At the youthful age of 87, Charles Eugster asked for some help. He told a bodybuilder that he wanted a healthy beach body. “There are beautiful seventy-year-old girls out there,” he said, “and I’d like to turn their heads.” But simply showing off a six-pack wasn’t enough. Eight years later, he broke the British age-group records for the 100 metres sprint and the long jump.
The newspapers called him the country’s fittest pensioner, and his story teaches us some useful lessons. He wanted to help change perceptions of what it means to be old. And he showed that even advanced old age could be active, fun and inspiring.
So what can we do to stay happy and healthy as we get older?
One of the best places to find out is the Harvard Study of Adult Development. This has followed hundreds of ordinary men and women since the 1930s, from teenage years through to old age. There’s plenty of wisdom here – and some surprises, even for the researchers.
The good news is that we shouldn’t obsess about cholesterol, or the stressful events that life throws at us. Forget the faddy diets and superfoods. There are many other things that have a bigger impact if we want to age well (and even get that beach body). Most of them are well within our control.
The key finding about stress is that stressful events are not as harmful as we might expect. Some people have a lot of stress in their lives, but still age very well. It’s how you deal with it that matters most. So developing coping skills, being positive and able to adjust to life’s changes is very important. If you can do this without resorting to cigarettes, even better.