I’ve just turned 80, and I’m still running. It’s not fast — in fact it is embarrassingly slow. On days when I don’t run, I walk and I do exercises. I still enjoy it and feel very good afterwards. But that is not the only reason I do it.
Every day we read of the increasing problems cause by the ageing population — the pressure on GPs, the bed-blocking caused by the aged and infirm, and the massive cost of treatments.
The good news is that life expectancy in the UK is steadily increasing. Figures from the Office of National Statistics show that at birth a baby boy has a life expectancy of 79 years, and a baby girl 82. If you reach 65, a man can expect to live to 82 and a woman to 85.
The bad news is that life expectancy is considerably different from ‘healthy life expectancy’. The same figures from the ONS show that the healthy life expectancy for men is only 64 years and for women only 66. Do we really want to be looking forward to more than 10 years of pain and discomfort?
My favourite quote is that of the New Orleans jazz musician, Eubie Blake, who said on his 100th birthday: ‘If I’d known I was going to live this long, I’d’ve taken better care of myself.’
There is an answer to this problem: exercise. At least, that was the conclusion of a report from the Stanford University Medical Center. In a study of 1,000 elderly people (500 runners, 500 non-runners) conducted over more than 20 years, it was found that the joggers were half as likely to die prematurely from conditions like cancer as non-joggers.
Nineteen years into the study, 170 (34 per cent) of the non-runners had died, but only 75 (15 per cent) of the runners. Running not only appeared to slow down the rate of heart and artery-related diseases, but was also associated with fewer early deaths from cancer, neurological disease, infections and other causes.
The lead author, James Fries, emeritus professor of medicine at Stanford, said: ‘The study had a very pro-exercise message. If you had to pick one thing to make people healthier as they age, it would be aerobic exercise.’
We don’t all have to run — there are plenty of ways of getting fit. Over a period of months, changes in lifestyle and exercise routine can have a radical effect on health.
The beauty of exercise is the more we do, the more we are able to do. Conversely, the less we do the less we are capable of doing.
Nobody lives for ever, but what we can do is try to stack the odds in our favour. It is not just a matter of living a long time, but of living a life which you enjoy, rich in experience, full of health and vigour.
Bruce Tulloh, winner of the men’s 5,000 metres at the 1962 European Championships, is the author of How to Avoid Dying (for as long as possible)