presence, but in doing so we spend longer periods of time an increasingly disabled and unhealthy state. This current state of our population of course affects all of us, healthy or not, by increasing demand for health care coverage and taxes to pay for treating so many chronically sick people (Swartz).
So how does one go about compressing morbidity and aging well aside from just having good genes and some luck? If you’re into the CrossFit lifestyle, you already know the answers. Proper diet, proper exercise, and proper lifestyle choices are the keys. Dr. Fries examined morbidity data for more than 20 years and found the following conclusion: cumulative lifetime disability was 4 times greater in those that smoked, were obese, and did not exercise compared to those that were nonsmokers, lean, and active (Swartz). So let’s say for example you’re a lean, non-smoking, CrossFitting machine most of your life and finally you reach old age and you deal with being chronically ill in some way for 4 years and then you die. Your overweight, sedentary, smoker friends, on the other hand, deal with chronic illness 4 times longer: 16 years! With average retirement age being 62 and the average American lifespan being 78 years, that’s the difference between enjoying retirement and working until you get sick and keel over.
It deserves restating that proper diet, proper exercise, and proper lifestyle choices are the 3 keys for living healthy for as long as possible into old age. There are hundreds of ideas as to what a proper diet is, but CrossFit sums it up nicely in these words:
“Base your diet on garden vegetables, especially greens, lean meats, nuts and seeds, little starch, and no sugar (CrossFit).”
Make your primary sources of calories be meats and vegetables, and cut out the fast food, the processed food, and the sugar-laden junk food and drinks. If you can commit to this, you are well on your way to saving yourself from heart disease and diabetes, two of the big chronic illnesses mentioned earlier.
Proper exercise is the easiest base to cover if you’re already a regular CrossFit attendee. High-intensity, functional exercise has been scientifically proven to be the most effective for improving overall fitness no matter your age or beginning fitness level (Devor). CrossFit has you moving in every plane at full range of motion and emphasizes regular mobility work, which will keep you moving fluidly for many years to come. CrossFit also incorporates weight training, which is proven to reduce body fat, increase bone density, and increase muscle mass; all good things to have for when you find yourself climbing a flight of stairs at 80 years old. Finally, Crossfit encourages you to learn new skills and sports, which not only improves your fitness, constantly learning new things helps keep your mind sharp! So as not to seem biased, any fitness regimen can help stave off the first incidence of chronic illness; being an avid runner, cyclist, weightlifter, or hiker for example will certainly help you in the long term. However, CrossFit incorporates all sports and fitness programs into one easy to follow program, allowing us to achieve the ultimate in physical preparedness, fitness and health. It must be said though, that too much exercise can be detrimental as well. Performing high-intensity exercise of any kind every day without rest will lead to burnout, chronic fatigue, and possibly injuries. Remember to program adequate rest days throughout the week and every few months plan a deload week.
Making good lifestyle choices consistently is perhaps the most challenging of the three keys to healthy aging. Of course we all know that using tobacco and drinking in excess is detrimental to our health and will lead to chronic illness. If you’ve fallen into these habits the obvious healthy alternative is to stop and there are many resources available to assist you with that choice. Less clear-cut decisions come up when we talk about other lifestyle choices such as sleep, stress, and work. Eight hours of sleep every night is recommended for optimum health, but that can be difficult when, for example, you have to wake up at 4 am to go to work and then you have a family or other commitments to take care of in the evening. If you’re running low on sleep, try scheduling a nap if possible and be strict with yourself about a bedtime. Its amazing how quickly an hour or two can pass when you keep telling yourself, “I’ll just take care of this one last thing, then its bedtime.”
Stress, no matter what causes it, is just as dangerous as smoking when it comes to our health. Chronic stress can lead to a host of health problems, loss of sleep, and lead us to make other bad decisions such as eating poorly, not exercising, and using tobacco or alcohol to cope. While it’s not possible to be entirely stress-free and there’s no way I could offer a fix for every stressor that could come up in life, there are some general strategies for dealing with stress. Take time to examine your daily life and see if everything you’re doing in the day is necessary. Remind yourself every day to focus on the big picture and not get bogged down dwelling on small things. If possible, cut out unnecessary stressful activities (or people if that’s the case) and use some of your free time to focus on taking care of yourself, doing activities that are relaxing and rewarding. You can also try planning an hour every day to pursue something stress-relieving such as going to the gym, doing yoga, or just having quiet time at home.
Work is probably the life choice that most adults feel they have the least control over. Once you have a well-paying job with nice benefits it can be hard to consider switching things up no matter how stressful, unhealthy, or difficult that job may be. Again, there’s no way I could offer advice for every individual situation, so be proactive in improving your own situation. If you sit at a desk all day, take time to stand up, stretch, and walk around as often as possible. Consider a standing work station if your workplace permits. If your job has you on the move all day, focus on moving correctly; use the knowledge you gain at your gym to lift and move with proper form so that you’ll continue to walk upright well into old age. Also, remember that you’re never trapped; any situation can be improved with enough bravery and ingenuity!
Living well to a ripe, old age may seem like luck of the draw sometimes, but as we’ve discussed there are quite a few ways to improve our chances and decrease the amount of time we spend in poor health. Focus on the three pillars of long-term good health; proper diet, proper exercise, and proper lifestyle choices, and you will be substantially better off in your later years than the average American. Finally, while it is true that the earlier in life you start making healthy choices the better off you will be, its never too late to start making better choices and reaping the benefits!
CrossFit. “CrossFit: Nutrition.” http://www.crossfit.com/cf-info/start-diet.html. 2015.
Devor, Steven. “Crossfit-based High Intensity Power Training Improves Maximal Aerobic Fitness and Body Composition.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. November 2013.
Fries, James. “The Compression of Morbidity.” Milbank Quarterly. December 2005.
Swartz, Amy. “James Fries – Healthy Aging Pioneer.” American Journal of Public Health. July 2008.
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