The worst thing you can do [for aging] is to never get out of breath! – Author and Longevity Scientist, David Sinclair, PhD
The pandemic and uncertainty of our world today has definitely made our lives more stressful. To be sure, chronic stress is an unfortunate circumstance of our culture, whether that’s being anxious about the future of our country, or our finances, or a stressful job, or an unhappy home life. In addition, being isolated and feelings of loneliness, especially with older adults, can be stressful. Because our bodies aren’t designed for chronic stress, we can face negative health effects if we don’t learn how to cope appropriately with stress in our lives.
Many people turn to unhealthy behaviors or vices to cope with their stress. Excessive alcohol consumption, poor food choices, smoking, and inactivity are all unhealthy ways one might cope with stress. It’s not uncommon in our culture to have a couple of drinks to help relax after a stressful day. While I enjoy having a glass of wine or beer with my wife at dinner, or a few drinks with friends to unwind after a busy day of work, experts say it’s not the best way to cope with stress. Denise Graham, a counselor in Cleveland Clinic’s Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center says, “If you rely on alcohol for happiness and pleasure, even for numbing stress, then that can actually cause significant problems down the road”. Furthermore, alcohol itself can cause stress on the body’s physiological balance and accelerates aging.
Over time, chronic stress and unhealthy coping behaviors can lead to diseases such as cancer, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and mental illness such as anxiety and depression. Chronic stress can also lead to hypertension (elevated blood pressure) which can make a person more prone to cognitive decline and Alzheimers disease. When you look at the diseases that most Americans die from, they’re predominantly “preventable” diseases related to unhealthy behaviors, often caused by chronic stress. Nearly 100,000 Americans, two-thirds being men, die from alcohol-related deaths annually. This level of mortality makes alcohol the third leading cause of preventable deaths in America.
For most of our evolutionary past, the stress on our bodies for survival was a constant. Daily activity of hunting or gathering food took sustained, physical effort in hostile environments. Humans had to overcome extreme heat, freezing temperatures and hungry predators to find and secure their food, which often was scarce. The challenges and acute stresses our bodies had to endure for survival is how we evolved as humans today. Yet, despite all of our medical and technological advancements that has extended our lifespan, our bodies are not well adapted for chronic stress and our sedentary habits. Without environmental and physical challenges (good stressors) to stimulate our bodies, we begin to lose them from disease as our functional capabilities and quality of life seriously declines as we age.
The Upside of Stress
While stress is inevitable in our lives today, getting sick from it is not says Stanford psychologist Dr. Kelly McGonigal, author of the book The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It. Dr. McGonigal believes “the best way to manage stress isn’t to reduce or avoid it, but rather to rethink and even embrace it.” In other words, the best way to get better at stress is to practice it. Regular exposure to small amounts of stress can inoculate you from the most detrimental effects of stress when you suffer a big stressful event in your life.
Our early ancestors had to deal with psychological stress just as much as physical stress to survive. Therefore, a great way to work out the stress in your head, is to move your body, preferably outdoors where the environment is unpredictable and varied. Longevity expert and author David Sinclair, PhD, argues that exercise, especially at high intensity, activates longevity genes “that prompt the rest of the system to survive a little longer”. Additionally, when you expose yourself to stressors of hot and cold environments as our early ancestors did, it turns on your longevity genes.
Longevity research concludes that the key to healthy aging is to be able to tolerate and thrive in a wide variety of conditions and stressors. The following are everyday lifestyle interventions that emphasizes variance over fixed habits that can improve our vitality and quality of life as we age: meditation coupled with exhilaration like riding a roller coaster; variations of exercise that challenges our endurance, agility, and strength and gets us out of breath; exposure to a range of environments such as temperature, sunlight, altitude and terrain; periods of fasting associated with a diet that itself is based on variation of wholesome foods, rather than a limited range of processed foods. Also, learning a new skill or being exposed to experiences that challenge us in a variety of ways can be life affirming and a key to being resilient.
We wrongly assume that always being safe, well fed, and comfortable equates to well-being. However, resilience is the process of “adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, and threats or significant sources of stress”. Learning to be comfortable with discomfort in daily life is not only important for our health and quality of life as we age, but can also lead to a happier, more fulfilling life.