Chasing Life: New Discoveries in the Search for Immortality to Help You Age Less Today
By Sanjay Gupta, M.D.
As an Allstate executive for nearly forty years, James Hammond was always on the move. While his industry transformed itself, he relocated from one southern state to another, training the future generation of managers in the insurance industry. In all, he lived in ten different states during his career. Hammond reminds me of most of my patients. It's not that he was a couch potato by any means. In fact, he was quite active; but he was simply too busy to really exercise. Occasionally on the weekends, he would get in a jog. If this sounds familiar, it should. Hammond represents the vast majority of working-class adults around the world. Like you and me, they have the best intentions, but fitness takes a progressively lower priority as they get older. Hammond's life, however, took a wildly divergent turn. In fact, though he never competed in an organized sport in his entire life, he decided to take it up-at the age of eighty-six! It was then that a friend suggested he enter the Georgia Golden Olympics. He did it and started down a remarkable path of continued good health.
Hammond decided to enter the state games in the 100-meter dash and, to his surprise, won a gold medal with a time of 30 seconds. It's a time Hammond in his own affable way now laughs off as "very slow." Still, he was hooked and was inspired to start running seriously. His goal was to get his time down to 18 or 19 seconds so he could place in the National Senior Games the following year in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Training on his own, Hammond was able to get his time down to 23 seconds by "running and running and running," but he could get no faster.
"I was ready to throw in the towel," Hammond recalls. Finally, someone recommended getting a coach. Hammond approached the man, a schoolteacher who had been a sprinter at Louisiana State University. He agreed to work with Hammond only if the octogenarian wanted to win. Hammond assured him he did.
Hammond's training went to the next level. He began lifting weights to build up strength in addition to running hard. His times started dropping. Every week, his coach would drive him to an open track meet at the University of Florida in Tallahassee. He broke 20 seconds, then 19. The day before the nationals, he competed in the meet and clocked an 18.4. The next day, he ran an 18.3 in Baton Rouge and won the silver medal. Hammond says the only reason he didn't win the gold was he ignored a piece of last-minute advice from his coach to pay no attention to the other runners. Halfway through the race, Hammond noticed he was out in front and eased up, convinced he had the race won. Winning the silver only fueled his drive to work harder.
Hammond has since moved to the Minneapolis area, where he lives within 8 miles of his only child, a minister: his three grandchildren, and six great-grandchildren Every day, you can find him at a local health club, lifting weights, running a variety of sprints and other distances, and stretching.
"I know it helps to walk and jog, but I'm convinced what keeps your body-working is strenuous exercise," Hammond says. He speaks often to his peers and those seniors who are decades younger on the benefits of fitness.
As the next National Senior Games approached, in Richmond in 2003, Hammond was convinced he would win the gold medal. A day before the race, though, he decided to buy track cleats to help his time. During the race, a spike caught in the track surface, and Hammond was pitched lace-first onto the track. He left the meet in an ambulance, with a broken wrist.
"It was a near-fatal blow to my ego," he jokes. The disappointment only made him more determined. "The worst things in life can be real character builders. I come from a family that preached the power of positive thinking. My mother liked to say things like, 'You'll find good if you look for it.'"
Hammond says he inherited his positive attitude from his mother and father. His longevity, though, he credits to his fitness regimen, not genetics.
"My mother died when she was forty-nine. My dad died when he was sixty-five. I had a grandmother that made it to ninety-one and a great-grandfather that made it to ninety-one. Outside of those two, not many lived past their eighties."
Now at ninety-two, not only is he alive, he is a world-class sprinter, a national record holder with his eye on the world mark.
"It helps every aspect of your life. It's not possible to enjoy life if you're not in good health, and I'm in perfect health," Hammond says.
"It's been a wonderful thing for me. Exercise has extended my good health through my eighties into my nineties. I'm in as good shape now as I was ten to fifteen years ago. I've really loved it. It's opened up a whole new world for me It's made my eighties and nineties some of the happiest years of my life," Hammond says.
Hammond has plenty of company. Even as America's collective girth grows, there is a parallel fitness boom, persuading millions of Americans to challenge themselves physically.
For example, some 6.2 million Americans exercised with personal trainers in 2004, up 55 percent in five years, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
Also, the number of marathoners finishing races increased from 120,000 in 1980 to 423,000 in 2004, according to Running USA, a national trade organization for the sport of distance running. The number of men finishing marathons more than doubled during that period. The number of women increased fourteenfold! Road races, too, have experienced a remarkable growth in popularity, from 1 million finishers in 1980 to 8 million finishers in 2005.
Even triathlons, the often-grueling swimming, biking, and running races, have experienced enormous growth. The number of people joining USA Triathlon, the governing body for the sport, more than tripled from 2000 through mid-2006 to 66,000. Even more impressive, the number of competitors in Ironman triathlons in the United States hit a record 10,000 in 2005 and continues to grow. These are definitely not for the faint of heart. An Ironman USA triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon.
What James Hammond and many others are teaching us is that aging does not always spell the end to fast times and extreme fitness-even for the most serious competitors. Former Northwestern University swimmer Richard T. Abrahams became the first fifty-year-old to break 50 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle. His time at age fifty was faster than when he competed at the 1964 Olympic Trials. A decade later, in 2005, Abrahams became the first sixty-year-old to break 50 seconds in the 100-yard freestyle. His best time during those intervening ten years actually slowed by only 0.34 seconds.
The Ukrainian Tatyana Pozdnyakova won the 2003 City of Los Angeles Marathon at age forty-eight. The Los Angeles Marathon is not some small-time affair. It attracts elite runners from around the world. Pozdnyakova finished more than three minutes ahead of the second female finisher in the highly competitive field. What's more, Pozdnyakova won the Los Angeles Marathon again the next year, at forty-nine.
"I don't think about age," she told a newspaper reporter. "My age is very high, but my head is strong. It is not about your body. It is discipline."
Exercise More, Age Less
As I was traveling the country talking to people about this book, one thing started to become increasingly clear. While so many of us are in search of the magical shortcut to boosting our life expectancy, we don't take nearly enough advantage of what we already know. As a result of what I have learned, I have already started to change and lengthen my life. Here is one example that is almost guaranteed to increase your life span. As we grow older, we tend to lose lung capacity, flexibility, and strength. The fittest among us will gradually become slower, weaker, and less flexible. But that's for people starting at their peak. Most of us are not there. Most of us are not even close. That means we can actually become biologically "younger" by getting into better shape. Think about that for a second. No pills, surgery, or magic potions, and you can still make yourself... younger. As we've already seen with James Hammond, you can become quicker, stronger, and more flexible if you really work at it.
Let's consider the shape most Americans are in right now. More than two-thirds of American adults are clinically overweight. Not surprisingly, six in ten Americans surveyed said they never participate in any vigorous, leisure time physical activity.
You don't have to be a hard-core swimmer like Abrahams, a distance runner like Pozdnyakova, or a sprinting nonagenarian like Hammond to reap the benefits of exercise. Lifting weights, walking, riding a bike, and jogging can all help the heart and lungs.
A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found much of the decline in exercise capacity as we get older is not from an aging cardiovascular system but largely from the result of plain and simple inactivity. Sedentary seniors who underwent a six-month exercise program of walking or jogging, bicycling, and stretching were able to improve their efficiency at sending oxygen to working muscles to levels closer to twenty- and thirty-year-olds. Put simply, they were able to do a lot more without becoming exhausted.