Don’t Grow Up

Taking your cue from the habits of children can lead to the fountain of youth.

by Beverly Burmeier

September 2012

One of life’s paradoxes is that children can’t wait to grow up, while older people often long for childhood’s carefree days. In the case of adults, though, evidence suggests that acting like a kid could be the best way to ward off grownup health risks. And with almost 40 million Americans over age 65 and an average life expectancy of approximately 83 years, who wouldn’t like to turn back the clock by following some wise childlike habits?

Playtime and Naptime

No visitor to Midway Safe Harbor Center near Orlando, Florida, is considered too old to play. That’s because the center has developed a multigenerational playground where balance bars, wobble tables and walking paths designed for use by older adults keep company with traditional children’s slides and monkey bars. “People in our foster grandparent program, as well as others from the community, make use of exercise stations to improve range of motion, flexibility and strength,” says Midway administrator Brenda Knight. “I love to watch them, and it’s good for children to see that older people can laugh and have fun, too.”

“Exercise is good for everything,” says Vivienne Halpern, MD, chief of vascular surgery at the Phoenix VA Medical Center, University of Arizona. “Physical activity helps guard against the three leading causes of death today—heart disease, cancer and stroke.” Exercise’s benefits include increasing blood flow, lowering blood pressure, helping to control blood sugar, reducing risk of colon and breast cancer, strengthening bones and muscles, keeping weight down, relieving tension and boosting cognition.

The problem is that many people see exercise in terms of being chained to a treadmill or grinding through the same old weight routine at a gym. That’s what makes adult playgrounds such as the one at Midway so inviting; they let grownups get active and have fun at the same time. Such facilities are excellent for maintaining flexibility and stability (and if you can share a romp with your children or grandchildren, so much the better).

Don’t have an adult playground near you? There are many other ways to release your inner kid. Skip rope, hopscotch, ride a bike or throw a Frisbee. Have fun trying new activities such as tennis, ballroom dancing or swimming. Just 30 minutes five times a week of any activity that raises your heart rate and keeps it elevated is beneficial.

After active mornings toddlers are usually ready for a nap, and a short doze may be equally refreshing for you. Getting less than five hours of sleep at night may increase the risk of developing hypertension, according to the American Heart Association. Even with more nighttime sleep, brief daytime naps can increase productivity, sharpen the senses and lift the spirit, says William Anthony, PhD, director of Boston University’s Center for Psychological Rehabilitation. “Nap because it feels good, not just to fight sleep deprivation.”

Assuming you’re a normal sleeper (not fighting insomnia or depression), a half-hour nap midway between waking and bedtime can be the pause that refreshes. “Your mother was right—take a nap, and you’ll feel better,” Anthony says.

Hugs and Treats

Little kids love to hug and snuggle— touch comforts and soothes. Adults can get the same feeling by reaching out to a friend, spouse or children.

Managing stress is important to aging well, and nothing is as effective for reducing stress as giving or receiving hugs. “High stress levels create internal tsunamis of cortisol, insulin and leptin. This combination triggers cardiovascular tension, causes arteries to harden and makes us crave more of the sugary foods that cause health problems,” say Dian Griesel, PhD and her brother Tom Griesel, authors of TurboCharged: Accelerate Your Fat Burning Metabolism, Get Lean Fast and Leave Diet and Exercise Rules in the Dust (Business School of Happiness).

Go a step further from hugs and try massage, the grown-up version of healing touch. Studies have proven its effectiveness at lowering blood pressure, soothing sore muscles and managing chronic pain. (You can find a massage therapist near you through the American Massage Therapy Association: www.amtamassage.org, 877-905-0577.)

Chocolate milk and cookies are an all-time kid favorite. While that particular food combination supplies more sugar and calories than you would want to consume on a regular basis, it’s true that cocoa is a great stress-reliever. When chocolate is consumed, especially dark varieties containing at least 60% cocoa, the body releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins. A study reported in the Journal of Proteome Research found that eating an ounce and a half of dark chocolate every day for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones in people who were highly stressed.

So go ahead and indulge. Chocolate reduces risk for heart disease because it helps keep arteries from clogging. “Chocolate contains flavonoids and antioxidants, compounds thought to slow damaging effects of LDL, and it seems to raise HDL, the good cholesterol,” says Penny Kris-Etherton, professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University.

Expert TLC

Your average youngster isn’t thinking about the need to visit a healthcare practitioner. However, parents know that taking their kids for regular checkups can help catch problems early.

Mothers and fathers will make sure their children visit the practitioner’s office without fail, but parents often don’t schedule their own checkups in a timely manner. Conditions such as diabetes, thyroid disease, hypertension or high cholesterol can sneak up without symptoms; tracking weight, blood pressure and chemistry, and other biological markers can help you stay ahead of the health curve. Regular exams also keep you up to date on immunizations, and you’ll get advice on which screening tests are appropriate and when.

You’re only young once, as the old saying goes. Following some little-kid habits, though, can make a big difference in your overall health and well-being.

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