The Health Behaviors of Others: What Can We Learn?

A current news story presents that the oldest known man has recently died at the ripe old age of 110. As is often the case, the discussion moves to analyze what types of health behaviors were practiced in this very long-living person, and how those behaviors inform what we know and what we do currently. This “supercentenarian”, a person who lives to 110 or more, apparently walked three miles a day into his nineties with his wife (who died at 103) and drank little alcohol. He ate a primarily vegetarian diet, did not drink fluids out of plastic containers, and had a thirst for learning that he satisfied throughout his lifetime. One case study does not a recommendation make; however, we can collect data from all of the known supercentenarians and search for some patterns, in the same way, the Blue Zones research looked at the health behaviors of centenarians—those who lived to 100—and furnished a list of recommendations based on their analyzed behavior. The current news story should not create a sense of pressure to aim for 100 or 110 years of life or to self-bash if our own health behaviors don’t quite measure up with the current scientific recommendations or the behaviors of those who live exceptionally long lives.  If our heightened expectations bear down on us, we create a sense of defeat or despair—completely unproductive in the quest to improve health behavior management.

What we can do is study, learn, and experience positive health behaviors from an open, non-judgmental posture. We can acknowledge each day, this day, is an opportunity to propagate health and well-being by perhaps making a subtle shift in how we care for ourselves, to our benefit. The story of the 110-year-old man can serve as an inspiration or provide an impetus to move gently towards a new behavior or practice as a celebration of life and living. When working with clients or students in the health and fitness arena, many times the conversations can shift to health behaviors we have observed in others with their associated outcomes. For example, someone might say, “My grandmother never exercised a day in her life, drank alcohol every day, and lived a life deep into her eighties!” While another person could report, “That guy just dropped dead; he was a runner, vegetarian, and humanitarian who was beloved in his community—how does this happen?” The facts are, that these single stories are not the whole story, and our overall health is an amalgamation of factors (some of which are unclear) including those involving genetics and others derived from a lifetime of health-related behaviors. We can frame our decisions and self-care from the perspective of life is a blessing, we are worth taking care of, and choosing scientifically supported, positive health behaviors can unequivocally improve our physical and mental health, quality of life, and length of life.