When the composer and musician Eubie Blake turned 100 in 1983 he was asked to offer the obligatory words of wisdom that are usually solicited from centenarians. Most of the time those comments are at best funny, and at worst trite and silly. Blake's response was neither.
Blake said, "If I knew that I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself." On the surface it seems like a tongue in cheek answer given just to please the questioner, but if one digs below the surface it becomes a wise and enlightening commentary on aging.
What I take from the Blake response is that no one really knows how long they are going to live and that each of us deals with aging in a different way. The decay of the body is usually the first thing that people talk about when they start to feel the pains of aging.
It is interesting to observe different people of the same age and compare how functional they are. At 75 there are people who can barely move, sometimes because of a combination of painful arthritis and a lack of motivation that could be called laziness. Then there are 75 year olds who get up every morning and do an hour of exercise and look as spry and chipper as anyone half their age.
A lot of these differences have to do with genetics, which is something we have very little control over, so far. I remember one winter going out on a cross country skiing outing on a neighbor's groomed trails. He was in his late 70s and my friend and I were hovering around 50. We could not keep up with him and we felt like complete slugs. I kept trying to convince myself that this was merely an example of the difference in genetics.
But back to the Blake response. How do you take better care of yourself as you age? The answer is not complicated. The most essential elements are diet, exercise and a healthy state of mind. These are not things that do not happen without effort. People need to cultivate a life-long commitment to eating a balanced and healthy diet and they need to have the same commitment to exercise. If those pieces are being worked on then a healthy state of mind is easier to develop.
As people age they get tired and they lose not only a certain degree of energy but also muscle mass. That makes motivation even harder, but it also means that it is more important to maintain an exercise regimen.
When I was getting ready for knee replacement surgery a few years ago the surgeon who did the job blew me away when he told about how a number of his patients, when asked about how much exercise they get, actually told him that they thought getting up and walking 20 feet to the refrigerator every two hours after watching television was a real form of exercise.
This same surgeon informed me last week that I have begun the journey down the road of having to face the inevitability of a second knee replacement. I will put it off as long as possible and try to do everything I can to unload some of the stress on that joint. That means losing weight. I could easily convince myself that it is too late for weight loss to have any effect on the knee.
Weight loss is a subject that comes up a lot among the boomer generation. Most of us find it incredibly difficult to lose weight and that is one of the paradoxes of aging. Your appetite decreases, you eat less and you get a reasonable amount of exercise yet you can't seem to lose weight. Maybe those of us who have trouble losing weight are just victims of our genetics, but I think that is an unsubstantiated delusion for most of us. We probably just eat too much and won't admit it.
The next knee replacement may be the beginning of the next chapter in the book of the decaying old body. Acceptance is good, but exercise and knowing the difference between the truth and wishful thinking is better.