‘Age is just a number’ – a book review

Recently wandering through the excellent Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street I came across a book which, having now finished reading it, I sense may be about to change my life! It is not often one has that experience with a book, so let me explain.

The book is titled ‘Age is just a number’ and the author is Charles Eugster, a dentist from England, now living in Switzerland. The subtitle is ‘What a 97-year-old recordbreaker can teach us about getting older’. At the age of 63, he took up competitive rowing. At 87, he took up bodybuilding. And at the age of 95, he started competitive sprinting for the first time in his life. He is now a world record-holding athlete. His book is part autobiography, and part inspirational in describing the steps, and the mental processes, he went through in achieving quite the most extraordinary physical accomplishments.

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He explains how, following a divorce in his 60s, he realised in our 50s and 60s we are at the pinnacle of entrepreneurial capacity and he therefore decided to establish a publishing business to publish newsletters about dentistry. He did not even consider the prospect of retirement until the age of 75, and then only because dexterity was becoming an issue with precision dental instruments. He remarried in his 70s and then was widowed at the age of 82.

There is no way to describe the following paragraph so I will just repeat it in full, because it is quite profound in it’s insight.

“In a modern world there is the less than attractive game we have been primed to expect, and that may well become a reality if you allow it to. I’m talking about old-age defined by frailty. Typically, such a day might begin with your carer opening the curtains and talking to you in loud, breezy but simplistic terms. They may help you sit up, assist you in a trip to the bathroom, dress and then feed you before settling you in the sunny spot in the common room. Nobody talks very much. By and large your fellow care home residents seem to inhabit their own memories. Still, you could always look forward to lunch. As long as it smashed to a pulp you shouldn’t have any difficulties. There is also visiting time in the afternoon. If you’re lucky, a relative might pop in to see you, but they have busy lives to lead so they won’t stay long. After that, you can expect a light supper and bed, before this daily routine repeats until those curtains close for good. I’m sure you’ll agree, this is not exactly a wonderful life scenario, and yet we have been conditioned to head towards this broken, dispiriting outcome as if we have no option.”

Charles explains, using his research into many medical and nutritional journals, how from the age of 50 we begin to lose muscle and increase fat. Although he was rowing nearly 6 days a week he didn’t feel he had the capacity to continue to pull the oar satisfactorily. He felt flabby. So, at the age of 87 he set out to lose the flab and acquire the muscle that many people assume to be an impossible task. In an amusing section in the book he explains how he went to a gym and told the instructor that he wanted a beach body, “There are beautiful 70-year-old girls out there,” he said, “I’d like to turn their heads.”

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He went to the gym three times a week, and improved his diet by cutting out fatty, salty and sweet items and just reducing the size of portions on his plate. He made significant improvements and then, at the age of 89 he met a former gymnast who introduced him to a combination of exercises to increase his muscle size by exercising them in groups. Building on his previous work in the gym he now started working on squats, crunches, chin-ups, push-ups, pullups, thrusts and lunges.

In summary, he worked all the various muscle groups in his body through repetition and resistance to the point of exhaustion, and then kept repeating them until he reached exhausted again. He combined this with protein supplements and amino acids and began to feel much stronger and better than he had ever done in his life. At the extraordinary age of 90 he goes on to describe how he took up competitive sprinting!

So why has this book changed my life? Here I am at the age of 56, last year I was able to take part in a charitable 10k road run in 54 minutes. I’ve barely had a sick day in my entire working life, and would consider myself to be in good health. My military background clearly helped, where the early emphasis on physical exercise gave me a good foundation for life (I ran my first marathon in four hours 20 minutes when I was 45, and then a half marathon at the age of 53 in one hour 58 minutes).

But, recently I have not been enjoying my sleep, I find it hard to wind down, I rarely take the time to visit the gym, and I may be lucky if I run once every few weeks. I have certainly gained over 15 lbs in the last four years. My interest now is how to re-develop the motivation to re-build and then maintain my physical and mental health. I can’t even contemplate the thought of retiring and not having any kind of physical or mental stimulus.

So I have set myself a challenge, what if I establish Charles’ foundations in excellent muscular tone and robust fitness in my 50s, rather than starting to reach that point in my 80s. Will that, with an increasingly entrepreneurial mind-stretching activities through by charitable work, in addition to pushing myself creatively in my paid employment, enable me to enjoy the next 40 or even 50 years in a high state of physical and mental well-being?

I am now two weeks into my new plan. I have decided that going to the gym, and going for a run, and exercising at home, are the priority. Each of these requires self-discipline, and acceptance that it is hard work, it is certainly not easy to find the time to undertake these activities, and then when undertaking them to push oneself to the physical limits. But I have begun, and am slowly making progress in making exercise the priority. And, looking back at the first two weeks, I’m beginning to notice some differences. My arms and shoulders are showing signs of definition, I have lost an inch off my waist, I’m sleeping soundly for the first time in months. My energy levels have increased. I do still have a long way to go with improving my diet as I’m still enjoying my wine and spirits and chocolate far too much! So although after two weeks I’ve only lost 2 pounds in weight, my body is beginning to change shape.

I have also committed to writing more regularly in this blog, but in a manner which forces me to conduct research and provide where possible evidence based writing for the readers. I have also agreed to accept an offer to join the faculty of a university in California to help them build the curriculum for an ethical leadership course. At some stage in the next few years I intend to study a second language, perhaps Spanish. So, plenty of mental stimulus as well as physical.

Anyway, life changing the book certainly has been, I am enjoying pushing myself physically and mentally and re-developing the self control and self discipline needed to work hard in the gym and whilst out running. I will write again on a regular basis with updates on the progress, the good and the bad, on this project. I hope you will find it inspiring.

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