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Dr. Henry S. Lodge on Living Healthier

Henry S. Lodge, M.D., otherwise known as Harry, is the celebrated co-author of the bestselling book Younger Next Year: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy—Until You’re 80 and Beyond and Younger Next Year for Women. He’s also a board-certified internist on the faculty of Columbia Medical School and the former head of New York Clinical Society, a multi-specialty group practice. Here, Lodge explains how people can harness their biological clocks and live healthier throughout their lifetimes.

What’s your definition of living healthier?

A really powerful answer to that, which I make in my book, is: living healthier biologically. “Healthier” involves physical health, emotional health, psychological health and nutritional health. It’s not particularly new when you realize the Romans had the healthy mind and the healthy body concept down a couple of thousand years ago. What’s been missing is a Rosetta stone for people to understand why a healthy body equals a healthy mind, and why the way we live our lives has an enormous impact on our long-term health. Once you understand what’s going on underneath the hood, you don’t need anyone telling you what to do; it becomes apparent and simply informs the way you lead the rest of your life.

What’s most important to explain to people about their biological clocks?

I would say that the most important thing is that it’s under your control. So, whether you’re at Wal-Mart or flipping burgers at McDonald’s or running a major corporation, it makes no difference to nature. Your body is totally under your control; it does exactly what you tell it to do. It’s not hard to take control of your biological clock and change it.

What would you say to an individual who thinks his or her biological clock is the biggest influence on health?

There are some who are either biologically blessed or cursed, but most of us are in a similar range. However, you can do dramatically better for your own health by following certain lifestyles. People who live the healthiest lifestyle as they get older cut their mortality by about two-thirds, compared to people who live the worst lifestyles. If you have to order it in terms of what’s most important, the emotional content of life is the most important, followed by exercise and then nutrition. Over the years, we’ve found it’s extraordinarily difficult to tell people how to live emotionally better lives, and it’s incredibly hard to get people to eat differently. But, you really can get people to exercise differently, and that creates a certain chemistry of optimism and energy and mood that lets you go out and build the emotional ties and connections you need.

Have you seen anything in your research about the notion of a biological clock in other cultures?

There are cultural differences to how we each view aging: More traditional cultures, for example, tend to have much more central roles for older people. Older people remain physically active and are emotionally, intellectually and mentally much more involved within the community. One of the tragedies about America is the very strong message that as you get older, you’re useless. That message is something that older people have to fight very hard against, to say, “No, I’m still relevant.”

What do you find most helps people start and maintain healthier living?

What we tell people is, “This is the rest of your life,” and to view it like a five- to six-day-a-week job. There are days where you are more “on” and days that you are less “on,” but you show up at work. I tell people to view going to the gym as that kind of a commitment, where you simply get in the car and go every day. It’s not about what you achieve this month, or next month or in six months, but this is a life commitment to show up at your new job. If people get through the first 30 days simply by getting to the gym, and then build on the first 90 days, they are pretty much there. The vast majority of people who make it 90 days stick with it more or less for the long haul.

When it comes to emotional health, what are some of the key messages you try to get through to people?

There are deeply rooted emotional chemistries in us that are similar to the emotional chemistries in all mammals: We’re built to be part of a pack. It doesn’t really matter enormously whether you like everybody in your pack, but you still have to be part of it. We’ve learned that in the long-term, the people who are in full, rich, emotional webs do dramatically better than those who are isolated and lonely. You can’t just jump into a full and right emotional web, but if you view this as a life project and start plugging away at it, you can build connections very well over time.

How do you help the older generation understand that it’s not too late to turn their health around?

People see the aging process as an inevitable, relentless thing that happens to them. It’s not! Most of what happens, people do to themselves. You’re going to grow old, but how you grow old and the pace at which you grow old is 50% up to you. Researchers have gone into nursing homes and have put 90-year-olds on weight-training programs; within six weeks to three months, everyone moves up a full functional level. We need to say to people that the older you are, the more important it is to exercise. The gains are enormous, dramatic and, again, totally within a person’s control.

What are some other erroneous beliefs about aging?

The worst one is this sense that we’re all going to get old and die, as if that were an event. Most Americans have not come to terms with the fact that they’re going to live a long time, and they’re not going to live well if they don’t take care of themselves. What’s happening in America is that people are getting old and living years, even decades as old, decrepit people. The second one is the sense that old people ought to be physically less active and that they ought to be getting old. The reality is what you ought to be doing is working harder every year to fight against that. Spend more time taking better and better care of yourself, because the forces against you get a little stronger every year.

What are your thoughts about nontraditional approaches to health?

“Western” or “Eastern” is peripheral to how you age—lifestyle is the dominant key. Treating problems when things go wrong is the point where medicine comes in. Relying upon supplements or herbs or pills makes no difference because it shifts your focus away from what you really ought to be doing. You can certainly go and do what you want, but 80% to 90% of the benefit is what you do every day with your body and your mind.

What are the things you would get people to incorporate into their lives, regardless of their health?

The science on nutrition is such that no one has ever come up with a diet plan that truly works. So, the first thing that we say is that this is not a diet, because diets simply do not work. The second thing is that nutrition is important, so we detail what basic good nutrition is all about. Then we make the point that it doesn’t really matter what you weigh; what matters is how fit you are. This is absolutely true: If you’re fit and fat, you are going to be happy and healthy and you’re going to live a long time; if you’re sedentary and skinny, you’re not.

Where do you recommend people get their health information?

A couple of guidelines: One, use your common sense. The other is be aware that the vast majority of things that look promising turn out not to be true. A lot of research reported on the news sounds like, “Chemical X may prevent heart disease.” The studies are really very vague and, in my opinion, it is very iffy science. The bottom line is there are no free rides in nature. There’s no quick-and-easy way to have a great life. But there are ways that work incredibly well if you plug away at them.

Can you tell who’s going to stick with living healthier and make a change?

The person who has been an OK exerciser, who has a pretty good social circle and who has a lot of interests will get the message very well—it’s just a matter of providing support and encouragement. To the person who comes in 100 pounds overweight, gets no exercise and is lonely and isolated, I would begin by saying: “Go to the gym every day. I don’t care what you physically do, just walk in the door. And come back to me in a month.” The only people who have a very low chance are the people who did not want to be there in the beginning. And that turns out to be the minority.

For more information about Dr. Henry Lodge, visit www.youngernextyear.com.

Posted: 12/28/07
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