Aging is not the passing of years, but the gradual lowering of confidence in your body and brain. “Getting old” in our culture means losing the ability to do what you want to do because of the deterioration of your body and your brain. Research has given us a list of ways how to slow aging. On the top of that list are to exercise, eat healthy and manage stress. However, there is one factor that everything hinges on: the state of your physiology right now. Since stress takes you further away from aging well, knowing how to shift out of the ‘survive state’ it is the most important factor that all these healthy habits hinge upon. Getting older does not have to be stressful! This guide gives you a whole person way approach about aging, so you age with confidence in the physiologic state of thriving. Leave the struggle behind and age well with confidence!
In 1979, a group of eight older men boarded a bus and stepped back in time. For five days they lived as if they were actually living 20 years back in time (i.e., in 1959). They were instructed to imagine that it was, indeed, 1959—not to remember what it was like, but to live as if it were 1959. The retreat space was set up to support this with physical props or elements from the prior era including magazines, television programs and movies that were popular 20 years earlier. A radio of that era played favorites such as Perry Como and Jack Benny. They had twice-daily discussions about ‘current events’ (i.e., events that happened in 1959), including the need for bomb shelters to protect the country against the Soviet Union and Castro’s advance on Havana. Participants were instructed to talk about these events as though they were current events (using the present tense) and not to refer to anything that happened after that date (including personal experiences).
Another group of men went on the same retreat, in the same setting and with the same discussions, but spent the week reminiscing about these events, using in the past tense in discussion.
The difference between these two groups at the end of the week was astonishing! The men who lived as if they were living 20 years ago had improvements in their memory, vision, hearing, and even their physical strength had improved. The men who reminisced about the past did not show these improvements.
This was the Counterclockwise study1 conducted by Dr. Ellen Langer and her team. Since that time, Dr. Langer and others have conducted research that shows how powerfully our mindset about aging influence the speed at which we age.
“Whether it’s about aging or anything else, if you are surrounded by people who have certain expectations for you, you tend to meet those expectations, positive or negative.” Ellen Langer, PhD
The cultural expectation for aging is that you will get weaker, less capable, and more prone to deterioration and illness. You can break out of that cultural influence on your mindset when you know how your whole person works together to age well.
Research on the biology of aging has given us greater clues about what happens to cells and systems over time2. There is no doubt, there is a decline with time. It is compounded by worries about your body or brain (or both!) when you think about getting older. Your body and brain become threats to your surviving and thriving. How you think about aging affects the way you feel and function as you flip pages in your calendar.
The takeaway is that your whole person is important in the aging process because mindset is not just how you think. Your mind is the inseparable connection between your brain, body, and spirit. How you think, how you move, how you engage with what you are passionate about—all contribute to how you feel and function as you accumulate birthdays.
All this research is great, but it can be overwhelming. There are so many things you should do to age well. I want to make sure that list does not shift your physiology into a state of stress that speeds biological aging!
In this guide, I give you a whole-person approach to aging well that maximizes the science-based information without overwhelming you. You will come away with your personalized guide to aging well through whole-person health.
Aging forward; the power of visualization
Athletes use visualization to give them an edge when competing as well as healing from injuries.3 It’s been shown to be a powerful tool for gaining a competitive edge in important competitive events. Non-athletes can learn from this research and put visualization to use to age well because while aging is not a competition, it is quite possibly one of the most important events of your life from the moment you first think “I’m getting older”.
That is where your plan for successful aging starts. Consider for a moment all the people you have watched age. It could be a family member, a friend, or a celebrity. Which ones are examples of how you don’t want to age? List the characteristics of that person that you know are not what you want for your future. List their physical state, mindset, and how they spend their time.
Now think of people who are aging the way you want to age. List their physical state, mindset, and how they spend their time.
Now visualize yourself aging the way you want to age. List your physical abilities, mindset, and activities that represent aging well to you.
Think of this image as a blueprint. It serves as your guide to putting into action the tools provided in this guide. The more you let your imagination fill in the colors and details, the more motivating this guide will be for keeping you doing the things that allow you to age well.
How to feel and function your best as you age
Whether it’s your body or your brain that is starting to show signs of aging, your whole person is affected. Emotionally, it’s scary when parts are not working well. Those emotions change your body and affect your confidence to do activities. When your activities are limited, your brain has less stimulation and your ability to engage with things you enjoy disconnects from your spirit.
A whole-person approach to aging starts with knowing the truths about how each part of you—spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional—can age well, so you regain confidence and redefine what it means to be ‘getting older’. Let’s review some of the encouraging news and then I’ll show you how to put it into action in your personalized plan for aging well with whole-person health.
The spiritual element of aging well
Whether you are religious or not, you have a spirit. It’s the part of you that makes you who you are, lets you know what you enjoy, and connects you with who and what you love. Your spirit is the part of you that holds the details about what it means for you to thrive.
We start here because this is the part of your whole person that drives the others. Consider the person who you want to emulate for aging well. Notice their spark? Their zest for life? This comes from their spirit. They are connected to what they are passionate about. This is the spiritual element of whole-person health.
Without passion, the things to do for aging well become ‘shoulds’ hanging over your head. With passion, you emulate the energy of youth. Your passions provide a source of lasting energy for sustained motivation 4. Being active is important, but being selective about doing what you are passionate about is the key to benefiting from being active as you age.
Take a moment to brainstorm the topics, causes, or activities that give you a spark of energy to just think about them.
The physical element of aging well
The energy from your passions is felt in your body. You know them in your gut. That connection between your spirit element and physical element is what keeps exercising and eating healthy from being a boring task you have to do because it’s good for you.
There are three skills needed to feel and function your best and stay connected to your passions: mobility, strength, and stamina. The loss of these skills is most often associated with the “I’m getting older” statement. Yet studies show they can be regained at any age.
You are built on the use-it-to-keep-it system and research shows that different types of exercise signal your body to keep the systems working well.
- Stretching stimulates the connective tissues and nervous system in a way that keeps its elasticity and reduces the feeling of stiffness. It also helps your lymph system do its job of reducing inflammation.
- Strength exercises are shown to improve balance, bone strength, and muscle function, key to maintaining independence as you age.
- Stamina through cardiovascular exercise tells your cells you want them to have the equipment to turn the food you eat into sustainable energy.
Balance is a key concern with aging. The challenge is, that we will never stay in perfect balance. The true concern behind balance is fear of injury from a fall. What we really need is trust building. The combination of mindfulness, self-kindness with the above exercise types keeps your brain and body connection tuned up so you are able to regain balance and/or catch yourself when you fall off-balance. Stretching and strength exercises are key to preventing injury from a near-fall or a fall and improving your ability to get up when you do fall. This a whole-person approach to raising confidence in your ability to reduce the risk of injury from a fall.
Loss of mobility, strength, and stamina happens very quickly when you are on bed rest or recovering from an illness or injury.5 One often overlooked, yet detrimental, side effect of illness or injury is deconditioning. While your body is putting energy into healing, it is taking energy away from keeping the mobility, strength, and stamina you are not using. When you start to be active again, you start with less of these key physical skills for daily life. As you move and feel less capable, you can start to lose confidence in your balance, agility, strength, endurance, and freedom of movement. Less confidence means less movement, less movement means less confidence. Called the spiral of inactivity, this IS reversible.
The key is having a regular exercise plan that includes each of the three skills of mobility, strength, and stamina and knowing how to adjust the plan, rather than put it on hold, when your body is putting energy into healing. Movement is known to improve immune function and help with healing. At the same time, you are maintaining a baseline of the mobility, strength, and stamina so you can get back to doing the things that you enjoy.
The mental element of aging well
Your brain has a very handy quality called neuroplasticity 6. That means it can change. The old saying ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ was eradicated when the brain’s plasticity was discovered. Just like the body, your brain is a use-it-to-keep-it system.
But when we think of brain training as separate from physical training, we are missing a huge part of what makes our brain function well, especially with aging. Your body is the number one producer of brain chemicals that keep your brain functioning at its best. Exercise is known to improve memory, focus, and learning while reducing stress hormones that interfere with these7.
Nothing changes the brain like exercise. Not all movement does this, though. If movement is stress-producing, it floods the brain with stress chemicals, countering the positive effects of exercise.8 For exercise to work best for brain function, it needs movement science combined with the skills of mindfulness and self-kindness because your mindset while you exercise changes your biochemistry. 9 The combination of the skills of. Mindfulness, self-kindness with exercise science ensures that when you move, you are aware of the need to adjust what you are doing to reduce strain.
Although we are still discovering what causes diseases that affect memory, we do know that keeping your brain active and engaged in learning is a key part of aging well. Your mindset, choosing activities you are passionate about, and having a regular, balanced exercise program that includes mindfulness and self-kindness optimizes your brain’s ability to age well.
The side effect of this whole-person exercising is the change in the way you relate to your body. It gives you a resource to calm stress as soon as it starts to show up in your body. Healthy eating is a way of taking care of this whole-person.
The emotional element of aging well
Aging is certainly not for wimps. You are not only dealing with the changes in your internal elements of well–being, you are also dealing with the changes in your external well-being. Relationships change as the people around you are also aging. Finances become a lifeline to being cared for as you age. What you need in your environment to thrive, such as safety features, physical aids, and memory aids, becomes important, and as you retire, your vocation changes.
Emotions are like the weather—they are created by certain conditions that are ever-changing. They are messengers about whether those changes are putting your physiology in a stress state or a well state.
Strengthening your emotional intelligence is essential for managing the changing ‘weather’ of aging. Only when you are aware of these emotions, and realize they are important messengers, can you use them to age well. The spiritual, physical, and mental skills for aging well are resources for staying aware of and using emotions as a guide, rather than letting them hijack you.10
The most important awareness is how you feel about aging. In the next section, I guide you in creating a plan for aging well, using whole-person health to restore confidence you can thrive, not just survive, the challenges presented by aging.
The Big Three for aging well in your whole person
The Big Three to be healthy are exercise, eating healthy, and managing stress. But these don’t work unless exercise leads to moving well, eating healthy leads to nourishing well, and managing stress leads to resting well. The powerful combination of exercise science, mindfulness, and self-kindness is the way to get the most from The Big Three as you age.
Keep the parts of your whole person —spiritual, physical, mental, and emotional—in mind as you create your plan for aging well.
Exercising well to age well
- Base what you do for exercise on what you want to be able to do for your passions. This way, you not only have a personalized guide, but a source of lasting motivation as your foundation. Do you want to be able to play with grandkids? Travel? Do your own yard work? Garden? Play a recreational sport? Keep working?
- Design your exercise with a balance of mobility, strength, and stamina because every activity we do involves each of these skills. Exercising with a balance of these three decreases your chance of injury and increases your confidence in being active.
- One time a day or more, practice mobility
- Twice a week, practice strength moves
- Three times a week, practice stamina
- Adopt the mindset that exercise is time out to practice the physical and mental skills most important to you for healthy aging.
- Stay connected with your emotions, using mindfulness and self-kindness skills. When they shift your physiology into the stress state, your body needs to move to release the tension from those emotions. Moving toward feeling calm, confident, and connected to what is most important to you in life is the way exercise is a resource for managing the emotions of aging.
Eat healthy to age well
- Keep healthy eating connected to having the energy for your passions in life. Rather than knowing you ‘should’ eat healthy, make eating a time in your day to nourish your spirit and stay connected to your passions.
- Keep the healthy connection between eating and exercising. Exercise is a time to tell your body to keep the equipment (such as mitochondria) that turn food into energy. Exercise also has been shown to improve gut health.11 The more we learn about the body, the more we know exercising is not about burning calories, it is about ensuring that the healthy food you are eating has the best chance for keeping your body healthy.
- Learn as much as you can from nutrition professionals about how to eat healthy and the changing nutritional needs as you age. Much of so-called ‘science-based’ information is more about marketing science than nutrition science. Learning about science-based healthy eating and being a savvy nutrition consumer is a great way to stay mentally healthy as you age.
- Emotional eating is the main way we end up taking in more calories than needed, whether it’s eating comfort foods or eating beyond the point of satiety. Emotional intelligence is a great tool here. By keeping your mindfulness skills strong, you stay aware of when you are soothing emotions with food. Self-kindness allows you to meet yourself where you are and moving the way you are designed is the way to clear a storm of emotions so your whole person feels better naturally.
Manage stress well to age well
- There is a dis-ease inside when you are disconnected from what you enjoy. You can be busy and bored at the same time when what you are doing is not connected to what you are passionate about. This can make you restless, searching for something to fill the void. When your day is filled with a connection to what you are passionate about, your whole person rests with greater ease, even when you are busy. Choose how you spend your time and energy based on what you value most in life and even busy days don’t feel like work.
- The physiologic state of stress is your body preparing to move. That ‘ready to move tension’ needs to be used by muscle activation or it hangs around keeping you in a stress state. Connect the tension in your body with the need to move. That could be a stretch or a walk or a strength exercise. The key is moving as you are designed, with mindfulness, as an act of self-kindness, so the end result is your whole person ready to rest. One of the simplest and most effective ways to do this is to develop the habit of mindful stretching in small bouts during your day, especially before going to sleep.
- The brain’s job to keep you safe and one way it does that is to time travel through the past, present, and future, looking for real or potential threats to your safety. This is not a problem, it’s essential for the ability to be safe and independent as you age. Resting well starts with knowing the negative thoughts, worry, and anxiety are not a problem; they are simply thoughts and most of the time are not real. Mindfulness brings your attention back to the present moment, self-kindness allows you to not berate yourself for negative thinking, and movement gives your brain the feel-better chemicals so it’s easier to problem solve to manage stress.
- Knowing emotions are like the weather—they don’t last—allows you to use them as messengers. You remember to savor the positive emotions, so you don’t miss them. You savor the joy of working in your garden or playing with grandchildren, or the satisfaction of helping someone in need. When negative emotions come up, you know they are there to let you know its time to move mindfully, with self-kindness, so your whole person can shift back to the state of thriving. This is how you can rest well in more moments of your day.
Your Guide to Making Aging Well a Lasting Habit
- Why: Clarify your Core Why for aging well
- Take your time to visualize how you want to feel and function. Get really detailed here. The deeper you do, the more guidance you have to make healthy aging a habit
- Enough: Get really clear about the range of how much is enough.
- Guidelines are rarely rigid. Guidelines for how much is enough to eat healthy, exercise, and manage stress so you age well are presented in ranges because no one knows the exact amount right for you right now. Flexibility in your ideas about enough allows you to keep it flexible, so your plan can fit your life right now. The more science-based and flexible your mindset about how much is enough, the more likely you are to stick with it when you need it most; when life gets stressful!
- Link: What is happening in your body right now is where you find the most reliable, personalized information about how you can age well
- Notice if you are distracted to get through an exercise, a healthy meal, or meditation time. Stay connected with your body to learn from your most reliable guide for making moment-by-moment adjustments as you exercise, eat and use tools to manage stress
- Loop: Connect what you are doing and how you are feeling now back to your Core Why. This is what creates the habit. When what you do makes you feel better now in your body, your brain wants you to repeat it.
- The more you are aware of what your body is telling your brain, the more you are in charge of your healthy habits.
Summary of a whole-person guide to aging well
Aging is not the number on your birthday cake. Aging is the loss of confidence in your body and brain. Science gives us many clues about what to do and how to think about aging that has a tremendous impact on how you feel and function as you age. Each part of your whole person—brain, body, emotions and spirit—plays a role in aging well. A mindful, kind science-based approach to exercise shifts your whole person in a state where you can move well, nourish well and manage stress well. This is how The Big Three can have the greatest impact on how you feel and function now and each year in the future.
- E Langer. Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. 2009
- Bajpai, A., Li, R. and Chen, W. (2021), The cellular mechanobiology of aging: from biology to mechanics. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci., 1491: 3-24.
- Richardson PA, Latuda LM. Therapeutic imagery and athletic injuries. J Athl Train. 1995 Mar;30(1):10-2.
- Rousseau, François & Vallerand, Robert. (2008). An Examination of the Relationship between Passion and Subjective Well-Being in Older Adults. International journal of aging & human development. 66. 195-211. 10.2190/AG.66.3.b.
- Dijkstra F, van der Sluis G, Jager-Wittenaar H, Hempenius L, Hobbelen JSM, Finnema E. Facilitators and barriers to enhancing physical activity in older patients during acute hospital stay: a systematic review. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2022 Jul 30;19(1):99.
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- Estaki, M., Pither, J., Baumeister, P. et al. Cardiorespiratory fitness as a predictor of intestinal microbial diversity and distinct metagenomic functions. Microbiome 4, 42 (2016).