Secrets of a long active life

As many of you may have noticed I recently got back from my honeymoon, an extended trip that saw my wife and I journey from the Greek Islands to Tuscany – and stopping everywhere we could between these destinations. When I travel I always like to take stock of the local culture, asking, what do the people here do differently? It turns out Greek and Italians do a lot differently. In a nutshell: they consume alcohol at almost every meal, many smoke, and salads (unless they’re Greek ones) are hard to come by. And yet, despite these seemingly unhealthy lifestyle choices, I noticed that, in contrast with what I see here in Ontario, the elderly population is out and about living their life with no limitations. What’s their secret to longevity?

There were three things that stood out to me that I believe contribute to Italy’s top 10 life expectancy (beating out Canada, by the way).

The first thing, which should come as no surprise, is diet.  The “Mediterranean Diet” has been lauded for years as a key to staying healthy as you age, but I think most people just assume this means use olive oil and eat more fish. Although these healthy fats do help prevent heart disease, the Mediterranean diet is also (from what I could tell, anyway) made of of local produce, meat and fish. Theses areas aren’t dotted with fast food and large chain restaurants either.  The scarcity of these food sources likely reduces the intake of things like excess sugar and trans fats (good news, these nasty fats are banned in Canada, officially on September 15 of this year) Also their cuisine options are generally less diverse, but as a result, I believe the things we ate were far more likely be to sourced nearby and in-season. When food is handled less and able to be consumed closer to the date it is produced, I believe you are going to get higher quality goods. In Hamilton, we’re lucky to be in proximity to farms where we can buy or order vegetables inexpensively. We also have great local farmer’s markets.

The second thing I noticed:  everybody walks and bikes. Even in large cities, grocery stores are small, while bakeries and cafes, of which there are hundreds, are busy.  People wake up and walk or ride a bike to their local spots to socialize and enjoy an espresso. By contrast, here we will drive our car five minutes out of the way because the Tim Horton’s in the gas station we filled up at doesn’t have drive-through.  Now it is not all our fault. We are a young country and our expansion happened when technology and infrastructure allowed us to build sprawling residential cities that are less conducive to walking and biking. However, I do believe most of us still value our time freedom over quality of life. We know we could bike and that it would be better for us mentally and physically but it is so much easier to drive five minutes than bike for 15 minutes. So how do we fix this convenience-over-living-well mindset?

It may start with slowing down and making activity an aspect of your social life and vice versa.Find a friend in your neighbourhood and set a weekly standing coffee date that you walk or bike to. Failing that, come to CrossFit where we tie activity and social life together in one beautiful package.

Having a strong social network as we age not only keeps us engaged, but it gives a sense of purpose.  Each night we would walk by a local bar that would be overrun with a 60-plus crowd conversing excitedly in their native tongue. No matter the day of the week or the country we were in this was a guarantee.  The reality of our North American life is that most people once they age may only have their spouse to lean on for social interaction. A loss of that spouse is generally accompanied by a drop in mental health and physical well-being.

So want to stay healthy long into your twilight years?  From what I can tell, it may come down to doing a few simple things: Eat local, fresh fare in season. Stay active. Maintain strong social ties. Come to CrossFit.

Duncan McNeill is a CrossFit coach and co-owner of Alchemy CrossFit. 

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