Lifestyle Lessons from Masters Athletes

Secrets of Keeping Aging's Effects at Bay

For my 40th birthday, my friend Jo-Ann gave me a T-shirt that proclaimed "Still perfect . . . after all these years!" For my 50th birthday, my friend Jane insisted that I wear a button announcing "50 . . . The Legend Lives On." And last week in honor of my 60th, Jane wrote a song in which she called me "a high-octane goddess."

Well, a goddess I'm not, but after a vigorous celebratory weekend of hiking and rock-climbing I would not dispute the high-octane attribute. I must be doing something right. For those who wish to preserve youthful energy and enthusiasm, I'll share the steps that got me through the sixth decade more or less intact and that I hope will carry me through the next three.

To be sure, I have been beset with some mechanical infirmities associated with advancing age. I have moderately severe arthritis in both knees, kept under control by daily supplements of glucosamine and chondroitin and a 25-milligram tablet of Vioxx.

I have a degenerated vertebra in my neck that flares up occasionally, as it did after recent tree-pruning and raking. My lower back is likely to stiffen when I sit too long or in a less-than-ideal position.

My main complaint is hot flashes. I was treated for breast cancer two years ago and since my cancer cells were estrogen-sensitive, I had to abandon hormone replacement and take the anti-estrogen tamoxifen, which causes hot flashes, for five years.

I now dress in layers, the first being a tank top, so I can strip down when I feel like I'm suffocating. I miss estrogen, and I've yet to find a safe substitute. Neither soy foods nor black cohosh has brought relief.

Keeping Physically Active

Despite these annoyances, I continue to pursue the activities I enjoy and have even added a few new ones. I play singles tennis three or four times a week, walk briskly for an hour with friends every morning and swim laps for half an hour almost daily.

On mornings when I do not play tennis, I ice skate in winter and cycle in the warmer months. The main impediment to this schedule is neither work nor laziness; only rain or an out-of-town assignment keeps me off the court, the rink or the bicycle.

I look to several of my senior friends for encouragement. Carole, who is two years older, took me on a week of hiking the hills surrounding Tucson last year. Margaret, 13 years older, joined me on a seven-hour trek up and down a Nepalese mountain. Bernard, 23 years older, is my biking companion.

These friends, and others like them, have convinced me that chronological age need not be an impediment to an active life. Rather, it is biological age that determines what you can and cannot do. And, I'm happy to report, it is biological aging that we have the potential to slow.

Dr. Herbert de Vries, an esteemed exercise physiologist from the University of Southern California, concluded from dozens of studies that regular physical exercise could take 20 years off the chronological age of a once-sedentary person. He found that every system in the body, from brain to feet, could be rejuvenated by regular exercise, the only true fountain of youth.

The birth of twin grandsons last year reinforced my determination to remain as biologically youthful as possible. I want to be able to do the activities with my grandchildren that I did with my twin sons: to hike, swim, kayak, camp out, travel to exotic lands and, of course, play tennis.

Importance of Good Nutrition

For a body to function well, it needs to be fueled well. And that means paying reasonable attention to the kinds and amounts of foods consumed daily.

As you age, body changes occur that result in higher requirements for many nutrients and dietary fiber, but lower caloric needs. That means there is less and less room for foods that supply lots of calories but few nutrients. I'm not saying no room, just less room.

I confess to a few calorically rich, nutritionally questionable passions, including chocolate-covered pretzels and Starbuck's Java Chip ice cream. But my more usual treats are tea biscuits and frozen yogurt.

As new information has emerged about the health benefits of various foods, I have adjusted my diet accordingly. No longer, for example, do I avoid avocados and nuts because they are high in fat and calories.

Nuts are a good source of protein, and the fat in these foods promotes heart health. According to findings from the Nurses' Health Study, women who consume nuts five or more times a week are 35 percent less likely to suffer heart attacks than women who rarely eat nuts.

So now I add walnut pieces to my breakfast cereal (oatmeal in winter, a ready-to-eat whole-grain combo the rest of the year) and to my salad at night. And I sometimes snack on raw unsalted almonds or a few salted mixed nuts.

In addition to nuts, my nightly salad (a bowl big enough for four) now includes some avocado atop spinach, lettuce (not nutritionally anemic iceberg), arugula, zucchini, red pepper, asparagus, mushrooms and tomatoes. If I have leftover grilled vegetables, they go in too, along with chunks of salmon, strips of grilled chicken breast or beef, a sliced hard-boiled egg or slivers of a lower-fat cheese like Jarlsberg. Then I add a homemade balsamic vinegar dressing made with a small amount of olive oil.

I always have fruit in the house: grapefruit, clementines, apples, pears, dried fruits, berries, grapes, mangoes and melons, depending on the season. A baked apple with nonfat plain yogurt makes a delicious, low-calorie and nourishing breakfast, lunch or snack.

You cannot go wrong by eating more vegetables and fruits. Hardly a week passes without yet another study documenting the health value of these foods. They help to prevent heart disease, digestive problems, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, age-related macular degeneration, cataracts and many common cancers, including cancers of the breast, lung, colon and prostate. Try to work in 10 servings a day, five at the very least.

In hopes of better preserving muscle tissue, I have recently cut back on carbohydrates like pasta and rice and increased my protein intake somewhat. My freezer is stocked with boneless, skinless chicken breasts, flounder fillets and protein-rich veggie burgers. I prepare three or four pieces at a time to have handy for lunches and my salads. A George Foreman Lean Machine (indoor electric grill) has become a favorite utensil; it heats in five minutes and cooks chicken breasts in another five, keeping them moist without added fat.

I continue to consume the equivalent of a quart of milk a day; I mix a quart's worth of powdered skim milk into 20 ounces of water, ending up with milk that is richer in taste and nutrients. About half goes into my breakfast cereal, the rest into mugs of decaf or regular coffee (no more than one or two caffeine-containing cups a day).

In addition to lots of water (I keep water bottles in the house, in the car and in my briefcase), I'm also now drinking more tea and trying to break a diet-soda habit I picked up a few years ago. Alcohol is occasional, usually a little vodka or a glass of red wine when dining with company, and sometimes wine with my salad supper.

As for supplements, I have taken vitamin E (400 I.U.'s a day) for decades and recently added a one-a-day for mature adults. But no extra calcium: I get so much from my diet.

by Jane E. Brody, New York Times, May 29, 2001, Personal Health section.

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