For many people longevity has been shrugged off as a gift from above, but gerontologists are beginning to discover that centenarians (people who live to 100 and beyond) all share some common health secrets. The first centenarian I met was then 103-year-old Phillip Rabinowitz. At 103, he was an accomplished athlete. He took up walking in his 70s and began competing in his 90s. Mr. Rabinowitz’s remarkable list of achievements included winning a gold medal at the 1999 SA veteran’s champs in Port Elizabeth, finishing the 20km walk in 2hr 49min 19sec. He was also named in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest competitive walker and is the oldest finisher of the 14km City to Surf race in Sydney, Australia, which he completed at the ages of 95, 97, 99 and 100. He also won medals in the 5km and 20km events at the world veteran championships in Durban in 1997. If Phillip is not inspiring enough, watch the following you tube clip about some of the oldest people in the world, and marvel over a 92 year old heart surgeon, a 103 year old women who does weight training and a 92 year old Karaoke teacher!
Most centenarian studies have been conducted in Okinawa, a Japanese island boasting a total of 600 out of its 1.3 million inhabitants living into their second century. The Okinawa Centenarian Study has been following centenarians since 1976, with some interesting findings. We have a lot to learn about longevity from these amazing survivors, who all seem to share some common lifestyle behaviours and attitudes towards life. We’re letting you in on some of these secrets.
Maintain a Healthy Weight
The evidence. Okinawan centenarians tend to remain lean throughout their lives and are rarely overweight. Research into the role that obesity plays in shortening lifespan is indisputable. Overweight and obesity is linked to elevated risk of hypertension, heart attacks, liver problems, diabetes and cancer- all of which are major modern day killers.
The advice. If you’re overweight, make an effort to lose weight. If you’re slim, make efforts to ensure that you stay that way. Slowly start to decrease your portion sizes in relation to how much exercise you do. If you battle with your weight, seek professional advice from a dietician who can design an eating plan for you.
The evidence.Although Okinawans are not regular gym goers, avid sportsman or marathon runners, they are surprisingly fit. They engage in more natural forms of exercise, like gardening, tai chi practice, traditional dance, walking and bicycling. Rather than being a chore for Okinawans, exercise is intertwined within their day-to-day lives.
The advice. In the West, we tend to live a more sedentary, automated lifestyle than the Easterners do. Try wherever possible to work or ride a bicycle instead of drive in your car. Make a gym or any other exercise schedule and work the rest of your life around this. Find something you really enjoy – this will ensure that you stick to it.
Savour your food
The evidence. Mealtimes are an occasion in Okinawa. Rather than focusing on getting through meals as quickly as possible, Okinawans always take pleasure and time in both the preparation and the eating of a meal. They always sit down to a meal, eat very slowly and take time to chew and digest their food. They also use chopsticks, which makes the meal last a lot longer than if you were to guzzle it down with a spoon or fork.
The advice. Try as much as possible to prepare your own food, using fresh ingredients instead of rushing off to the nearest fast food chain or convenience store. Sit down in a quiet, relaxed environment and take at least 15 minutes to eat your meal, paying special attention to taste, texture and the mouth and hand movements involved. This will ensure that you maintain a focussed awareness while eating. Ensure that you chew food 15 times before swallowing.
The evidence. In general, Okinawans tend to stop eating when they are 80% full, rather than filling their plates and stomachs to the max. They also tend to get fuller more quickly- not only because they eat slowly, but also because their stomach size has not been stretched from continuous overeating.
The advice. You can start off by using a smaller plate and slowly reducing portion sizes. Instead of eating fatty, sugary and starchy foods, rather fill up on fibre rich foods, like wholegrains and vegetables. Set your knife and fork down between bites, rather than shovelling the food down before the previous bite has been swallowed. Never wait until you are very hungry to start a meal and always finish the meal before you are too full.
Eat lots of fresh fruit, vegetables and wholegrains
The evidence. The traditional Japanese diet is particularly rich in high fibre foods, like fruits, vegetables and wholegrains. They also tend to use fresh produce in season, rather than frozen, pre-cut and processed foods. Vegetables tend to be the main feature at most meals, rather than just a side dish. Research has shown time and time again that diets rich in plant foods help keep chronic disease at bay thus lengthening lifespan.
The advice. Try filling at least half of your plate with fresh veggies and leave the rest for wholegrains and lean proteins. A wholegrain is a grain that hasn’t been refined. Opt for brown rice, wholegrain bread, barley, buckwheat or lentils instead of white bread, white rice and processed cereals. Snack on fruit and add fruit to your breakfast. Focus on variety by including a wide range of colours on your plate – try everything from green spinach to blueberries.
Eat less meat
The evidence. Most Okinawans follow a full vegetarian or semi-vegetarian lifestyle. They get most of their protein from vegetarian sources, like beans and soya, rather than from red meat and chicken. Vegetable proteins contain no harmful fats and are also loaded with disease-preventing antioxidants. Okinawans also tend to eat a lot of fish- a rich source of life preserving omega-3 fatty acids.
The advice. Cut your red meat consumption to once or twice a week only. If you do eat chicken, make sure it’s lean or skinless. Try aiming for at least 3 servings of fish per week. Eat at least 3 meals a week that are fully vegetarian, like beans on toast, a lentil curry or soya burgers on wholewheat buns, for example.
Get a good night’s sleep
The evidence. Okinawans tend to go to bed earlier and sleep longer than Japanese who live in the urban areas. Other studies have shown that a lack of sleep can lead to over eating, depression and a reduced ability to cope during the day.
The advice. Get into the habit of winding down a little earlier than usual if you’re prone to getting to bed late. Avoid engaging in overly stimulating activities an hour before bed- rather grab a good book or indulge in a relaxing bath. Meditating before bed or using special aromatherapy oils, like lavender, can help ease the process of drifting in dreamland.
Nurture a sense of community
The evidence. Centenarians tend to be very socially involved. They spend a lot of time with family, friends or other social groups and are rarely “loners”. Okinawans have a strong spiritual basis and spend a lot of time with their religious communities.
The advice. If you have the luxury, spend as much time as possible with the people you love. Avoid people and social situations that tend to zap your energy. Rather focus on nurturing those relationships that make you feel safe and happy. If you are not associated with any specific religious or spiritual group, find something that adds some meaning and purpose to your life.
Let go of worry
The evidence. Okinawans tend to be highly resilient and adapt well to difficult situations. They tend to face situations head on, taking effort to learn from mistakes rather than wallow in them.
The advice. Focus on being in the moment. When we worry, it’s usually a fear of what may lie in the future. It’s better to handle the problem as best you can in the present and let go of any fears or expectations attached to it.
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